Suffer the Little Children

Posted by WiredSisters on June 18th, 2018 filed in Guest Blogger, Law, Moral Philosophy, Torture

That’s a mistranslation, of course.  Not a mistranslation from the Greek in which the Gospels were originally written, a mistranslation from the King James English in which most English-speaking readers were introduced to the Gospels.  It actually means “allow the kids to come sit on My lap, don’t stop them.”  But the suffering of children is actually what we’re dealing with right now.

As I understand the legalities of the situation, as officially explained by the government, most of the parents in this situation have been arrested (under a “zero-tolerance” policy) for misdemeanor violations of immigration law, for entering or attempting to enter the US without proper permission, and forthwith tried and sentenced to “detention,” usually for a matter of days or weeks.  Since those squishy-soft Democrats won’t let the government put their kids in jail with them, the kids have to be put someplace else.[1]  The fact that the kids and the parents usually do not know each other’s whereabouts, or when (or if) they will be reunited, is just a matter of normal bureaucratic fog in a very large, very complex system, rendered even more complex by the fact that the various parties speak two or more different languages (or, in the case of really young infants, no language at all.)  Eventually it will all be sorted out, and the parents and their children will be sent back to Honduras or wherever to live happily ever after until they get killed by some gang.

So that’s administration explanation #1: we’re just enforcing the law.  The kids are just collateral damage.

Administration explanation #2, officially, openly, and publicly made by Jeff Sessions among others, gets into the criminal law framework: we are doing this to “deter” other would-be migrants from south of the border from coming north and bringing their children with them.  We have always viewed “deterrence” as a legitimate goal of law enforcement, even when it means inflicting pain on people with perfectly good extenuating circumstances in order to deter less worthy defendants from misbehaving.  In a strictly constitutional framework, that would be at best suspect.  A good criminal justice system should look only at the effect of this punishment on this defendant.  Here, we are not only inflicting pain on the actual lawbreakers (and completely ignoring the fact that many of them may not even be lawbreakers, but merely people trying to exercise the internationally-recognized right to seek asylum from persecution), but also inflicting pain on their children, who have committed no crime at all and are therefore not lawful objects of deterrence.  Consistent with the repeated claims of the Hard Right that the victims of mass shootings and natural disasters are merely “actors,” the administration is using these children as actors, or even props, in security theater meant to intimidate unoffending residents of foreign countries into not darkening [sic] our door.  As to the parents, misdemeanants at worst and would-be asylees at best, this is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  As to the children, it is deprivation of liberty without due process of law, a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment.

And finally, administration explanation #3, less officially, says that this gross violation of the human rights of the children[2] is a way to pressure the Democrats into giving the administration the highly restrictive immigration law it wants.  That’s not just cruel and unconstitutional, it’s downright cynical.  It is no different from the behavior of the criminal gangs the administration is allegedly trying to keep out—“Do what we want or we’ll kidnap your children.” Or “Do what we want or we’ll kidnap other people’s children.”

Well, there’s no point quoting the Bible to these people—the only part of it any of them seem capable of remembering is the part in Romans 13 where Paul says to obey the government because it is ordained by God.  Many biblical scholars believe the Letter to the Romans was written by Paul in jail. Presumably he didn’t get there by obeying the Roman government. It’s certainly not how he got his head chopped off some years later.  He probably wasn’t advising his fellow Christians to burn that little pinch of incense to Caesar, since it was ordered by the government, which was authorized by God.

God does not authorize the kidnapping and imprisonment of children.  Like Thomas Jefferson, I tremble when I reflect that God is just.


[1] In fact, a number of prison systems, not only in the modern industrialized countries of Europe and South America, but even among the barbarian hordes of the United States, allow incarcerated mothers to keep their infants and small children with them, at least for a year or two, so this is really a specious argument.

[2] Note, BTW, that the United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child—yet another downside of American Exceptionalism.

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Quote of the Day, from Sojourner Truth

Posted by Sappho on June 17th, 2018 filed in Quotes

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

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Quote of the Day

Posted by Sappho on June 4th, 2018 filed in Quotes

Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say that it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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Round Up: Immigrant kids ripped from parents, CA June primary, economics of Smaug, DNA IQ tests

Posted by Sappho on May 30th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, California Ballot Propositions, DNA, News and Commentary

Houston Chronicle, Immigrant families separated at border struggle to find each other

Esteban Pastor hoped U.S. Border Patrol agents would free him and his 18-month-old son after they were arrested for crossing the southern border illegally last summer.

He had mortgaged his land in Guatemala to fund his sick toddler’s hospital stay, and needed to work in the United States to pay off the loan.

Instead agents imprisoned the 28-year-old in July for coming back into the country after having been deported, a felony. They placed the toddler in a federal shelter, though where, Pastor didn’t know. Three months later, in October, the father was deported — alone. His child, he said agents told him, was “somewhere in Texas.”

“I cried. I begged,” he said. “No one could tell me anything.”

Momastery: Emergency flash mob for the children on what’s old, what’s new, and a proposal for action:

But first, a summary on what we have learned. There are two separate issues being conflated in the news:

1) HERE IS WHAT IS NEW, AND UNDENIABLY HORRIFIC: Our government has changed its policy about families who cross the border, and it is resulting in families being torn apart.

Historically speaking, with few exceptions, the U.S. has treated immigration violations as civil — rather than criminal — offenses. Therefore, children have not typically been torn away from their parents even when the parents enter the legal system as a result of immigration violations. Families were, at worst, detained together, or they were released with notice to appear at a later court hearing.

However, the current administration has dismissed this historic practice as “catch and release” and in its place has established a “zero-tolerance” policy – subjecting “100% of illegal southwest border crossings” to criminal prosecution – even crossers who may be asylum seekers. So now, parents are ensnared in the criminal system, their children are immediately ripped out of their arms without explanation, and parents and babies are sent to different detention centers – often hundreds of miles away from each other….

