Can confirm

…Or can I?

Journalists’ brains show a lower-than-average level of executive functioning, according to a new study, which means they have a below-average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.

The study, led by Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, analysed 40 journalists from newspapers, magazines, broadcast, and online platforms over seven months. The participants took part in tests related to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.

It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the objective was to determine how journalists can thrive under stress. It is not yet peer reviewed, and the sample size is small, so the results should not be taken necessarily as fact.

Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.

The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly because of dehydration and the tendency of journalists to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.

😃😂

Compared with bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed that they were more able to cope with pressure.

I found this curious, so I read the linked study for more detail. In fact, the study does not say this at all.

The results, however, showed that the journalists were on average no more physically stressed than the average person. The blood tests showed that their levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.

“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study says.

Every occupation has its pros and cons…

Also of interest from the study (emphasis mine):

Silencing the Mind.

This behaviour refers to purposeful sessions to enhance focus and/or to allow thoughts without reacting, thereby preventing worrying about the future or regretting the past (i.e. the practice of mindfulness). Mindfulness promotes a relaxed physiological state at the level of the hypothalamus and amygdala and enhances the ability to focus and sustain attention at the level of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It promotes brain cell formation in the hippocampus and reduces the sensitivity of the amygdala, calming it down and promoting clarity of mind.

Low scores for silencing the mind indicates a lack of mindfulness practice amongst the surveyed population. This can manifest itself in reduced executive functioning, which corresponds to the result above. Studies have shown that just 12 minutes of mindfulness a day or 30 minutes of mindfulness 3 times a week thickens the folds of the pre-frontal cortex enhancing executive function.

What do you hear?

Listen to the clip. What do you hear?

Now, I know exactly what I hear, and I know that anyone who claims to hear the other thing is a frothing lunatic. And this is not up for debate.

However:

A short audio clip of a computer-generated voice has become the most divisive subject on the internet since the gold/blue dress controversy of 2015.

The audio “illusion”, which first appeared on Reddit, seems to be saying one word – but whether that word is “Yanny” or “Laurel” is the source of furious disagreement.

Professor David Alais from the University of Sydney’s school of psychology says the Yanny/Laurel sound is an example of a “perceptually ambiguous stimulus” such as the Necker cube or the face/vase illusion.

“They can be seen in two ways, and often the mind flips back and forth between the two interpretations. This happens because the brain can’t decide on a definitive interpretation,” Alais says.

“If there is little ambiguity, the brain locks on to a single perceptual interpretation. Here, the Yanny/Laurel sound is meant to be ambiguous because each sound has a similar timing and energy content – so in principle it’s confusable.

“All of this goes to highlight just how much the brain is an active interpreter of sensory input, and thus that the external world is less objective than we like to believe.” […]

McDermott also thinks visual cues may have played a part. “You would have noticed it had both the names appearing on the screen with no other context or information. This forces the brain to make a choice between those two alternatives.”

How much of what we think is real is just a cognitive illusion? And how many of our certainties about the world are build on a foundation of perceptual sand?

Beyond the Panopticon: Faceborg update

Facebook 1984 INGSOC

I have always found Facebook to be unpleasant and creepy. Now an increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that it’s positively dangerous. Here’s a powerful tweetstorm by Google AI researcher François Chollet:

The problem with Facebook is not *just* the loss of your privacy and the fact that it can be used as a totalitarian panopticon. The more worrying issue, in my opinion, is its use of digital information consumption as a psychological control vector. Time for a thread

The world is being shaped in large part by two long-time trends: first, our lives are increasingly dematerialized, consisting of consuming and generating information online, both at work and at home. Second, AI is getting ever smarter.

These two trends overlap at the level of the algorithms that shape our digital content consumption. Opaque social media algorithms get to decide, to an ever-increasing extent, which articles we read, who we keep in touch with, whose opinions we read, whose feedback we get

Integrated over many years of exposure, the algorithmic curation of the information we consume gives the systems in charge considerable power over our lives, over who we become. By moving our lives to the digital realm, we become vulnerable to that which rules it — AI algorithms

If Facebook gets to decide, over the span of many years, which news you will see (real or fake), whose political status updates you’ll see, and who will see yours, then Facebook is in effect in control of your political beliefs and your worldview

This is not quite news, as Facebook has been known to run since at least 2013 a series of experiments in which they were able to successfully control the moods and decisions of unwitting users by tuning their newsfeeds’ contents, as well as prediction user’s future decision

In short, Facebook can simultaneously measure everything about us, and control the information we consume. When you have access to both perception and action, you’re looking at an AI problem. You can start establishing an optimization loop for human behavior. A RL loop.

