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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Quote of the Day, from Thich Nhat Hanh

Posted by Sappho on January 22nd, 2018 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes

When you begin to see that your enemy is suffering, that is the beginning of insight.

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Project Discussion and Feedback, Technical Presentation Project 5: “I, Robot”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Computers, Robots

At my first job after I graduated from college, a robot roamed the halls. That robot, named Flakey, was an SRI research project, an autonomous mobile robot that used fuzzy logic as it tried to reach a destination and avoid obstacles. Occasionally, to entertain SRI staff, Flakey would sing “Daisy.”

For my Toastmasters Technical Presentation Project 5 of the “Advanced Communication Series”, I will talk about robots, from the early autonomous mobile devices at SRI, Flakey and its predecessor Shakey, to the modern computing advances that have been driven by robotics research.

As the goal of Technical Presentations Project 5 is “Enhance a Technical Talk with the Internet of the “Technical Presentations,” I am publishing this blog post for discussion and feedback prior to my presentation. My fellow Toastmasters in the Irvine Project Masters club are invited to make comments and offer feedback.

The project objectives 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.

Here are a few links related to 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 ?apek which introduced the now familiar science fiction theme of rebellious killer robots.

Friendlier and more sympathetic were Isaac Asimov’s robotsm which followed Laws of Robotics designed to prevent them from injuring humans. As we move toward a future with self-driving cars, we need to consider what ethics to program into them, a question that MIT Technology Review considers in Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill. The dilemma: people prefer other people’s self-driving cars to sacrifice the occupants if necessary to avoid killing a larger number of people. But they themselves are not so sure they want to ride in a self-driving car that would ever sacrifice their own lives for the greater good.

But before we can have ethical self-driving cars, we need functional self-driving cars:

The Google Self-Driving Car Project

Wired articles on Self-Driving Cars

And what about drones?

PC Mag on The Best Drones of 2018

How the Predator Drone Changed the Character of War

Once the province of government funded research at think tanks, robotics is now a familiar part of public education. Here’s a 4-H page about robotics for students.

What questions do you have about robots? What would you like to hear, in a 12-15 talk about robots and robotics?

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From “Those Who Walk Away from Omelas”

Posted by Sappho on January 21st, 2018 filed in Quotes

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.

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Bang the Drum Slowly, Speak of Things Holy

Posted by Sappho on January 15th, 2018 filed in Saints and Witnesses

Last month, I realized that my feelings over what I see happening politically to evangelical Christianity were affecting my spiritual practice. And then I reached a point where I simply let go. Told myself that if I was having trouble with some of the more evangelical online Bible studies I tried (no fault of theirs, really, more baggage from things like the Roy Moore election that rubbed off, for me, as an emotional reaction to particular language), I could pick the spiritual practice that would actually work for me. (Was it Billy Graham who said that the best Bible translation is the one you actually read?) Interlinear Hebrew Tanakh one day and interlinear Greek New Testament another, in very small portions, because it’s not as if I actually know more than a tiny bit of Hebrew (though more Greek). Listening to the Maccabeats, and singing “Aleinu” on the way to work. Taking a break from Christmas songs for a week of Hanukkah songs. Occasional use of my Buddha quote app, and I’m now trying out a Buddhist meditation app that Joel showed me. And hymns from the Unapologetically Episcopalian group on Facebook. And some secular songs that have spiritual meaning for me.

One of the latter is Emmylou Harris’s “Bang the Drum Slowly,” about her father. I love especially the lines, “I meant to ask you how, when everything seemed lost, And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed, There was still that line that you would never cross, At any cost.”

Today’s one of our secular holidays that are like the saint’s days of medieval times: the day for honoring Martin Luther King. His death is my earliest political memory (I was seven), so I don’t really remember the time when he was a controversial figure, rather than a revered martyr. But I take my time to remember him today, reading the Letter from Birmingham Jail, and listening to Marvin Gaye’s “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s good to remember, in a time of backlash, the ways in which the arc of history has bent toward justice. It gives me hope.

Other things that give me hope:

Steven Barnes’ Facebook note on MLK, America, and the Hero’s Journey

Congressman John Lewis on “Good Trouble

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Spectre and Meltdown: A Round Up

Posted by Sappho on January 7th, 2018 filed in Computers

Bruce Schneier: Spectre and Meltdown Attacks Against Microprocessors

The security of pretty much every computer on the planet has just gotten a lot worse, and the only real solution — which of course is not a solution — is to throw them all away and buy new ones.

On Wednesday, researchers just announced a series of major security vulnerabilities in the microprocessors at the heart of the world’s computers for the past 15-20 years….

It shouldn’t be surprising that microprocessor designers have been building insecure hardware for 20 years. What’s surprising is that it took 20 years to discover it….

Brian Krebs, Scary Chip Flaws Raise Spectre of Meltdown:

Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants have released updates for a pair of serious security flaws present in most modern computers, smartphones, tablets and mobile devices. Here’s a brief rundown on the threat and what you can do to protect your devices.