(Here I’m going to note that many of the people indignantly defending the new policy with “They broke the law!” have themselves been ticketed for exceeding the speed limit, and would be shocked if one fine day, without warning, the civil penalty for this offense were converted to a penalty that included having their children ripped away and sent to an unknown location. And those who haven’t ever broken any law, including traffic laws, probably have family members who have exceeded the speed limit, and not lost their children for it.)

Daniel Faigin: June 2016 California Primary Analysis (VII): Recap and Summary summarizes and links to posts giving a very detailed look at the California primary ballot.

Jim Burklo: VOTIVATOR: How I’m Voting 6-5-18, Calif. Primary for a different take on the California primary ballot.

Stentor Danielson: Smaug, the greatest and chiefest of capitalists

Carl Zimmer at the Atlantic: Genetic intelligence tests are next to worthless

I called up Yaniv Erlich, the scientist who wrote the intelligence program, to ask him about his prediction. Erlich, I should point out, majored in computational neuroscience, got a Ph.D. in genetics, became an associate professor at Columbia, and is on leave from teaching to serve as the chief science officer at the DNA-testing company MyHeritage. I imagine Erlich’s mother is very proud of her boy.

I bring all this up because Erlich burst out laughing when I told him about my report and told me about his own.

“I also get that on the left side,” he said. “Everything is cool. Many smart people end up there.”

Erlich explained that he designed the program to make people cautious about the connection between genes and intelligence….

You see, we do know genes that correlate with intelligence, but they explain so little of the variance that your genetic IQ prediction is essentially meaningless.

And here is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung in Yiddish.

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Something the Left and the Right Agree On

Posted by WiredSisters on May 4th, 2018 filed in Feminism, Guest Blogger, History, Theology

Once a Proctomorph, Always a Proctomorph

Should I start by defining essentialism, or defining proctomorph?  Proctomorph is the more useful word; you will have occasion to use it many times a week, maybe even several times a day if you drive a long commute.  It derives from the same root as proctologist or proctalgia, meaning the backside.  We are all more familiar with its anglo-saxon analog, which has actually been the title of a reasonably respectable book by philosopher Aaron James (Assholes: a Theory) Unlike the anglo-saxonism, proctomorph has both adverbial and adjectival forms, which can make it especially useful in more technical discourse.  It can be (has been) used in open court, on the record, without generating an objection (except perhaps from the court reporter.)  “Make America Proctomorphic Again” is a not-impossible locution.

Essentialism, on the other hand, is a word you may never have seen, much less used in ordinary conversation.  I particularly like philosopher Richard Twine’s definition: “Essentialism, in its most stripped down meaning refers to the belief that people and/or phenomenon have an underlying and unchanging ‘essence’. I like to work with a definition that refers to any statement that seeks to close off the possibility of changeable human behaviour.” As with Mexicans, or undocumented aliens of any nationality, who are all, irrevocably, “criminals,” and many of whom are also “rapists.”  Or as with predatory dominant males, such as Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski, both of whom have just been thrown out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their deplorable records as sexual predators.

And then there’s the Proctomorph-in-Chief, who is in some quarters being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the conditions for a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.  As compared with his predecessor in office, who actually received that honor for—well, it’s hard to explain for what.  His detractors may claim he never deserved it because he was a Kenyan-born Muslim who—well, that’s hard to explain, too.  What I’m doing here is what judges are supposed to do when deliberating on motions for summary judgment: “view[ing] all evidence in the light most favorable to the movant’s [my] opponent.”

What I keep running across in my Facebook feed is stuff from #MeToo, a group I profoundly sympathize with.  I had to deal with sexual harassment before it was even a thing, before the phrase was even invented.  A boss who groped my thigh while I was driving him to a site for a photo shoot, a restaurant owner who grabbed my breasts while I was waiting for a seat, that kind of stuff.  I found it annoying but not traumatic. I’m glad to see it’s not comic or respectable or “boys will be boys” [actually, it’s usually men being boys, but I digress] any more.  But the thing that concerns me is that many of these creepy or annoying guys have also created some good art.  Or done some other good stuff, like maybe really ending the Korean War.  FDR and JFK fooled around, a lot, but they were also good presidents in most of the ways that counted.  That is, if we still think they did count.  The Cosby show was (a) funny, and (b) helpful to many African-American families trying to raise their kids to feel at home in America. Does that count any more?

In fact, a large proportion of ‘The Best Which has Been Thought and Said’ (as Matthew Arnold described it in Culture and Anarchy) and a fair amount of the best stuff that has been done, came to us in the hands of men [sic] who, at least in their spare time, were sexual predators, wife-beaters, bigots, anti-semites, and in general people I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with.  Maybe that’s true of Western, and Eastern, and modern, and classical civilization in general.  Obviously, one of the corollaries to that proposition is that we women need to step up and pitch in and create (and publish, and publicize) more of the art and thought and history of our various civilizations.  I’m glad to see that happening these days.

Of course, the Proctomorph-in-Chief hasn’t reunified the Korean peninsula yet, and may never pull it off. And Obama did a lot of things that, post facto, probably rated the Nobel.  Dr. King was a philanderer.  Gandhi was a sexist.  Thoreau was a freeloader.  Teddy Roosevelt was a militarist and a big game hunter.  And, on the other hand, Hitler was a vegetarian.

In short, friends, while most of us occasionally do proctomorphic things, even the worst of us occasionally do, or create, something really good, or at least socially useful, and even the best of us are capable of doing really awful stuff.  It’s probably a good idea to remind ourselves that much of the best that has been thought or said or done comes to us at the hands of human beings who have also thought or said or done some really awful stuff—and vice versa.  Rather than deprive ourselves of heroes and geniuses and their work, can’t we just accept that? It’s true that Gandhi was a sexist—but it follows from that, that many sexists may be mute inglorious Gandhis in their less publicized moments. I am not prepared to throw all of Western, or Jewish, or classical civilization into the dustbin of history, or deprive myself of its pleasures, merely because they were created by human beings capable of proctomorphic behavior. Let’s give this a thought, shall we?

