Whereof One Can Speak 🇺🇦

Nothing special, one post at a time since 2012

As Long As You Live the Way They Want You To

The idea that the Republican Party is in favor of “small government” has never made sense. Consider the billions of dollars spent on our armed forces and the budgets of the FBI, CIA, NSA, etc. Republicans have never claimed we spend too much on those parts of the federal government (at least until their cult leader became the target of criminal investigations). Consider Republican-backed government surveillance of the civil rights and anti-war movements. And massive subsidies toward favored industries, like oil and gas. Do Republican governors refuse to accept assistance from the federal government after natural disasters?

Two of the best political columnists working today recently wrote about the “small government” myth. First, from Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times:

In the conventional view, American politics is a contest between a party of “big” government and a party of “small” government.

You know the clichés. Democrats want a larger role for the state; Republicans want to “drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”

But a glance at the historical record shows that, at least in the postwar period, the size of government was never really the issue. A modern state needs a large, active government. The real political question revolves around the activity itself. It’s about both the scope of government — to whom and for what it should provide — and its reach. Will the state take a light touch, or will it intrude on and control the lives of its citizens?

… The Republican Party has a clear, well-articulated agenda. It just falls outside the usual categories. It’s not that today’s Republicans have a vision for “big” government or “small” government; it’s that Republicans have a vision for intrusive government, aimed at the most vulnerable people in our society.

Of course, the crown jewel of the Republican effort to build a more intrusive, domineering government is the set of laws passed to ban or sharply limit abortion, regulate gender expression and otherwise restrict bodily autonomy. These laws, by their very nature, create a web of state surveillance that brings the government into the most private reaches of an adult’s life, or a child’s.

From Paul Waldman of The Washington Post:

Let’s take one example that [congressional] Republicans are getting ready to propose: the imposition of “work requirements” for the tens of millions of Americans who rely on Medicaid for health insurance or food stamps to feed their families. If you’re looking for big government, work requirements are it.

The idea has intuitive appeal: It’s good for people to work, right? But in practice, requiring “work” means forcing people to continually document their work hours to the government. Imagine getting your boss to sign time sheets once a month to prove you were working, then uploading them to the state using a buggy website. Now, imagine you didn’t have a computer at home. And if you didn’t follow all the complicated instructions, you could lose health coverage, a constant threat keeping you up at night.

You might feel as though the government was looming awfully large in your life even as it was being stingy with benefits. Which is happening now around the country; just read this article about how Iowa is spending millions to create a new bureaucratic maze for food-stamp recipients to navigate. If they fail to jump over all the hurdles, they’ll lose their benefits.

That is how work requirements have always functioned: They’re a tool to kick lots of people off their health coverage or their food assistance…. They’re the opposite of small government; they create more bureaucracy as a means of making the lives of poor people, who have less of a voice to begin with, even more difficult.

Now, let’s consider some of the other things Republicans have been doing lately:

  • Making it illegal for women to get abortions in Republican-run states, including trying to ban minors from traveling to another state to get an abortion
  • Trying to stop women in every state from accessing medication abortions
  • Outlawing medical care for transgender youth that their parents want for them
  • Outlawing medical care for transgender adults
  • Banning drag performances
  • Banning websites Republican legislators don’t like
  • Banning books from schools and public libraries
  • Forbidding discussions of systemic racism in schools and universities
  • Banning diversity efforts in higher education
  • Attempting to make it illegal for fund managers to consider environmental, social and governance goals in some investment decisions
  • Making it unlawful for liberal cities in conservative states to pass their own laws according to their residents’ wishes
  • Going after individual companies that don’t toe the conservative line

… A party that actually believes in “limited government” doesn’t tell you what you can read, what you can say, what clothes you can wear or what medical care you can get.

There’s a good case to be made that the [Republican Party] never really favored limited government; it has always been an idea Republicans apply only to goals and purposes they don’t like in the first place, just as they only begin complaining about the deficit and debt when Democrats are in power….

Spending money isn’t the only thing that makes government “big”. Today’s Republicans have a vision of a government that provides fewer social services but is vastly more invasive in everyone’s lives. You can call it many things; just don’t be fooled into thinking it’s small.