A loop in which you observe the current state of your targets and keep tuning what information you feed them, until you start observing the opinions and behaviors you wanted to see

A good chunk of the field of AI research (especially the bits that Facebook has been investing in) is about developing algorithms to solve such optimization problems as efficiently as possible, to close the loop and achieve full control of the phenomenon at hand. In this case, us

This is made all the easier by the fact that the human mind is highly vulnerable to simple patterns of social manipulation. While thinking about these issues, I have compiled a short list of psychological attack patterns that would be devastatingly effective

Some of them have been used for a long time in advertising (e.g. positive/negative social reinforcement), but in a very weak, un-targeted form. From an information security perspective, you would call these “vulnerabilities”: known exploits that can be used to take over a system.

In the case of the human mind, these vulnerabilities never get patched, they are just the way we work. They’re in our DNA. They’re our psychology. On a personal level, we have no practical way to defend ourselves against them.

The human mind is a static, vulnerable system that will come increasingly under attack from ever-smarter AI algorithms that will simultaneously have a complete view of everything we do and believe, and complete control of the information we consume.

Importantly, mass population control — in particular political control — arising from placing AI algorithms in charge of our information diet does not necessarily require very advanced AI. You don’t need self-aware, superintelligent AI for this to be a dire threat.

So, if mass population control is already possible today — in theory — why hasn’t the world ended yet? In short, I think it’s because we’re really bad at AI. But that may be about to change. You see, our technical capabilities are the bottleneck here.

Until 2015, all ad targeting algorithms across the industry were running on mere logistic regression. In fact, that’s still true to a large extent today — only the biggest players have switched to more advanced models.

It is the reason why so many of the ads you see online seem desperately irrelevant. They aren’t that sophisticated. Likewise, the social media bots used by hostile state actors to sway public opinion have little to no AI in them. They’re all extremely primitive. For now.

AI has been making fast progress in recent years, and that progress is only beginning to get deployed in targeting algorithms and social media bots. Deep learning has only started to make its way into newsfeeds and ad networks around 2016. Facebook has invested massively in it

Who knows what will be next. It is quite striking that Facebook has been investing enormous amounts in AI research and development, with the explicit goal of becoming a leader in the field. What does that tell you? What do you use AI/RL for when your product is a newsfeed?

We’re looking at a powerful entity that builds fine-grained psychological profiles of over two billion humans, that runs large-scale behavior manipulation experiments, and that aims at developing the best AI technology the world has ever seen. Personally, it really scares me

If you work in AI, please don’t help them. Don’t play their game. Don’t participate in their research ecosystem. Please show some conscience

Now might be an opportune time to talk about government regulation of the social media platforms. And maybe even a temporary shutdown, until we can figure out what is going on and how to mitigate the risk of social catastrophe from this new and poorly understand technology.

Free money

Man is given $1.3 million in free money, and it ends badly:

A debt-ridden student blew $1.3 million on sports cars, speedboats, strippers and cocaine after a bank error gave him an unlimited overdraft.

Wannabe playboy Luke Moore lived the high life for two years before he was caught by cops and jailed on fraud charges.

The Australian treated himself to luxury holidays, an Aston Martin, a Maserati and a boat while living the ultimate bachelor lifestyle.

But he was slapped with a four-year jail term last year after the banking glitch came to light.

Moore, 29, went free last week after winning an appeal of his conviction on the grounds that his actions were not deceptive.

I’ll say. What could be the basis for charging him with fraud? He took what was given to him.

Interesting that this went undetected for two years. That’s what happens when everything is automated and the element of human judgement is removed. Would your local banker allow you to withdraw a million bucks over two years because of a “glitch”?

He is now broke and living with his mother in Goulburn, New South Wales, ironically while studying to become a criminal lawyer.

But he told the Daily Telegraph he did not miss his multimillionaire lifestyle “besides the cocaine, the strippers and fast cars.”

This is the type of thing that makes me think that a universal basic income (UBI), instead of bringing about a great flourishing of the human spirit, would actually lead to the swift collapse of society.

Networked totalitarianism

Comment by author and strategist John Robb:

Facebook just declared war against “disruptive” information. In addition to hundreds of new human censors, they are training AI censors capable of identifying and deleting ‘unacceptable’ information found in the discussions of all two billion members in real time. This development highlights what the real danger posed by a socially networked world actually is.

The REAL danger facing a world interconnected by social networking isn’t disruption. As we have seen on numerous occasions, the danger posed by disruptive information and events is fleeting. Disruption, although potentially painful in the short term, doesn’t last, nor is it truly damaging over the long term. In fact, the true danger posed by an internetworked world is just the opposite of disruption.