At issue are two different vulnerabilities, dubbed “Meltdown” and “Spectre,” that were independently discovered and reported by security researchers at Cyberus Technology, Google, and the Graz University of Technology. The details behind these bugs are extraordinarily technical, but a Web site established to help explain the vulnerabilities sums them up well enough:

“These hardware bugs allow programs to steal data which is currently processed on the computer. While programs are typically not permitted to read data from other programs, a malicious program can exploit Meltdown and Spectre to get hold of secrets stored in the memory of other running programs. This might include your passwords stored in a password manager or browser, your personal photos, emails, instant messages and even business-critical documents.”

“Meltdown and Spectre work on personal computers, mobile devices, and in the cloud. Depending on the cloud provider’s infrastructure, it might be possible to steal data from other customers.”

Daniel Faigin: It’s a Sign of the Times: The Spectre of a Security Meltdown

There is no such thing as a “mega-vulnerability”. “Mega” is a risk assessment, and requires not only the weakness from the vulnerability, but a high likelihood of exploitation by a likely threat, and a likely adverse impact of that exploitation. You can have a vulnerability in a system that is easy to exploit, but doesn’t get you much information. You can have one that is hard to exploit, but can get you a lot of information. Risk depends not only on the vulnerability and the likelihood of exploitation, but the context of use and the likely attackers (threats), in order to determine the overall risk.

With that, let’s look at some news…

(A link round up and explanation follows.)

Dan Geer at Lawfare Blog: Haste, Waste and Choice

And there is the crux of the matter, both for technologists and for policy makers: What do we prioritize? We know, and have long known, that optimality and efficiency are the enemies of robustness and resilience. The payback on optimality and efficiency is quantitative, calculable, and central to short-term survivability. The payback on robustness and resilience is qualitative, inestimable, and central to long-term survivability. The field of battle is this: All politics is local; all technology is global.

Because the trade off that got us Spectre and Meltdown involves better performance and missing a security flaw, it’s possible that the fix will affect performance. For much computer usage, the performance hit may not be big enough to notice, but gamers are particularly concerned with performance, and so PC Gamer has an article on What you need to know about the Meltdown and Spectre CPU exploits.

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A look back at Trump’s first year (UPDATED)

Posted by Sappho on December 30th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Time for an evaluation of Trump’s first year as POTUS. I’m going to divide this into categories.
Read the rest of this entry »

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For the Feast of the Innocents

Posted by Sappho on December 28th, 2017 filed in Music, News and Commentary

Rohingya Refugees: How to Help the Children

Challenges to the Health of Children in the 21st Century

Coventry Carol

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And He said, “Who told you that you are naked?”

Posted by Sappho on December 23rd, 2017 filed in Bible study

My little dog is blissfully unaware that he is naked. But, on a cold day in December, he’s fine with being bundled up in his little jacket before he goes outside. When he goes to sleep, he’ll pull his little blanket over himself.

I imagine our earliest ancestors to use clothing came upon it in much the same way, as a tool not all that different from using a stick to reach for a fruit. Cover yourself, and you’re a bit safer from the elements.

But we’re now long removed from the simplicity of clothing as tool. Clothing is adornment, clothing is status, and, sometimes, clothing is modesty.

Who told us that we were naked?

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On standing with the FBI

Posted by Sappho on December 16th, 2017 filed in News and Commentary, Race

I’ve gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Gee, that was fun and a half
When you’ve been through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover
Anything else is a laugh

Stephen Sondheim, in “I’m Still Here” (Follies)

I assess with “high confidence” the FBI is not a leftist group, nor a front for Democrats.

Clint Watts, Current: Fox Fellow at @FPRInews Senior Fellow, @gwcchs, Former: U.S. Army, FBI, Combating Terrorism Center

There are good reasons to keep a skeptical eye on law enforcement – if it’s an even-handed Radley Balko style skepticism, a needed reminder that respect for the Thin Blue Line needs a balancing respect for maintaining civil liberties, so that we can keep our democracy strong, as well as keeping our streets safe.

There is no good reason to defend cops to the hilt when they’re criticized by people you don’t like, and then suddenly turn on our preeminent law enforcement agency, the FBI, the minute you’re afraid it will produce dirt on Our Dear Leader.

For how long have we been hearing, from Trump, from Fox and Breitbart, and from talk radio, that Black Lives Matter is anti-cop? That now any time a crook kills a cop, it’s the fault of Black Lives Matter, because you can’t possibly both want cops alive and doing their job, and want that job not to include excessive haste in killing unarmed black people, or legally armed black people in open carry states who are doing their best to comply with cops’ orders?