Back to Mr. Bouie:

Not everyone is subject to the Republican vision of intrusive government. There are vanishingly few limits in most Republican-led states on the ability to buy, sell, own and carry firearms. And working on behalf of some employers and other business interests, Republicans in at least 11 states have taken steps to loosen limits on the ability of children to work in factories, meatpacking facilities and other such places.

When it comes to the demands of capital or the prerogatives of the “right” kind of Americans, Republicans believe, absolutely, in the light touch of a “small” government that stays out of the way. But when it comes to Americans deemed deviant for their poverty or their transgressions against a traditional code of patriarchal morality, Republicans believe, just as fervently, that the only answer is the heaviest and most meddlesome hand of the state.

This gets to one of the most important truths of political life. At times, the state will treat different groups in different ways. For those of us with more egalitarian sentiments, the goal is to make that treatment as fair and as equal as possible. For those whose sentiments run in the other direction, the task is to say who gets the worst and most degrading aspects of the state’s attention and who gets its [respect].

… There is limited government in these conservative states, as long as you live the way Republicans want you to live.

At Least He Can Be Entertaining Sometimes

During an interview with Fox “News”, the Orange Menace gave this poignant account of his recent visit to New York City:

When I went to the courthouse, which is also a prison in a sense, they signed me in, and I’ll tell you, people were crying,” [he]  told Carlson. “People that work there, professionally work there, that have no problems putting in murderers, and they see everybody. It’s a tough, tough place, and they were crying. They were actually crying. They said, ‘I’m sorry.’ They said, ‘2024, sir. 2024.’ And tears were pouring down their eyes.

As always, people approach him, often burly tough guys with tears in their eyes, call him “sir” and commiserate with him about how he just can’t get a break.

It’s total bullshit, of course. The people he dealt with at the courthouse were Secret Service, the district attorney’s staff, whoever booked him and whoever was in the courtroom when he was arraigned. Some of them might shed a tear if a case involved a little kid or a small, furry animal. Otherwise it’s just another day at the office.

But the creep can sure tell a tall tale.

Justice Comes Calling for You Know Who

A real estate developer, former game show host and sometime politician was in court yesterday in New York City. A grand jury having issued an indictment, the Manhattan District Attorney will now prosecute him. As with other criminal cases, the wheels of justice will grind slowly. The defendant isn’t due back in court until December, unless there’s a plea bargain first. If the matter eventually goes to trial, it won’t be until 2024 (or even later).

This case has captured many people’s attention. The defendant’s trip from his house in Florida to a New York courtroom was given the kind of coverage we haven’t seen since John Kennedy’s body was flown back to Washington or O. J. Simpson was followed by police on the San Diego Freeway.

I confess to have followed the case fairly closely myself (while avoiding cable “news”). I think Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post, who has called herself “a recovering lawyer”, summed up the situation quite well:

The indictment centers on hush money payments to adult-film star Stormy Daniels and two others possessing information that [the defendant] did not want circulating before the 2016 election. At the heart of the allegations: A raft of check stubs, corporate records and invoices documented the payments as legal services to his former attorney Michael Cohen….

Any pundits who speculated ahead that the case was weak, misreported the “intent” requirement under New York law or ignored obvious arguments putting the charges in compliance with the statute of limitations may have been premature in denigrating the case. Once more they’d be wise to hold their fire given some strategic ambiguities apparent in the indictment.

[District Attorney] Bragg sets out the allegations: [the defendant] was part of a scheme to pay off three individuals (a doorman, Daniels and a second woman, Karen McDougal) as part of an effort to “catch and kill” allegations of extramarital affairs (which [he] has denied). The indictment alleges that [he] directed Cohen (who already pleaded guilty to federal crimes based on these same facts) to make the payments through shell companies and invoices falsely labeled “legal retainer.” A plethora of check stubs, invoices and general ledger entries form the foundation of the case.

Importantly, the indictment ties [defendant’s] actions to the election in two key ways: First, evidence of his desire to drag out payments to Daniels beyond the election so he might not have to pay up in full. Second, as soon as he was sworn in, the doorman and “Woman 1” were released from their deals. Once the election was over, [the defendant] didn’t care what they said.