Jane Grey






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Comey’s book, Comey’s faults

Posted by Sappho on April 27th, 2018 filed in Books

I bought Comey’s book on Kindle, and have barely started to read it. One thing, though, struck me just in reading the Author’s Note:

All people have flaws and I have many. Some of mine, as you’ll discover in this book, are that I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego. I’ve struggled with those my whole life….

Interesting. If you’d asked me to name Comey’s flaws, that’s about what I would have named. I don’t generally take it for granted that people see their flaws as the same flaws that I see (I doubt Trump does). (Comey’s countervailing virtue in my eyes is that, even when he’s wrong, he’s honest. That’s why I bought the book.)

I also like the Reinhold Niebuhr quote at the top of the introduction.

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

As for the rest, I haven’t gotten far enough to comment.

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Ebola: A Bit of Good News

Posted by Sappho on April 17th, 2018 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Vaccinations

Remember that Ebola epidemic in 2015? And the vaccine that emerged from that epidemic? The latest word is that people vaccinated still show antibodies two years later. Merck is aiming for FDA approval later this year.

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A couple of links related to population genetics

Posted by Sappho on March 31st, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, DNA

David Reich responds to questions from readers of his op-ed column. You can read the whole thing, but I’m excerpting just part to clarify that he does seem to be making a significantly different argument from that made by Nicholas Wade.

In short, I think everyone can understand that very modest differences across human population in the genetic influences on behavior and cognition are to be expected. And I think everyone can understand that even if we do not yet have any idea about what the difference are, we do not need to be worried about what we will find because we can already be sure that any differences will be small (far smaller than those among individuals).

Note the “very modest” here. And also that he’s not arguing that any particular difference has been proven.

Next, the Twitter discussion of David Reich’s column led me to discover a new-to-me blog: the Coop Lab blog on Population and Evolutionary Genetics. There you can find an interesting post on polygenic scores and tea drinking:

… The success of GWAS seems to suggest that we’ll soon be able to settle debates about whether behavioural differences among populations are driven in part by genetics. However, answering this question is a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance. In this blog post I’ll talk through some of the complications, including how gene-by-environment interactions and correlations among SNPs make it difficult to use polygenic scores to understand differences among populations.

Some of these complications are perhaps best illustrated with a toy example. Say we perform a GWAS of the amount of tea that individuals in the UK drink…

Another post, Where did your genetic ancestors come from?, explains how, once you go a certain number of generations back, you wind up with people who are your ancestors but didn’t supply you with any DNA. There is a very good chance that you’re descended from Charlemagne. It’s highly unlikely that you have his DNA.

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Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.

Posted by Sappho on March 31st, 2018 filed in Race

Andrew Sullivan joins the fray again, on race and IQ. Unlike David Reich, who has expressed complete ignorance about what traits might eventually prove to vary, between populations, in their genetic influences, Sullivan is certain about what one of them will prove to be.

In fact, Klein seems to back a truly extreme position: that only the environment affects IQ scores, and genes play no part in group differences in human intelligence….

… My own brilliant conclusion: Group differences in IQ are indeed explicable through both environmental and genetic factors and we don’t yet know quite what the balance is.

In other words, in Sullivan’s view we don’t know exactly how far black people are genetically predisposed to be stupider than white people, but we can be pretty darn sure that they are genetically predisposed to be stupider, even though there are powerful environmental differences between the two groups.

Now, here’s where I’m going to make a distinction. We are not arguing, here, about whether any two population groups are exactly equal in their average genetic influences on any particular complex trait (such as IQ). We are arguing about how the dice are, or aren’t, loaded.

Imagine that you and I each have a pair of dice. I roll my dice, and you roll yours. It’s possible that your dice add up to 2, and mine add up to 12. Or we might both roll something that adds up to 7. Now, suppose that you and I each roll that pair of dice a thousand times. In this case, the law of large numbers guarantees, if each of us is rolling with unloaded dice, that we’ll approach the same mean. But your thousand rolls will not add up to exactly the same number as mine; in fact, if we calculate our means out to as many decimal points as possible, it’s less likely that we wind up with the same number than it would be if we each rolled the dice only once. Instead, we’ll have two different numbers that are now so close that they are barely different.

Now, imagine that I compare two populations, for whom I magically (a genie granted me a wish) know all of the relevant intelligence related genes. To the extent that it’s meaningful to imagine calculating a genetic predisposition for intelligence between the two groups, the two groups would not be equal. The dice have been rolled too many times for that to be the case. They might be so close to equal that on January 1 of one year, one group is “smarter” while on January 1 of the next year (because of who was born and who died in each group), the other group is “smarter.” But at any given moment, they wouldn’t be exactly equal. The dice would have been rolled too many times for exact equivalence. I think we all intuitively know that, and that, partly, is the intuition that Sullivan is relying on, when he suggests that Klein’s position is extreme. How could two large groups ever be exactly genetically equal?

On the other hand, if the genetic dice aren’t loaded, we also wouldn’t expect one group’s genetic predisposition to be, say, a whole standard deviation away from the other. Not, at any rate, for large and genetically diverse populations, and for traits governed by a very large number of genes. There are too many founders, and the dice have been rolled too many times for each group.

In real life, of course, there’s some added complexity, because we don’t actually have pure IQ genes, whose effect we can just multiply to get an exact predisposition for each group (even if we knew all of the genes involved). We have genes that interact with the environment. (Consider the discussion of whether Pima Indians are genetically predisposed to Type 2 diabetes, or whether, even if there are genetic determinants, these genes only have this effect in a particular environment.) Our hypothetical two population groups could even each be predisposed to higher intelligence than the other, in the sense that one might be more vulnerable to one environmental influence and one to another. But I’ll ignore that complication for now, and instead focus on another question.

How are the dice loaded? We don’t know that the genetic dice are loaded. We neither have evidence of such a genetic difference, nor evidence of a difference in selective pressure sufficient to lead us to expect such a difference. We do have evidence that group scores (and, for some groups, rankings) in IQ change over time. We do know that the environmental dice are loaded, in this country, against black people (slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the list goes on). This isn’t an inference from a difference in outcomes, it’s a plain historical and contemporary fact. Sullivan himself says, “there is indeed no reason to believe we have done enough to ensure equality of opportunity for African-Americans.” Why, then, would we split the difference at all when looking for a cause of differences in test scores?