This danger is an all encompassing online orthodoxy. A sameness of thought and approach enforced by hundreds of millions of socially internetworked adherents. A global orthodoxy that ruthless narrows public thought down to a single, barren, ideological framework. A ruling network that prevents dissent and locks us into stagnation and inevitable failure as it runs afoul of reality and human nature.

It will be fun to see whether the hive mind created by social networking proves to be a greater threat to human liberty than a king on a throne, or a dictator with a secret police force. It clearly has the potential to be.

If so, there is one simple and obvious way to defeat the system that was not available to the rebels and dissidents of the past, and that is to unplug. Say no. Refuse to engage with the system. That is easier said than done, though, as most people are increasingly addicted to their gadgets and increasingly comfortable offloading their mental activity to the network. And even if you disconnect from the network, most others will not.

Hypothetically, a resistance movement could arise that would seek to overthrow the network by dissuading or physically preventing people from plugging into it. We would expect this battle to manifest in the real world, with tangible efforts to destroy the machinery of the network and desecrate its symbols. iPhones dumped into Boston Harbor by the truckload. Internet servers smashed with sledgehammers. Data centers firebombed.

More likely, though, any type of resistance to the hive mind would be swallowed up by the network itself, taking the form of a pitched battle between different networked tribes. Hive mind vs. hive mind, super-augmented by swarms of bots. Participants would fight for mind share, and only indirectly for territory or physical assets. Weaponized memes, hacking attacks, and information-warfare concepts like reflexive control would take the place of bombs and bullets. A future conflict may be fought entirely online. Of course, it could also spill over into the real world, using drones and robots, which… let’s just say it wouldn’t be great.

Totalitarianism: What you thought you were getting vs. what you’re actually getting

Another rock-climbing milestone (heh)

Another crazy and impossible victory in the eternal battle of man vs. rock has been achieved:

Now, after over 40 days of efforts spread across two years and seven visits to Norway, Ondra has completed what is being claimed as the world’s hardest single rope-length climb, both in terms of physical effort and technical difficulty.

The climb – 45 metres long and forging its improbable way through the cave’s huge grey overlapping roofs – marks the latest achievement by Ondra, who has dominated rock climbing in recent years in the same way Usain Bolt dominated sprinting, consistently setting new levels of difficulty that others have struggled to follow.

I have to admit, I didn’t realize that elite rock climbing involved so much hanging upside down from near-horizontal surfaces.

Not really my thing, but I can admire the purity and determination of people who devote their lives to pushing the limits of human ability.

On that topic, do skyscrapers have their own climbing difficulty scale?

February 17, 2009, 1:10 p.m. As the thousands of bankers, consultants, and accountants who work in the Cheung Kong Center, a sixty-two-story office tower in Hong Kong’s central business district, returned from their lunch breaks, a slight Frenchman named Alain Robert was being questioned in a windowless room on the tower’s first floor. […]

Robert, who is forty-six, had just ascended the eastern face of the Cheung Kong, which is nine hundred and twenty-eight feet high, using nothing but his feet and his hands.

Just don’t ask why he does it, because you won’t get a real answer:

At the press conference, a reporter for the Hong Kong Standard asked why he was making the climb. Robert spoke at length about climate change, and then said, “It shows that I am willing to give a big part of myself for something that I have a strong belief.” (If Robert is retailing environmental responsibility, he’s something of a loss leader, flying all over the world to encourage other people not to.) When I asked Julie Cohen about his motivations, she laughed and said, “He always gives really corny answers: ‘I climb ze mountain because it is zere.’ . . . But it’s actually that. He can’t not.” The necessity of the ordeal, for Robert, is self-evident.

One of the themes of the essay is how society chooses to deal with a mild lawbreaker and entertaining nuisance like Robert. I liked this anecdote about the famous Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing, who owns Cheung Kong Center:

At Cheung Kong, Li Ka-shing, the billionaire landlord, had happened to be on the premises during Robert’s climb. From his private apartment on a low floor, he had called the head guard. Robert was absolutely dying for an audience with the tycoon.

“Please, it would be a privilege,” he said.

The guard announced that Mr. Li had agreed to release Robert, but that he would not be able to see him. Despite having clambered from sea level past the treetops half an hour earlier, and got away with it, Robert seemed crestfallen.