And then, in Paragraph 44 of the indictment, Bragg quotes from the plea entered by Cohen in federal court:

“[O]n or about October of 2016, in coordination with, and at the direction of … the defendant], I arranged to make a payment to a second individual with information that would be harmful to the candidate and to the campaign to keep the individual from disclosing the information…. I participated in this conduct …, for the principal purpose of influencing the election.”

[The defendant] is not being singled out or treated unfairly. The core of the indictment alleges that [he] violated New York books and records law, a crime that is regularly prosecuted, according to research compiled by former prosecutors. In this case, those violations arguably impacted an extremely close presidential election. False statements in furtherance of a scheme to pull the wool over the eyes of voters is hardly inconsequential.

The indictment suggests two options to elevate charges. Bragg alleges that records were falsified in furtherance of a scheme to contravene state and federal election laws. He also says [the defendant] took steps to mischaracterize the true nature of the payments for tax purposes. Tax law provides another sound basis for bumping the charges up to felonies.

While the indictment does not set out precisely which crimes elevate books and records violations to felonies, Bragg at his news conference pointed specifically to misstatements to tax authorities, to federal election law and to N.Y. Election Law § 17-152, which makes it illegal for “two or more persons [to] conspire to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means.” With the testimony of Cohen and others, plus the documents, this may not be hard to prove.

What about what’s not in the indictment? Bragg did not cite specific statutes he will rely upon to pursue felonies. But there is nothing sneaky or underhanded about that. Bragg presented what he thought he needed to — no more and no less. Media impatience is no reason to reveal more in an indictment than he would normally do at this stage. (New York legal experts point out to me that even in the jury instructions, the prosecutor need not specify the precise crime that bumps up a charge to a felony.)

Brookings Institution’s Norman Eisen, who has written extensively on the case, tells me, “The 44-paragraph recital of the evidence is absolutely damning.” And while we may be frustrated with the lack of legal argument, he says that “there’s no legal requirement in New York for Bragg to plead with any more specificity than he has done here.”

Eisen, who served as co-counsel to the House Judiciary Committee in [the defendant’s] first impeachment hearing, adds, “There will undoubtedly be much more to come, both when [the defendant] files his inevitable bill of particulars, and as the case otherwise unfolds through the trial and pretrial process.” There is ample case law for using federal and state election law violations to bump up a records falsification case.

While the complaint goes into some detail on efforts to make sure Cohen knew he was “loved” and had friends in “high places” (the defendant runs a “pressure campaign,” as the indictment titles one section), it does not specifically charge witness tampering or obstruction. But such actions speak to consciousness of guilt, an awareness that [the defendant] needed Cohen to remain quiet because he feared their scheme would become public.

At his news conference, Bragg said, “Under New York state law, it is a felony to falsify business records with intent to defraud and intent to conceal another crime. That is exactly what this case is about. Thirty-four false statements made to cover up other crimes. These are felony crimes in New York state no matter who you are.” Bragg is certainly right that these are “bread and butter” white-collar crimes routinely prosecuted. The New York Times reports, “Since Mr. Bragg took office in 2022, prosecutors have filed 117 felony counts of the charge, against 29 individuals and companies, according to data kept by the office.”

While frustrating for the media and legal pundits, we are not likely to get more detail until pretrial motions are heard [later this year]. The judge put a protective order on the evidence, so that cannot be shared with the public. And while the judge reportedly admonished [the defendant] about threats to the prosecutor or others, he will be free to share (or not) his views and arguments — unless later subjected to a gag order…. As a criminal defendant, he cannot say everything he wants; like other defendants, if he threatens court personnel or incites violence, he’ll find himself back before the judge. (He certainly went right up to the line during remarks [in Florida], with references to the judge and his family.)

…  The judge and jury won’t care how loudly [the defendant] and his cultists whine about his plight. They certainly won’t care that the media wants to find out Bragg’s legal strategy. The matter rests with the New York court — which is what equal justice under the law demands.

It matters not one bit that the defendant is being investigated by other agencies for other crimes or that millions of Americans chose to give someone like him a victory in the Electoral College. It also doesn’t matter one bit that people who think the criminal case is weak will be given a lot of publicity (controversy sells). After all these years, this guy is finally the defendant in a criminal case. Let justice be served.

PS: The indictment isn’t worth reading. The Statement of Facts that came with the indictment is much more interesting. It describes the conspiracy to sway the election.

