Informative articles about:

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The Guardian is reporting that the “boogaloo” uprising which was threatened for today produced a comically small turnout of a few nuts dressed as soldiers surrounded by far more media and police. I wish these conspiracy theories and fantasy ideologies could be banished to be political fringe as befits their non-existent popularity, but much of the respectable political spectrum has been dabbling in shades of the same for so long that it becomes impossible to discern where paranoia blends into delusion and one’s political theory. I remain fearful for what Trump’s final days in office may bring and the immediate aftermath of the inauguration, but hopeful that American values and institutions will prove enduring and that the world will be reassured that those who perceive and value the common interests of humanity are empowered again.

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“Statement by President George W. Bush on Insurrection at the Capital

Laura and I are watching the scenes of mayhem unfolding in our Nation’s government in disbelief and dismay. It is a sickening and heartbreaking sight. This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic. I am appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election and by the lack of respect shown today for our institutions, our traditions, and our law enforcement. The violent assault on the Capital — and disruption of a Constitutionally-mandated meeting of Congress — was undertaken by people whose passions have been inflamed by falsehoods and false hopes. Insurrection could do grave damage to our Nation and reputation. In the United States of America, it is the fundamental responsibility of every patriotic citizen to support the rule of law. To those who are disappointed in the results of the election: Our country is more important than the politics of the moment. Let the officials elected by the people fulfill their duties and represent our voices in peace and safety. May God continue to bless the United States of America.”

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Some time ago I saw this instructive video on computer science and artificial intelligence:

This recent Vanity Fair article touches on some of the same questions, namely how you design a safety shutdown switch that the AI won’t trigger itself and won’t stop you from triggering. It quites Eliezer Yudkowsky:

“How do you encode the goal functions of an A.I. such that it has an Off switch and it wants there to be an Off switch and it won’t try to eliminate the Off switch and it will let you press the Off switch, but it won’t jump ahead and press the Off switch itself? … And if it self-modifies, will it self-modify in such a way as to keep the Off switch? We’re trying to work on that. It’s not easy.”

I certainly don’t have any answers, and in fact find it a bit surprising and counterintuitive that the problem is so hard.

The logic does fairly quickly become straightforward though. Imagine an AI designed to boil a tea kettle unless the emergency stop is pushed. If it is programmed to care more about starting the kettle than paying attention to the shutdown switch, then it will choose to boil water regardless of attempts at shutdown, or even to try to stop a person from using the switch. If it is programmed to value obeying the shutdown switch more then it becomes presented with the temptation to push the switch itself and thus achieve a higher value goal.

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The International Spy Museum hosted a great discussion with former FBI special agent Ali Soufan, author of two books about Al Qaeda:

It covers the post-2001 debate around torture for interrogation, questions of accountability in the use and disclosure of classified intelligence, and includes some interesting remarks about cooperation with international intelligence agencies, as well as relations and views between the CIA and the FBI.

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On an exercise walk tonight in the Bridle Path area I listened to Alie Ward’s recent podcast on happiness research: Awesomeology (GRATITUDE FOR LITTLE THINGS) with Neil Pasricha.

It reinforced how the smartphone and the media in general is “the slot machine in your pocket“, with intermittent variable rewards that habituate you into scrolling through dreck, depression, and unrealistic comparisons to your own life because the occasional joy or pleasant surprise sets us up like rats hoping for a food pellet, pressing the lever over and over, or the people who put more into slot machines than society spends on baseball and making movies.

I’m going to try a few new behaviours in response:

  • Not sleeping with my cell phone in the room
  • Putting my phone in an envelope at night, with some required actions before I can open it, like having a cup of coffee and a shower and going outside for five minutes
  • Putting all my social media passwords on a piece of paper, keeping them logged out by default, and only checking them periodically

One other note from the walk: I ankle around in Rosedale often, so I have seen a lot of ostentatious mansions, but nothing in Toronto yet like one house on Park Lane Circle which displays the aesthetic sensibilities of Saddam Hussein, behind such an ornate gold and black fence that I wondered whether it was the residence of the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario before I checked myself with the memory that neither the Governor General’s house in Ottawa nor Buckingham Palace is quite so ornamented.

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Doubtless for those of us who have been following the public health advice to avoid contact with others for nine months or so there have been many disappointments and frustrations. At the same time, perhaps we have each discovered a thing or two from pandemic living which we will stick with beyond. Some of mine:

1) Buff neck gaiters

A couple of months into the pandemic my Crow’s Nest barbershop hair cut had reached the point that whenever I moved my head it would be poking me in the eyes. Furthermore, with long hair any time I took a nap or wore a hat I would look unpresentable for any subsequent online meetings. I tried hair product, but it was a pain and easily mussed out of place. Bobby pins don’t grip my hair and just fall out within minutes.