It would be like insisting there must be genetic differences between two groups in predisposition to lung cancer when you already know that one group is full of heavy smokers and the other barely has any smokers at all.

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On Genetics, Population, and “Race”

Posted by Sappho on March 29th, 2018 filed in DNA, Race

I think I’m with Ezra Klein on David Reich’s op-ed, How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’. By that, I mean that, like Klein, I don’t find it obvious that I, as a liberal, should be offended by Reich’s column, but that I find the inevitable chorus from the “human biodiversity” crowd of racialists of, “see, a scientist agrees with us” just as foolish and misguided as ever.

First, let’s talk about Reich’s column. As Ezra puts it,

Reich is careful in his claims about what is known as of yet. He says that “if scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong” — a level of humility often absent in this discussion. He goes on to slam researchers who, discussing race and intelligence, claim “they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes.” I do not find this column as troubling as Harris seems to think I will.

Reich’s column contains interesting information about how researchers have tracked genetic risk facts for prostate cancer, and how current populations are admixtures of other populations, rather than existing from time immemorial. And Razib Khan’s review reports that Reich’s new book has similarly interesting information about Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the evolution of the “Out of Africa” hypothesis. Cool stuff, and part of why I enjoy, from a purely amateur perspective, reading about population biology.

There are also points where I question Reich’s framing.

Does it really make sense to use biological differences between the sexes as an analogy for biological differences between populations? I’m hardly a strong hereditarian on behavioral and psychological differences between the sexes (my hunch is maybe 20-40% of the difference is innate and the rest culturally determined), but, moderate though my “nature” estimate is here, I think that innate psychological and behavioral differences between populations are likely to be way smaller. Basically, wherever you fall on the nature/nurture continuum in how you see gender differences, you should expect much less “nature” in “racial” differences. Biological differences between the two sexes are more profound. There’s some evidence of recurrent (though not universal) cross-species differences in male and female behavior. There’s a stronger case for natural selection producing such differences. Maybe he’s just using sex differences as an analogy, but it’s an analogy that deserves some caveats.

I also wonder what he means by:

And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

Is he suggesting simply that differences in genetic influences on behavior and cognition will exist at all, in a measurable way? Or that they’re likely to be of comparable size to the differences observed in other traits? Because these would be entirely different claims, and one strikes me as much more likely to be proved true in the future than the other. But, given that his cautious framing could apply simply to the more modest possibility, and that he’s not suggesting any particular content to these as yet unproven genetic influences, this doesn’t exactly strike me as Nicholas Wade territory.

Still, Reich has gotten some enthusiastic praise (and some criticism for disavowing Wade and Harpending and Watson on race) from the racialist corners of the Internet, so now’s as good a time as any to talk about why “scientific” racism is not so scientific.

First, I’m going to talk about the varying meanings of “significant,” and why I would not be surprised, at one point or another, to find statistically significant differences, between some populations or other, in genetic influences on behavior and cognition (and, sure, don’t think we should hang our anti-racism on an insistence that such differences will be completely nonexistent), but, at the same time, would require that a particularly high bar of proof be met before I’d believe in the existence of large, practically significant innate behavioral and cognitive differences between “races.” Second, I’m going to talk about why it’s important to distinguish “populations” from “races” and why “race is a social construct” is not at all the same thing as “race is not a real thing” (social constructs are real and powerful!).

To explain I think we might eventually find that some genetic influence on behavior and cognition might differ between some populations, I want to discuss the case of the Hutterites. Back when I was a student at Stanford, majoring in psychology and considering a double major in sociology, I considered, before ultimately picking another topic, writing a paper on Hutterites and mental illness. The psychological study of the Hutterites had been a thing since the 1950s. I just did a Google search, and, sure enough, it is still a thing. See this paper on Low Prevalence of Psychoses among Hutterites, an Isolated Religious Community. Hutterites have, relative to others in Manitoba, a particularly low incidence of schizophrenia. They have a culturally bound mental disorder called Anfechtung that involves obsessive religious guilt. They are less frequently diagnosed with psychosis. Etc.

Now, the reason that academics started studying the Hutterites to begin with was this: They were looking to see whether the higher rate of psychosis among the surrounding non-Hutterites was due to the complications of modern life. Did the Hutterites have protective cultural factors, driving down their schizophrenia rate? And perhaps they do.

But, as the linked article points out,

The overwhelming majority of the North American Hutterites are descendants of 89 founders, 43 females and 46 males (T.M. Fujiwara, K. Morgan, unpublished data, 1999).

Hutterites aren’t the only population being studied that has gone through a bottleneck. Populations that go through a bottleneck, such as the Hutterites or the people of Saguenay du Lac, show a greater degree of genetic drift. That is, their genotypes show greater variance in traits that aren’t being selected for or against, simply because a small set of founders allow a particular trait to spread (consider the spread of hemophilia among the royal families of Europe).

People are going to do genome-wide association study (GWAS) on such inbred populations, and there’s a good chance that, sooner or later, one or another of them will turn out to have a statistically significant deviation from the surrounding population in some genetic influences on some cognitive or behavioral trait. Less inbred populations may also prove to have much smaller degrees of differences (a difference doesn’t have to be large to be statistically significant). We should of course be prepared, if such differences prove to exist, still to advocate equal treatment of people regardless of ancestry. And I have hope that this won’t be a problem, because, though I think that “we believe that this other group is worse than us in all the cognitive and behavioral traits we care about, but really, truly, we’re going to treat them equally” is going to happen when pigs fly, it’s unlikely that science will prove that this other group is really, truly, worse than us at all the cognitive and behavioral traits we care about.