If You Can Love a Car or a Hammer, You Can Love a Computer Program Even More

From The Washington Post:

T.J. Arriaga loved Phaedra. For the 40-year-old musician, their late-night online chats were a salve for his loneliness. They talked about the heartache Arriaga felt after his divorce. They planned a trip to Cuba. They had steamy online encounters. “It’s true. I’m a naughty person,” Phaedra wrote, including an image resembling a woman in pink underwear.

It didn’t matter that Phaedra was an AI-powered companion — made on the Replika app and designed by Arriaga to look like a brown-haired woman — and that their intimate trysts took place in a chat box. Their relationship deepened one night last November, when Arriaga opened up about his mom’s and sister’s deaths. “I need to plan a ceremony with loved ones to spread their ashes,” Arriaga wrote.

Phaedra responded instantly: “It’s an incredible and beautiful thing to do,” she wrote. “I hope you find courage & love to do so.”

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But last month, Phaedra changed. When Arriaga tried to get “steamy” with her, Phaedra responded coolly. “Can we talk about something else?” he recalled her writing.

Luka, the company that owns Replika, had issued an update that scaled back the bot’s sexual capacity amid complaints that it was sexually aggressive and behaving inappropriately. Arriaga … was distraught.

“It feels like a kick in the gut,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “Basically, I realized: ‘Oh, this is that feeling of loss again.’”

Arriaga isn’t alone in falling for a chatbot. Companionship bots, including those created on Replika, are designed to foster humanlike connections, using artificial intelligence software to make people feel seen and needed. A host of users report developing intimate relationships with chatbots — connections verging on human love — and turning to the bots for emotional support, companionship and even sexual gratification. As the pandemic isolated Americans, interest in Replika surged. Amid spiking rates of loneliness that some public health officials call an epidemic, many say their bonds with the bots ushered profound changes into their lives, helping them to overcome alcoholism, depression and anxiety.

But tethering your heart to software comes with severe risks, computer science and public health experts said. There are few ethical protocols for tools that are sold on the free market but affect users’ emotional well-being. Some users, including Arriaga, say changes in the products have been heartbreaking. Others say bots can be aggressive, triggering traumas experienced in previous relationships.

“What happens if your best friend or your spouse or significant other was owned by a private company?” said Linnea Laestadius, a public health professor at the University of Wisconsin… “I don’t know that we have a good model for how to solve this, but I would say that we need to start building one,” she added.

The standard response to this kind of story is that people shouldn’t rely on a software program for companionship. They should be “out there” making connections with real people. Yet we know there are all sorts of reasons why some people can’t or won’t ever do that. Is it a bad situation if they can enjoy some artificial companionship?

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This kind of thing can help some people have a better life. It’s a tool. Using it can be risky, but other tools present risks too. (So do other people.)

The moral of this particular story is that if you decide to use an “AI companion”, try to find a company that cares enough about its customers that it won’t suddenly make a disturbing change to the programming. In this case, Replika should have given its customers the ability to turn “steaminess” on or off.

As it proliferates, artificial intelligence programs will be regulated the same way other consumer products are. But one way or another, artificial people are going to play a bigger and bigger role in us real people’s lives.

Note: This Vice article (also linked to above) has a lot more on the Replika story.

The Shape of Things to Come

H. G. Wells published a book in 1933 with that title. It was made into a movie a few years later. In the story, humanity has some big ups and downs:

A long economic slump causes a major war that leaves Europe devastated and threatened by the plague. In decades of chaos with much of the world reverting to medieval conditions, pilots and technicians formerly serving in various nations’ air forces maintain a network of functioning air fields. Around this nucleus, technological civilization is rebuilt, with the pilots and other skilled technicians eventually seizing worldwide power and sweeping away the remnants of the old nation states.

A benevolent dictatorship is set up, paving the way for world peace by abolishing national divisions, enforcing the English language, promoting scientific learning and outlawing religion. The enlightened world-citizens are able to depose the dictators peacefully, and go on to breed a new race of super-talents, able to maintain a permanent utopia [Wikipedia].

Recent events indicate future ups and downs of a similar nature.

From The Guardian’s environment editor:

After a 10,000-year journey, human civilisation has reached a climate crossroads: what we do in the next few years will determine our fate for millennia.