And, look, any individual case that’s now being publicized under hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName may be more defensible than the initial account suggests. It’s also entirely possible that much, or even most of the discrepancy between cop killings of white people and cop killings of black and indigenous people doesn’t have much to do with racism on the part of cops, either of the explicit or implicit variety. Because, if you think about it, there are lots of possible contributing factors:

  • Explicit racism on the part of cops leading them to be quicker to shoot black people than white people (this doesn’t have to be more than a sizeable minority of cops, because, after all, these shootings are being carried out by a minority of cops).
  • Implicit racism making for a bit of a disconnect across the board.
  • Implicit racism that can be countered on a good day, but not when you’re under enough fatigue or stress.
  • Cops who aren’t particularly racist at all, but who have more opportunities to shoot black people because racist bystanders keep phoning them about people Doing Things While Black.
  • Nobody’s individual racism, but rather systemic factors such as decisions at a higher level about stop and frisk, or about depending heavily on fines to run certain jurisdictions.


But what’s definitely true is that, across the board, whether in terms of job opportunities, or wealth, or lifespan, or who is more likely to get shot, when not an actual threat, by everybody, by no means just cops, black people and Native American people fare worse than white people, that they don’t face a level playing field. So, there are basically three choices to explain this difference:

  • Black people deserve their worse results. They’re shot more because they’re more often criminal. They’re hired less often because they’re lazier, or less intelligent. And all of this has nothing whatsoever to do with any unfair prejudice against them, because all the obstacles created by centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow magically disappeared, about fifty years ago, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act.
  • Yes, racism persists (and then we can argue about the details of how it persists and how to work to get rid of it).
  • It’s not so much race as class, and, since centuries of slavery and another century of Jim Crow made black people disproportionately poor, and social mobility isn’t as great in our country as we’d like to think, black people disproportionately get the disadvantages of the poor.

I’d say I can safely rule out “black people deserve their worse results” as an option. And, even if you go for “class more than race,” surely you can at least understand why these disproportionate results would look like racial bias?

But no, I keep hearing that “Black Lives Matter” is racist and an attack on the police. OK, then, you admire law enforcement and very much appreciate that Thin Blue Line, right? I could understand that. Cops have treated me well, except for that one time, and I’ve had reasons to appreciate the Thin Blue Line myself.

But then I see people, and by people I don’t just mean random cranks on the Internet, but rather actual Republican legislators and, for heaven’s sake, the Wall Street Journal, turning around and attacking the FBI. Deep State! Investigate Mueller! As corrupt as Watergate!

And this attack is being made against a man who, until now, was considered by both parties as unimpeachable in his integrity, and for good reason. As Carrie Cordero writes in Lawfare Blog,

Rosenstein did two notable things in his testimony. First, he unequivocally stated that there has been no activity justifying firing the special counsel for cause. He also went to great lengths to explain why Bob Mueller is uniquely suited to lead this investigation, and outlined, for anyone who doesn’t already know it, Mueller’s extensive prosecutorial and leadership experience, as well as his lifelong dedication to public service. Many know that Mueller is a decorated Vietnam veteran and served with steely determination as FBI director for twelve years, assuming the post just days after the 9/11 attacks. Fewer may know that he served in senior executive leadership positions at the Justice Department in both Bush administrations. And, after serving as head of the Criminal Division during the first Bush presidency and then briefly spending time in private practice, he returned as a line prosecutor to the U.S. attorney’s office in Washington D.C., prosecuting homicides—a voluntary return to the boiler room of the Justice Department that former Senate-confirmed assistant attorney generals just don’t make. Fewer still may have a full appreciation for his stewardship of the FBI after the 9/11 attacks, when the organization came under heavy criticism and was threatened with the extraction of the agency’s national security wing. Holding off those efforts, Mueller launched and oversaw a major transformation and protected the FBI as an institution. He was, and is, deeply respected in and out of the community.

The reason for these partisan attacks is, what? That two of the few people to have held the job of FBI director, Comey and Mueller are, not friends (says Wittes, who is a friend of Comey), but friendly professional acquaintances? I guess you can never trust my professional judgment again, because I keep friendly professional relations with colleagues all the time, whatever their politics. Because, in a large investigation of Trump, some of the people involved turn out not to like Trump? If that’s your standard, every prosecution ever is suspect. And seriously, in a country where most people don’t like Trump, could you possibly staff the Mueller investigation only with people who don’t think Trump is an idiot? It’s not even legal for Mueller to apply such a political test. I’m sure that, in a country where many people don’t like Hillary, no one at all in the investigation of Hillary disliked her. Yes, that last sentence is sarcasm.

This is an attack on rule of law.

Whether or not Mueller ever produces a case against Trump, the very fact that he’s nailed people like Manafort, Papadopoulos, and Flynn makes his investigation worth while (consider that, if no one had pushed on this matter, Flynn would still be in a prominent national security post – and consider that his plea is what his lawyers bargained down to, in return for his cooperation).

And as for Trump himself? Mueller will find what he finds. No one should be calling, in advance, for Trump to shoot the messenger.

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Thich Nhat Hanh on reconciliation

Posted by Sappho on December 14th, 2017 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes

During the last 2,500 years in Buddhist monasteries, a system of seven practices of reconciliation has evolved. Although these techniques were formulated to settle disputes within the circle of monks, I think they might also be of use in our households and in our society. The first practice is Face-to-Face Sitting.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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