“Hunting the Con Queen of Hollywood”

Wild story:

For more than a year, some of the most powerful women in entertainment — including Amy Pascal, Kathleen Kennedy, Stacey Snider and a ‘Homeland’ director — have been impersonated by a cunning thief who targets insiders with promises of work, then bilks them out of thousands of dollars. The Hollywood Reporter has obtained exclusive audio recordings of the savvy imposter as victims come forward and a global investigation heats up.

He was a freelance documentary photographer, 27 and eager, but not inexperienced. He’d worked in conflict zones for several prestige newspapers and magazines and shot ad campaigns for corporate clients. One day in late 2017, he opened his email to find an unusual message. The first thing he noticed was the sender’s name: Amy Pascal, the former co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment. That kind of thing didn’t happen every day. […]

Six months and $65,000 later, the photographer, who has requested anonymity out of concern for his safety, has come to understand that he was duped by one of the most elaborate scams to ever hit Hollywood. The woman he’d spoken to several times a day for weeks on end wasn’t Pascal, but a sophisticated imposter who took him for a colossal financial and emotional ride.

[Facepalm]

For the past two and a half years, hundreds of unwitting victims around the world have been ensnared by a small but cunning criminal organization whose contours are only beginning to be understood. […]

At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisti­cated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. […]

In addition to the tens of thousands of dollars he forfeited, the photographer struggles to wrap his head around the fact that she toyed with him so aggressively long after his funds were depleted, after she had gotten everything she would ever get, when it was simply a game she appeared to enjoy. “At what point does a crazy evil genius say, ‘I’ve got enough out of this person, let’s move on to someone else?'”

What we have here, is a Grade A psychopath.

Listen to those audio recordings, they are really spooky. It will be interesting to find out who this woman is, if we ever do. I wonder if it bothers her that she will never be a celebrity unless she gets caught.

Voice confrontation

Glad to learn there is a term and an interesting explanation for something I have most definitely experienced:

Most of us have shuddered on hearing the sound of our own voice. In fact, not liking the sound of your own voice is so common that there’s a term for it: voice confrontation.

But why is voice confrontation so frequent, while barely a thought is given to the voices of others?

A common explanation often found in popular media is that because we normally hear our own voice while talking, we receive both sound transferred to our ears externally by air conduction and sound transferred internally through our bones. This bone conduction of sound delivers rich low frequencies that are not included in air-conducted vocal sound. So when you hear your recorded voice without these frequencies, it sounds higher – and different. Basically, the reasoning is that because our recorded voice does not sound how we expect it to, we don’t like it. […]

Through their experiments, the late psychologists Phil Holzemann and Clyde Rousey concluded in 1966 that voice confrontation arises not only from a difference in expected frequency, but also a striking revelation that occurs upon the realisation of all that your voice conveys. Not only does it sound different than you expect; through what are called “extra-linguistic cues”, it reveals aspects of your personality that you can only fully perceive upon hearing it from a recording. These include aspects such as your anxiety level, indecision, sadness, anger, and so on.

To quote them, “The disruption and defensive experience are a response to a sudden confrontation with expressive qualities in the voice which the subject had not intended to express and which, until that moment, [s]he was not aware [s]he had expressed.”

Now, is there such a thing as face confrontation?

A dubious honor

Washington DC psychopaths

Crawling with psychos

Perhaps not surprisingly, the nation’s capital is the most sociopathic place in the US. And Connecticut is number two!

Ryan Murphy, an economist at Southern Methodist University, recently published a working paper in which he ranked each of the states by the predominance of—there’s no nice way to put it—psychopaths. The winner? Washington in a walk. In fact, the capital scored higher on Murphy’s scale than the next two runners-up combined.

“I had previously written on politicians and psychopathy, but I had no expectation D.C. would stand out as much as it does,” Murphy wrote in an email.

When Murphy matched up the “constellation of disinhibition, boldness and meanness” that marks psychopathy with a previously existing map of the states’ predominant personality traits, he found that dense, coastal areas scored highest by far—with Washington dominant among them. “The District of Columbia is measured to be far more psychopathic than any individual state in the country,” Murphy writes in the paper. The runner-up, Connecticut, registered only 1.89 on Murphy’s scale, compared with the overwhelming 3.48 clocked by the District.

According to Martha Stout’s The Sociopath Next Door, sociopaths make up four percent of the US population. Assuming “psychopath” roughly corresponds to “sociopath,” based on DC’s population of about 694,000, we can estimate that there are well over 27,760 psychos in the capital — possibly in the region of 50,000 or more?

Differently wired

An intriguing overview of the differences between the brain activity of introverts and extroverts. Summary:

Whereas extroverts are linked with the dopamine/adrenaline, energy-spending, sympathetic nervous system, introverts are connected with the acetylcholine, energy-conserving, parasympathetic nervous system.

Introverts’ and extroverts’ blood travels along different brain pathways, and each pathway is activated by a different neurotransmitter: dopamine in the case of extroverts, and acetylcholine in the case of introverts. Excepts are from this book.

Creatures of habit

Cool study showing that my predilection for spending time in the same set of venues over and over again may not be as far removed from the mainstream of human experience as some critics of my lifestyle would have it:

At any given time, people regularly return to a maximum of 25 places.

This is the finding of a scientific study that reveals entirely new aspects of human behaviour.

The study, titled ‘Evidence for a conserved quantity in human mobility’ is published in Nature Human Behaviour is based on analyses of 40,000 people’s mobile traces collected in four different datasets. […]

“We first analysed the traces of about 1000 university students. The dataset showed that the students returned to a limited number of places, even though the places changed over time. I expected to see a difference in the behaviour of students and a wide section of the population. But that was not the case. The result was the same when we scaled up the project to 40,000 people of different habits and gender from all over the world. It was not expected in advance. It came as a surprise,” says Dr Alessandretti.

As people start frequenting a new place, one of their existing haunts gets dropped from the list.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness. We want to explore new places but also want to exploit old ones that we like. Think of a restaurant or a gym. In doing so we adopt and abandon places all the time. We found that this dynamics yields an unexpected result: We visit a constant, fixed number of places—and it’s not due to lack of time. We found evidence that this may be connected to other limits to our life, such as the number of active social interactions we can maintain in our life, but more research is in order to clarify this point,” says Dr Baronchelli.

Here’s how they define a “place”: “For the purposes of these studies, a familiar location is any you return to at least twice in a given week for 10 minutes or more at a time.” By this definition, although I don’t have an exact count, my number is significantly less than 25 and probably somewhere between 15 and 20.

“People are constantly balancing their curiosity and laziness”… Actually, if you had to boil all of human life down to eight words, that would be a pretty good summary.

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.