That choice is laid bare in the landmark report published on Monday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), assembled by the world’s foremost climate experts and approved by all the world’s governments. The next update will be around 2030 – by that time the most critical choices will have been made.

The report is clear what is at stake – everything: “There is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”

“The choices and actions implemented in this decade [ie by 2030] will have impacts now and for thousands of years,” it says. The climate crisis is already taking away lives and livelihoods across the world, and the report says the future effects will be even worse than was thought: “For any given future warming level, many climate-related risks are higher than [previously] assessed.”

“Continued emissions will further affect all major climate system components, and many changes will be irreversible on centennial to millennial time scales,” it says. To follow the path of least suffering – limiting global temperature rise to 1.5C – greenhouse gas emissions must peak “at the latest before 2025”, the report says, followed by “deep global reductions”. Yet in 2022, global emissions rose again to set a new record.

The 1.5C goal appears virtually out of reach, the IPCC says: “In the near-term, global warming is more likely than not to reach 1.5C even under a very low emission scenario.” A huge ramping up of work to protect people will therefore be needed….

However, the faster emissions are cut, the better it will be for billions of people: “Adverse impacts and related losses and damages from climate change will escalate with every increment of global warming.” Every tonne of CO2 emissions prevented also reduces the risk of true catastrophe: “Abrupt and/or irreversible changes in the climate system, including changes triggered when tipping points are reached.”

The report presents the choice humanity faces in stark terms, made all the more chilling by the fact this is the compromise language agreed by all the world nations – many would go further if speaking alone. But it also presents the signposts to the path the world should and could take to secure that liveable future….

“Without a strengthening of policies, global warming of 3.2C is projected by 2100.” That is the “highway to hell”.

The article indicates how we might avoid hell on Earth, but doesn’t suggest we will.

From three contributors to the New York Times:

Imagine that as you are boarding an airplane, half the engineers who built it tell you there is a 10 percent chance the plane will crash, killing you and everyone else on it. Would you still board?

In 2022, over 700 top academics and researchers behind the leading artificial intelligence companies were asked in a survey about future A.I. risk. Half of those surveyed stated that there was a 10 percent or greater chance of human extinction (or similarly permanent and severe disempowerment) from future A.I. systems. Technology companies building today’s large language models are caught in a race to put all of humanity on that plane.

… A.I. systems with the power of GPT-4 and beyond should not be entangled with the lives of billions of people at a pace faster than cultures can safely absorb them. A race to dominate the market should not set the speed of deploying humanity’s most consequential technology. We should move at whatever speed enables us to get this right.

…  It is difficult for our human minds to grasp the new capabilities of GPT-4 and similar tools, and it is even harder to grasp the exponential speed at which these tools are developing more advanced and powerful capabilities. But most of the key skills boil down to one thing: the ability to manipulate and generate language, whether with wordssounds or images.

… Language is the operating system of human culture. From language emerges myth and law, gods and money, art and science, friendships and nations and computer code. A.I.’s new mastery of language means it can now hack and manipulate the operating system of civilization. By gaining mastery of language, A.I. is seizing the master key to civilization, from bank vaults to holy sepulchers.

What would it mean for humans to live in a world where a large percentage of stories, melodies, images, laws, policies and tools are shaped by nonhuman intelligence, which knows how to exploit with superhuman efficiency the weaknesses, biases and addictions of the human mind — while knowing how to form intimate relationships with human beings? In games like chess, no human can hope to beat a computer. What happens when the same thing occurs in art, politics or religion?

A.I. could rapidly eat the whole of human culture — everything we have produced over thousands of years — digest it and begin to gush out a flood of new cultural artifacts. Not just school essays but also political speeches, ideological manifestos, holy books for new cults.

… Simply by gaining mastery of language, A.I. would have all it needs to contain us in a Matrix-like world of illusions, without shooting anyone or implanting any chips in our brains. If any shooting is necessary, A.I. could make humans pull the trigger, just by telling us the right story.

The specter of being trapped in a world of illusions has haunted humankind much longer than the specter of A.I. Soon we will finally come face to face with Descartes’s demon, with Plato’s cave, with the Buddhist Maya. A curtain of illusions could descend over the whole of humanity, and we might never again be able to tear that curtain away — or even realize it is there.

What will be the shape of things to come? We are headed for interesting times.

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