Now, here’s why I don’t think such differences, if discovered, are going to be remotely as large as differences in traits that have been heavily subject to differential natural selection, such as skin color, lactose intolerance, or malaria resistance:

Kevin Mitchell, the author of Wiring the Brain, responds on Twitter to the part of Reich’s column that I quoted above, about “since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations”. Here is Mitchell:

The last sentence of this graf has a little leap of logic that is not supported. If genetic architecture of behavioral + cognitive traits is highly pleiotropic + they’re under stabilising selection, then we should NOT expect big genetic diffs b/w groups

They *could* exist but would have required strong, sustained differences in selective pressures on these traits across populations, to offset pleiotropic effects.

Strong arguments against this for behavior (due to freq-dep selection undercutting directional effects) and for cognition (if intelligence is a general fitness indicator)

Also, these traits are so polygenic that all loci can’t be monitored and selected on at once – can’t prevent new genetic variation causing phenotypic variance within populations (offsetting directional effects b/w groups)

In other words, given that most cognitive and behavioral traits are a) produced by a large number of genes, which, b) each have multiple effects, and c) aren’t likely to be subject to sustained differential selective pressure in different regions either because the trait is generally a sign of fitness (intelligence) or because there’s a balance between the adaptive value of the different traits across different environments, we’re not likely to see big genetic differences, here, between populations. There may be statistically significant differences, but probably not practically significant differences.

Now, let me talk about populations and races. I find it useful to distinguish between “populations” and “races” for two reasons.

First, “populations” studied by science (whether to study ancient human migration or for medical reasons) don’t necessarily have the same boundaries as social “races.” For instance, I carry a gene that’s common among Persian Jews, for pseudocholinesterase deficiency. It’s useful to know that this gene is more common among Persian Jews; given that screening the whole population would be costly, a lot of the same benefit can be gained by targeted advertising of screenings in neighborhoods with many Persian Jews (similar to the Tay Sachs screening done among Ashkenazi Jews). Similarly, I’ve learned from the 23andMe results that a surprising number of my DNA cousins come from the Saguenay du Lac region of Quebec. This doesn’t have a lot of practical implications for me personally (my French Canadian ancestry comes only through one great-great-grandmother, and is only part of her ancestry). But it did mean that I learned that the Saguenay du Lac region of Quebec is an island that went through a narrow population bottleneck, and that, as a result, has some distinctive epidemiology (for instance, a higher rate of cystic fibrosis). Again, a population, not a race.

Equally important, though, is the fact that, as real as genetic differences between populations are, the social construction of race is just as real. And has profound effects, both social and (through the impact of “racial” status differences) biological. As Ezra Klein points out

International evidence suggests oppression, discrimination, and societal resentment lowers group IQs. As the New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block has written, quoting the work of anthropologist John Ogbu, oppression has a clear effect on marginalized groups globally. “Where IQ tests have been given, ‘the children of these caste-like minorities score about 10-15 points … lower than dominant group children,’” he writes.

Block’s point, and this is important, is not that IQ isn’t heritable, or even that it’s impossible to imagine it differing among groups. It’s that it’s impossible to look at the cruel and insane experiment America has run on its black residents and say anything useful about genetic differences in intelligence.

I’ll close with a final note about an inconsistency among those who make a big deal about “racial” differences in IQ tests (not Reich, who disavows this argument in his column!). Often they will say, in principle, that IQ is partly inherited and partly environmental. And that it’s really, really important! Leading to all kinds of good things, personally and for society as a whole, from people with higher IQs! Now, if you really believed that, would you spend all your time arguing black people just have lower IQs and there’s nothing we can do about it? Wouldn’t you want to look for those environmental causes that might be impairing this trait, which you value so highly?

Shouldn’t you care a hell of a lot about the lead in the water at Flint?

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Robot News: Microbots and that self-driving car casualty

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, Robots

Microbots team up to move a car

Ars Technica on the self-driving car fatality in Arizona (the first bystander fatality by a self-driving car)

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A Wrinkle in Time

Posted by Sappho on March 18th, 2018 filed in Movies

Today, my husband and I went to see A Wrinkle in Time. It diverged from the book in some obvious ways, some of which come up so early in the movie that I don’t think it would even count as a spoiler to tell them to you (but I’ll put a “more” here in case you want to avoid learning even this much).
Read the rest of this entry »

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Self-driving cars may be able to see around corners

Posted by Sappho on March 13th, 2018 filed in Robots

Stanford researchers develop technique to see objects hidden around corners (could be useful for self-driving cars and for rescue teams searching through rubble for survivors)

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Round up of robot news

Posted by Sappho on March 4th, 2018 filed in Robots

In California, autonomous cars are about to start cruising without a safety driver (about a change to regulations about how robotic vehicles can be tested)

A product announcement for an AI powered autonomous drone

If you want a robot to stop screwing up, hold its hand.

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Of Chess and Turning Screws: What Can Humans Do Better Than Computers and Robots?

Posted by Sappho on February 28th, 2018 filed in Robots

It has been more than ten years since Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov at chess. What are humans good for, in a world where computers can play chess?

One thing that humans can do better than robots is the simple, for us, task of turning a screw. You need to apply just the right amount of pressure, while turning. And it’s a different amount depending on whether the screw head is Phillips or hex. Teaching robots to screw would greatly improve their usefulness in manufacturing. And so Russian researchers are hard at work, figuring out How to teach a robot to screw.

Tightening and loosening screws isn’t the only thing humans still do better than robots. Blake Morgan, at Forbes, discusses 10 Things Robots Can’t Do Better Than Humans. Most of her ten items are related to empathy. Empathy and social skills are, after all, important job skills for many kinds of work. Would you want a robot hospice worker?

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Robots in Fiction and Legend

Posted by Sappho on February 27th, 2018 filed in Robots

The word “robot” was introduced to the English language by R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a 1920 science fiction play by the Czech writer Karel Capek which introduced the now familiar science fiction theme of rebellious killer robots.

But the legend of automatons has a longer history. The Golem, in Jewish folklore, is a clay creature that has magically been brought to life.

The classic narrative of the golem tells of how Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (known as the Maharal; 1525-1609) creates a golem to defend the Jewish community from anti-Semitic attacks. But eventually, the golem grows fearsome and violent, and Rabbi Loew is forced to destroy it.