Inspired by the ultra-light thru hiker and YouTuber Darwin, I ordered a Buff neck gaiter. It can be worn over the face as a mask in a pinch where you have nothing better, but mostly it’s an easy way to wrap up my hair in a way that keeps it out of my eyes and keeps me from having to have a shower to reset my hair before any time when someone will see me.

I have been wearing one almost continuously for months now: either their light weight synthetic option which I think feels nicer on the head and face or their light weight merino wool which I think feels a little rough and strange but which is definitely warmer.

During a recent 28 km walk at night I decided it was worth ordering a heavy weight merino wool Buff for January and February, but all the interesting patterns were sold out so I ordered a midweight merino and another synthetic as a backup or something to wear around my neck when the first one is on my head.

2) Taster’s Choice instant coffee

For the most part, my coffee regimen in the last few years has been dark Starbucks roasts made at home in a French press. Of course, that means buying bags of beans fairly often, dealing with coffee grounds (gross and annoying if you try to compost them), and cleaning the French press.

Recollecting that years and years ago I had found Taster’s Choice more palatable than other freeze-dried coffees, I bought some early in the pandemic. Now, I think it will be my permanent form of coffee. It’s glorious to go with no mess from a boiling kettle to a cup of coffee instantly, and I feel like in terms of taste and satisfaction it’s comparable to the elaborate bean sort.

3) Gaia GPS

The free version of this iOS app has done much to enhance my exercise walks in recent months. It allows you to easily record any track that you walk, laying down a collection of coloured lines over a street map of the city. This is helpful because it shows me instantly which directions and neighbourhoods I have already explored to excess and which are relatively fresh. In many areas, a glance lets me choose a route based on a set of streets which I haven’t walked down so far in the pandemic. In many cases it’s also helping me invent non-road routes between places I frequently visit, like using Bickford Park to walk north from College to Bloor rather than a street with traffic.

My favourite recent discovery is a fairly loop-shaped urban trail walk where you follow Nordheimer ravine northwest from Spadina, north of U of T campus, and then take the streets for the short connection to the start of the Beltline trail, which brings you back pretty close to where you start on the ravine trail.

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Tonight Lakehead unexpectedly became the latest Canadian university to commit to divestment from fossil fuels:

Lakehead University’s Board of Governors announces plan to divest from fossil fuel holdings

This follows Laval, Concordia and UBC, and Guelph.

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The concept of “net zero” has become a major mechanism for industries and politicians who are unwilling to move past the fossil fuel economy to pretend that somehow that will not be necessary, since some future technology or tree planting will cancel out the emissions.

I’ve written before about how you would need a carbon capture industry far greater than today’s oil industry to bury our current emissions, and this CO2 burial industry would not produce anything of value to sell, meaning it would need to be paid for in a way not envisioned in any of the net zero promises I have seen. Tree planting is perhaps even more hopeless, since temporary sequestration of CO2 in biomass is not comparable to the permanent addition of CO2 to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. When climate plans rely heavily on tree planting it’s a strong indication that they are intended for public relations purposes and do not have a sound scientific basis.

“Net zero” is also profoundly ambiguous about what kind of action needs to take place, since it suggests that we *can* persist indefinitely with fossil fuel use, just so long as some other people undertake compensatory activities to cancel it out. That’s not the right message or set of incentives to present to individuals and firms when we desperately need them to stop investing in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure.

Being clear that our intent is to abolish fossil fuels accomplishes several useful things. It reinforces how fossil fuel firms and infrastructure are poor long-term investments, making it all the clearer that Canada should not be allowing new bitumen pipelines or LNG facilities. It stresses how stabilizing the climate can only be achieved through the effective abandonment of fossil fuels, and in so doing elevates the importance of building up all other forms of energy.

Maintaining a climate comparable to what humanity has experienced for its entire history requires a true zero, the effective abandonment of fossil fuels as sources of energy. Talking about “net zero” is chiefly emerging as a way to sound visionary and ambitious, while actually retreating into the hope that somehow new developments will eliminate the need for a difficult choice. We shouldn’t trust business or political leaders who talk that way.

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I was heartened yesterday to see the CBC publishing an article about one of the scholars behind the case for divestment which was made successfully at Cambridge: Academic from Saskatoon plays key role in Cambridge University divesting from fossil fuels.

The report they link — Divestment: Advantages and Disadvantages for the University of Cambridge by Ellen Quigley, Emily Bugden, and Anthony Odgers — is particularly notable for its inclusion of a broad range of scholarly work on divestment from a range of fields.

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