“The final word in bad-assery”

It’s pretty hard to top this as an athletic, physical or psychological achievement:

Alex Honnold woke up in his Dodge van last Saturday morning, drove into Yosemite Valley ahead of the soul-destroying traffic and walked up to the sheer, smooth and stupendously massive 3,000-foot golden escarpment known as El Capitan, the most important cliff on earth for rock climbers. Honnold then laced up his climbing shoes, dusted his meaty fingers with chalk and, over the next four hours, did something nobody had ever done. He climbed El Capitan without ropes, alone.

The world’s finest climbers have long mused about the possibility of a ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel — as a daydream safely beyond human possibility. Tommy Caldwell, arguably the greatest all-around rock climber alive, told me that the conversation only drifted into half-seriousness once Honnold came along, and that Honnold’s successful climb was easily the most significant event in the sport in all of Caldwell’s 38 years. I believe that it should also be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.

It’s barely conceivable that a human being can pull off this feat of strength, endurance and dexterity. What’s even more amazing, as this guy points out, is the fact that Honnold has to be in the zone, 100% focused yet also relaxed, during the entire four-hour climb because the slightest error in his elaborately choreographed dance on the rock means certain death.

Honnold has an underactive amygdala, which would explain how he is able to suppress his body’s fear response with seeming ease. There’s a moment in this video (10:45) where you can see him smiling happily and even whistling as he spiders up the 2,000-foot Half Dome in 2011:

This mellow, zen-like state is only attainable by someone who is a serious genetic outlier, who has also put in countless hours of obsessive training and rehearsal to perfect his routine. Honnald prepared for the El Capitan climb for months, mastering every nuance of the route and the intricate sequence of moves involved so he could do it largely on autopilot.

Here is a video of another master climber, Tommy Caldwell, on a particularly tough stretch of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall:

Saturday links

Murderous Manila: On the Night Shift (part one of a series on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte):

If, in what I had come across going out on the night shift, there was anything that had probably met the aspirations of those who had voted for Duterte as president in May, it was these two scenes. For Duterte was and is very popular, and his drug war is popular too, for the moment. People like the drug war, but they are not entirely at ease with it. They do not think that the victims of that war should die (although that is a defining characteristic of the war so far). On the other hand, when there is somebody particularly antisocial, as in the two cases above, they are prepared to say: “He deserved it.”

In a survey by Social Weather Stations, 69 percent of those polled thought the incidence of EJKs was either very or somewhat serious. Only 3 percent thought it not serious at all. As to whether they believed that police were telling the truth that the suspects they killed in buy-bust operations had really resisted arrest, doubters and believers were evenly split, with 28 percent saying the police were definitely or probably telling the truth, and 29 percent saying they were definitely or probably not doing so. Overwhelmingly, however, 88 percent agreed, strongly or somewhat, that since Duterte became president, there has been a decrease in drug problems in their area. And that is the perception that appears to have trumped all others.

Part two of the series:

Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of [opposition leader Ninoy Aquino] seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.

Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.

China fact of the day:

Mortality rates among Chinese men aged 41 to 60, who account for nearly three-quarters of the working-age population, increased by 12% over the decade through 2013, the most recent data available. This was even as mortality rates generally improved across other age groups and genders.

You’re a Completely Different Person at 14 and 77 Years Old, Personality Study Suggests:

As a result of this gradual change, personality can appear relatively stable over short intervals – increasingly so throughout adulthood. However, the longer the interval between two assessments of personality, the weaker the relationship between the two tends to be.

Our results suggest that, when the interval is increased to as much as 63 years, there is hardly any relationship at all.

Reddit is Being Manipulated By Big Financial Services Companies:

In December last year, I managed to place two entirely fake news stories onto influential subreddits – with millions of subscribers – and vote them to the top with fake accounts and fake upvotes for less than $200. It was simple, cheap and effective.

What I hadn’t realised at the time was how widespread this shilling issue was. Professional marketing agencies, with offices in several different countries, offer these services often under the guise of “reputation management.” They don’t specifically talk about manipulating conversations online, instead using coded, dog whistle language like “targeted techniques” and “competitor slander.”

I Ignored Trump News for a Week. Here’s What I Learned:

But as the week wore on, I discovered several truths about our digital media ecosystem. Coverage of Mr. Trump may eclipse that of any single human being ever. The reasons have as much to do with him as the way social media amplifies every big story until it swallows the world. And as important as covering the president may be, I began to wonder if we were overdosing on Trump news, to the exclusion of everything else.

The new president doesn’t simply dominate national and political news. During my week of attempted Trump abstinence, I noticed something deeper: He has taken up semipermanent residence on every outlet of any kind, political or not. He is no longer just the message. In many cases, he has become the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.