Golems may have inspired the Sorceror’s Apprentice and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Friendlier and more sympathetic that Capek’s robots were Isaac Asimov’s robots, which followed Laws of Robotics designed to prevent them from injuring humans. Occasionally these laws would go astray, as when a telepathic robot told its listeners what they wanted to hear, in order to avoid hurting their feelings (be careful with your programming – computers will do what you tell them to do, even if you decide later that’s not what you wanted). But basically, Asimov’s robots, as seen in his story about Robbie, were as loyal and decent as a family dog.

Both killer robots (Ex Machina) and friendly robots (Star Wars) are well represented in current movies.

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I, Robot

Posted by Sappho on February 23rd, 2018 filed in Robots

When I worked at SRI, a three foot high robot used to roam the halls, saying “Bogus, bogus” any time it passed an open doorway, and occasionally singing “Daisy.” This robot was Flakey, SRI’s mobile robot that used fuzzy logic, goal-oriented behavior, and reactive behavior to reach a destination while avoiding obstacles on the way.

Flakey was the successor of an earlier SRI robot called Shakey. Shakey may not have been the first robot – Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion preceded it by centuries – but robots like Shakey marked the dawn of an era of autonomous devices with actual artificial intelligence.

Flakey was a simple creature, compared to the robots we have now. Flakey could tell whether it encountered a closed door or an open one. Now we have a robot that opens doors.

If you worry about the day that we must fight our robot overlords, you may view the new door opening SpotMini robot from Boston Dynamics the way a Dr. Who fan viewed the episode where we learned that Daleks can now climb stairs. “Frightening” was the verdict on many shares of the SpotMini video. But if you think of robots as our helpers, you may, instead, see SpotMini as a robot that can save a child from a burning building.

SpotMini isn’t the only robot showing improved dexterity. Watch the da Vinci surgical robot stitch a grape back together. SRI has moved on from Shakey and Flakey to swarming microbots. Robots can do backflips and gall bladder surgery, dance and play the violin.

Robotics has brought us technological advances that offer us self-driving cars, real time mapping and navigation software, underwater robots that can measure climate change in Antarctica – and predator drones that change the character of war.

As robotics advances, we need to consider new questions: What ethics do we want for self-driving cars? How will robots and artificial intelligence affect jobs?

In my next Toastmasters speech, I will talk to you about robots. The goal of Technical Presentations Project 5 is “Enhance a Technical Talk with the Internet of the “Technical Presentations,” and the objectives of the project are:

Understand the nature and process of a technical presentation supported with professional -level visual aids.
Arrange pre-meeting communications via e-mail
Find or create a post-meeting website for further dissemination of information supporting or enhancing your verbal presentation. You may create a web page and add it to your club’s web site, making use of podcasting, webcasting, or a basic Internet template.
Use a desktop computer, Microsoft Word, a Web browser, a simple graphics programme for photos and other images. Microsoft PowerPoint, as well as a flip chart to support your presentation.
Time: 12 to 15 minutes.

For other posts on this blog with links and discussion about robots, you can check out my robots category

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On using a Buddhist meditation app and reading the Bible in parallel

Posted by Sappho on February 17th, 2018 filed in Bible study, Theology

I’m up to eight minutes with the Buddhist meditation cell phone app that my husband suggested to me. I’m also sharing in online Bible readings with a YouVersion friend, who suggested a 21-day series of Bible passages that help you resist food cravings alongside a 28-day series of Bible readings in preparation for Easter.

This morning I sat with my Buddhist app and its mantra, a mantra about looking within rather than without that could actually fit with Christianity as well, though the phrasing might be a bit different. It reminded me of “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven.” Or choosing God over mammon.

Each mantra is accompanied by an image of the Buddha. This one is golden and peaceful. As I look at the Buddha, I can’t help being struck by the contrast to that constant image of Christian iconography, Jesus dying a tortured death on the cross – and at the same time, the similarity to the peaceful infant in his mother’s arms that is the other most common image of Jesus.

The story of the Four Sights comes to mind, and the story of the Incarnation. The one is the story of a sheltered prince leaving the castle to encounter the sight of death and suffering, the other the story of God becoming human to share our suffering and death. Two very different stories, but two stories that reflect the same question.

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Quotes: Dalai Lama, Thoreau, Amitav Ghosh

Posted by Sappho on February 11th, 2018 filed in Quotes

Several quotes that I like:

If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.

Dalai Lama

That quote reminds me of this one:

If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders. I must get off him first, that he may pursue his contemplations too.

Henry David Thoreau


How was it that no one had ever told her that it was not love itself, but its treacherous gatekeepers which made the greatest demands on your courage: the panic of acknowledging it; the terror of declaring it;
the fear of being rebuffed? Why had no one told her that love’s twin was not hate but cowardice?

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies

(And yet, though this is the quote I choose to pull, the novel Sea of Poppies is very much about the harm of following your pursuits on someone else’s shoulders, so it does connect to the Dalai Lama and to Thoreau after all.)

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Nunes Memo Round Up

Posted by Sappho on February 3rd, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

“Hey, Yo’ Memo…Y2K called…it wants it’s pointless hype back.” Alyssa Milano on Twitter. I’m inclined to agree with her. The memo proved underwhelming both in terms of the threat to FBI sources that some had raised before its release (the only source mentioned in the memo that hadn’t already leaked was a public news article) and as “proof” that the whole Russia investigation was cooked up as a political conspiracy. But, precisely because of the hype, it’s a big story, so I’m rounding up some relevant posts and articles.

First, what does the memo actually say? Here’s an annotated version at the Wall Street Journal:

The memo contends that the FBI applied for a FISA warrant against Carter Page on October 21, 2016 (at a time when Page had left the Trump campaign and was disavowed by that campaign), and that in that application they used three sources: the Steele “dossier,” an article by Michael Isikoff that used Steele as a source, and Papadopoulos. The memo does not state whether the FISA warrant used other sources (Democrats on the Intelligence Committee say that the warrant did use other sources, but release of their memo was blocked at the same time release of the Nunes memo was approved). It also does not provide any evidence that the FBI knew that Steele was a source for Isikoff’s article, nor does it provide any evidence that he did no further reporting (according to this WaPo article, Isikoff cited “multiple sources,” including some that clearly don’t match a description of Steele). It does claim that the FBI dishonestly failed to disclose that Steele (a contractor for GPS Fusion, which was a contractor for another firm) was ultimately paid by the Democrats for his research.

Facts in the memo that are not in dispute: the date of the FISA warrant application against Carter Page, and the use of the three sources in that application. Assertions in the memo that very much *are* in dispute: The claim that the FBI didn’t disclose to the FISA court that Steele’s research was ultimately funded by a political campaign (here’s a WaPo article saying that the DoJ did disclose that information), and the claim that McCabe said there wouldn’t be a FISA warrant without the Steele “dossier” (others say that McCabe said no such thing – see this Daily Beast article). It should also be noted that, though the memo says nothing about whether the FISA warrant application included any other corroborating sources besides the three named, others say emphatically that it did include other sources.

Second, a bit of background on FISA. As Matt Tait (aka Pwn All the Things) notes on Twitter, “FISA *is* the post-Watergate compromise”.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, established in 1978 in the wake of Church Committee revelations about how Nixon had used federal resources to spy on political and activist groups. It has been repeatedly amended since 9/11. It allows the FBI to make secret court applications to observe American citizens, but, in order to do so, the FBI must present extensive application, from multiple sources, that there is reasonable suspicion that said American is acting as a foreign agent. And to renew any such warrant, evidence needs to be presented that new information has been acquired as a result of the warrant. (At least, that’s my understanding, subject to correction from people who know more than me. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on the Internet. My area of knowledge relevant to the Russia investigation is computer security. On everything else, I’m an amateur.)

Wired has an explanation of the FISA legal process:

Under Title 1 of the law, nicknamed “traditional FISA,” law enforcement must go before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) to receive a warrant to surveil an individual or group of people. To get that warrant, law enforcement must show probable cause that a person is an agent of a foreign power. That means the government had to demonstrate Page was acting as an operative for Russia….

(More at the link.)

Last year, Asha Rangappa discussed her experience in getting FISA warrants.

The FISA application then travels to the Justice Department where attorneys from the National Security Division comb through the application to verify all the assertions made in it. Known as “Woods procedures” after Michael J. Woods, the FBI Special Agent attorney who developed this layer of approval, DOJ verifies the accuracy of every fact stated in the application. If anything looks unsubstantiated, the application is sent back to the FBI to provide additional evidentiary support – this game of bureaucratic chutes and ladders continues until DOJ is satisfied that the facts in the FISA application can both be corroborated and meet the legal standards for the court. After getting sign-off from a senior DOJ official (finally!), a lawyer from DOJ takes the FISA application before the FISC, comprised of eleven federal district judges who sit on the court on a rotating basis. The FISC reviews the application in secret, and decides whether to approve the warrant.

The FISA law, as it currently stands, has some consistent critics, both within Congress (Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Rand Paul) and outside of Congress (Marcy Wheeler and Julian Sanchez), who contend that it doesn’t sufficiently accommodate civil liberties concerns. It also has some consistent defenders, both within Congress (Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican John McCain) and outside of Congress (Susan Hennessey, Benjamin Wittes, former FBI agent Asha Rangappa), who contend that it’s necessary for national security and already strikes the right balance. And then there’s Nunes, who voted for an extension of FISA law the same week he claimed that there was extensive abuse of the process by the FBI.

One question raised by the memo release is what national security risk it could possibly pose, given that we all know, already, about the Steele “dossier.” Marcy Wheeler (aka emptywheel), suggests on Twitter that

Folks: The reason the FBI et al say the memo harms NatSec is:

1) It tells Page (some of ) exactly when he was targeted.

2) It will make it easier for defendants to get to review their FISA application, which no defendants have in 40 years.

Others have suggested that the FBI’s objection is that its obvious defense – pointing out whatever other sources were used on the FISA warrant – can’t be used without burning its sources. And that the FBI naturally objects to having a cherry picked memo released that it can only respond to with, “Trust us, there’s more, but we can’t tell you what that is.”

Even on its own terms, the Nunes memo has a big flaw, as pointed out by David French at the National Review. By mentioning Papadopoulos, it confirms the New York Times story that the FBI’s Russia investigation did not begin when Steele approached them, but earlier, when Papadopoulos boasted to an Australian diplomat and that diplomat tipped off the FBI.

Indeed, as the Wall Street Journal reported, court documents and testimony show that Carter Page was already on the FBI radar as early as 2013.

Julia Ioffe notes:

Some things the Nunes Memo does not explain away:
1) The hack of DNC servers by 2 Russian intelligence agencies
2) George Papadopoulos’s contacts with the Russians
3) Michael Flynn’s negotiations with the Russian ambassador
4) the Trump Tower meeting
5) Firing Comey

Marcy Wheeler (emptywheel) talks about all the key details the Nunes memo leaves out. For example:

Likewise, the memo does not explicitly acknowledge a previous FISA application that’s been reported against Page as far back as 2014, possibly set up because he was being actively recruited by Russian spies who subsequently were expelled or imprisoned. What the memo suggests is simply that the feds submitted reauthorization applications around January 20, 2017, in April 2017, and July of 2017. With each reauthorization, as the memo alludes, the Justice Department would have had to show that it continued to obtain foreign intelligence from the surveillance. That also means the FISA Court approved three reauthorizations after the Steele dossier became public—and the Trump team itself started debunking it.

At Cipher Brief reports that former spies are underwhelmed and unconvinced by the memo. For example, Steve Hall, Retired CIA Chief of Russian Operations, says,

I don’t understand how this memo couldn’t be cherry-picked. When you’ve got a three-and-a-half-page memo that covers…these FISA things are 90-day shots, and then you have to go back to the FISA courts to re-make your case from the very beginning. So there are probably literal hundreds of pages of justification. And we’ve got three and a half pages. Absolutely stuff has been left out, and I would argue it’s politically motivated what has been left out.

The insidious thing about the document is that it uses a trick that the Russians use quite often. It makes a whole bunch of allegations which can only be cleared up by making public the entire FISA filing.

But of course, all of that is classified, and publicizing it would be damaging to sources and methods….

Lawfare bloggers Quinta Jurecic, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes suggest that

There are many reasons to doubt the memo’s factual integrity. The FBI said in a statement Jan. 31 that it was given only “a limited opportunity to review this memo,” the day before the House committee voted to release the document, and that it has “grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”

but also that even if we “assume that every fact in the memo is true and that the memo contains all relevant facts on the matter”,

To the extent the complaint is that the FBI relied on a biased source in Steele, the FBI relies every day on information from far more dubious characters than former intelligence officers working for political parties. The FBI gets information from narco-traffickers, mobsters and terrorists. Surely it’s not scandalous for it to get information from a Democrat—much less from a former British intelligence officer working for Democrats, even if he expresses dislike of a presidential candidate.

Orin Kerr argued on Lawfare Blog earlier this week that “Part of the problem is that judges figure that of course informants are often biased. Informants usually have ulterior motives, and judges don’t need to be told that.” So failure to reveal bias (and remember, the claim that the FISA warrant failed to disclose that Steele’s research was funded by a political campaign is *disputed*) would have to be particularly egregious to invalidate a warrant. Kerr gives an example of what that egregious failure might look like:

United States v. Glover, 755 F.3d 811 (7th Cir. 2014), is an example of when an informant’s bias has to be disclosed. In Glover, the basis for a warrant to search the defendant’s home for drugs was a confidential informant who told the police that the defendant was a gang member and drug dealer who had a lot of guns in his house. The police verified that the defendant had past convictions and lived in the house, but otherwise the case for the warrant was based almost exclusively on the uncorroborated claims of the informant. In particular, the affidavit failed to say that the informant was himself a gang member with fourteen convictions who had lied to the police about his identity and been paid in the past for being an informant.

He also gives several examples of less egregious cases, which did *not* invalidate the warrants in question.

Alex Emmons and Trevor Aaronson, writing at the Intercept, suggest that the Nunes memo accidentally confirms the legitimacy of the FBI’s investigation:

The Nunes memo does not say Steele’s dossier was the only piece of information used to establish probable cause that Page was acting as a foreign agent. Indeed, when FBI agents submit a FISA application to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, they use information from multiple sources, according to current and former FBI officials. What’s more, the same information is not used over and over to extend surveillance under FISA. Instead, every 90 days, the FBI, as a matter of practice, shows evidence to the court that agents are obtaining foreign intelligence information through the surveillance that is in line with the initial FISA application.

According to the Nunes memo, the FBI received three 90-day extensions to monitor Page’s communications under FISA authority. This would have required the FBI to show Justice Department lawyers and the FISA court judge that Page’s intercepted communications included relevant foreign intelligence information. In fact, according to the memo, two Trump appointees at the Justice Department — Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Dana Boente, who served as acting attorney general after Trump fired Sally Yates — reviewed this information and signed off on submissions to the FISA court.

What’s more, it’s highly doubtful that the FISA court judge would not have known about Steele by the time Page’s surveillance came up for renewal, as the Nunes memo suggests. BuzzFeed published Steele’s dossier in full in January 2017.

Here I’ll note that the Guardian reported as early as January 2017 that the firm that hired Steele had initially been engaged for opposition research on Trump during the Republican primary, and that, by the time Steele was engaged, they had a new, Democratic client. So not only was Steele’s dossier published in full by the time the FISA court renewals happened, but it was publicly identified as oppo research.

The Steele dossier has its critics, and not just partisan self-serving critics like Nunes. Marcy Wheeler, for instance, wrote shortly before the release of the Nunes memo that Democrats gave Republicans an opening by placing too much weight on a flawed dossier. It’s Wheeler’s opinion that Russians likely learned of Steele’s efforts and leaked him misinformation, as a result of which the “dossier” is unreliable (note that she is not suggesting that Steele is lying).

In contrast, GPS Fusion founder Glenn Simpson insists that Michael Steele was too canny a former intelligence agent to be taken in by Soviet disinformation, though he allows that some assessment may still be needed of the human intelligence collected by Steele, to determine which of it is reliable.

Besides disagreements about the reliability of the Steele dossier, there’s a range of opinion about FISA in general. Marcy Wheeler argues that “Ultimately, two principles are at issue: the rule of law and privacy. In both instances, Nunes and Ryan are on the wrong side of the issue.” In other words, she’s saying that Nunes was wrong both in his Section 702 reauthorization vote earlier this week and in his memo. (“The way to deal with both of these issues is to conduct actual oversight of the general problem, not extend protections just to one man like Page.”)

In contrast, Asha Rangappa, in an op ed in the New York Times, complains that progressives laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo:

The move is nakedly partisan, and it certainly seems as if Republicans are trying to discredit the investigation into Russia’s 2016 election meddling….

The memo is a shame. But those on the left denouncing its release should realize that it was progressive and privacy advocates over the past several decades who laid the groundwork for the Nunes memo — not Republicans. That’s because the progressive narrative has focused on an assumption of bad faith on the part of the people who participate in the FISA process, not the process itself.

Another related story is the Wall Street Journal’s interesting look Inside the FBI Life of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, as Told in Their Text Messages.

McCain’s statement on the memo

Susan Collins’ statement on the memo

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More Robot Links

Posted by Sappho on January 28th, 2018 filed in Computers, Robots

A replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical lion.

A demonstration of 10 different types of robots: ant robots, butterfly robots, robots that load your dishwasher.

Military robots

Boston Dynamics’ Backflipping Robot

I Let an $800 Alexa Robot Creep Around My House Like a Tiny, Mechanical Zombie

Robotic gall bladder surgery

Japanese robots dance, play violin, and more

Robotics has contributed to real-time mapping and navigation software

Underwater robots to measure Antarctica climate threat

Robot Rabbi, a blog that chronicles the robotics industry

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