Sunday, September 24, 2023

Will the real Naomi please stand up?

I have read many of Naomi Klein's books over the years, from No Logo to The Shock Doctrine to This Changes Everything. She is a Canadian left-wing icon, with impeccable feminist, environmental and anti-capitalist credentials. 

I have also read many of Naomi Wolf's books - The Beauty Myth, Fire With Fire, Promiscuities - although much longer ago. As a respected and outspoken American third-wave feminist icon, her credentials too seemed impeccable.

But then Naomi Klein recently published Doppelganger (which, full disclosure, I have NOT yet read), and I find that Naomi Klein is apparently not the Naomi we once thought, but a rabid conspiracy theorist, a persona non grata for whom Ms. Klein is embarrassed to be mistaken, and a favoured guest on Steve Bannon's podcasts. She has been kicked off several social media sites, including Twitter, for her espousal of conspiracy theories about vaccines, geoengineering and other topics, and had a book "unpublished" due to grave errors.

How does such a trajectory occur? Was the old Naomi Wolf actually as right-on and reliable as we once thought? Interestingly, one ex-Wolf proponent has recently re-read The Beauty Myth and found it sorely wanting by today's feminist standards. Even in her prime, Wolf was a product of Reagan-era neoliberalism, and a new reading of even her older books shows that they have not aged well, it is argued. Academic papers on the book have found that as much as two-thirds of the statistics Wolf makes use of are spurious or poorly-interpreted. 

I'm sure I will get around to reading Doppelganger eventually. Surely, Naomi Klein is still safe to read?

Saturday, September 16, 2023

The battle of the cognitively-impaired

Priceless. In a speech at a Washington DC "Pray Vote Summit" (I kid you not!), gaffe-prone 77-year old Donald Trump called out not-quite-as-gaffe-prone 80-year old Joe Biden by calling him "cognitively-impaired" and saying that "we would be in World War II very quickly if we're going to be relying on this man".

Oops. Well, one of those wars anyway.

How AI becomes more human

There's a fascinating article in today's Globe and Mail Report On Business about the whole industry that has grown up around teaching artificial intelligence (AI) how to be more human.

I knew that it happened, of course. Generative AI learns independently from the internet to some extent, but humans wrote the internet (for the most part), and AI applications and "large language models" (LLMs) like OpenAI's ChatGPI and Google's DeepMind pride themselves on appearing as human as humanly possible. So, some direct teaching by real people is essential (although that is also where much of the concern about AI learning bad habits, racist attitudes, etc, comes from).

But I had never thought about how that process of teaching and fine-tuning actually worked. It turns out that there are numerous AI companies around the world (with names like Surge AI, Scale AI, Remotasks, Cohere and Data Annotation Tech) who employ many thousands of people on a piecemeal basis to check on AI output and to provide human inputs that AI can learn from. 

Known as "reinforcement learning from human feedback" or RLHF, this work is painstaking, ongoing and essential to AI development. It is particularly important in the battle to reduce bias in AI responses, as well as to improve accuracy, although the people who provide AI with feedback can of course bring their own biases, particularly on matters of opinion or where there is no single definitive answer. In that case, the "majority wins", potentially disadvantaging under-represented groups.

Left to its own devices, AI can come to some alarming and apparently illogical conclusions. One example quoted concerns an AI algorithm that was developed in 2017 to identify skin lesions and cancers from photographs, which found it easier to identify lesions when there was a ruler in the photo to scale it, but then inadvertently concluded that all rulers were dangerous and malignant. As we have all read, chatbots like ChatGPT, sophisticated as they are, can still give harmful information and make appalling factual errors. Which is why there is an ongoing need for human checkers.

These "raters", as they are often called, are given tasks like comparing two paragraphs of AI-generated text for the most human-sounding one, labelling pictures or video clips with the names of body parts, choosing the best definition of a word from a selection, or drawing boxes around discrete parts of a picture, etc. Some of these tasks may take hours or even days to perform, some may take literally seconds, and raters may be flagged for poor performance if they take too long over a particular task (or too little time), and they may have their pay docked or even have their contracts terminated if they do not "perform" (i.e. follow the more-or-less arbitrary rules) adequately.

Tasks tend to come in piecemeal, and at sporadic and unpredictable times, and raters may spend hours or even days just waiting for tasks to come in (and then be swamped for a while). It is the ultimate in work-from-home gig economy employment, and pay rates may be well below minimum wage equivalents, with of course no employment benefits, pensions, etc. Raters in developing countries may see absolutely pitiful payments. For small, quick tasks, pay may be allotted in literally fractions of a penny per task. Some tasks may be less well-defined than others, and support and problem resolution for raters may be spotty at best. On-the-job training may be non-existent.

There are some openings for more specialized expert raters, e.g. experts in law, biology, technology, etc, and they can expect better pay but just as  hand-to-mouth random working times and conditions. There are also opportunites for native speakers of certain languages, whether it be Polish, Bulgarian, Bangla, etc. Curiously, there seems to be little vetting or follow-up on how proficient a language speaker is or whether a purported expert is actually qualified in any way.

The article provided an eye-opening and perhaps chastening glimpse into a whole AI ecosystem I knew nothing about. Whether it will make AI more accurate, more equitable, more compassionate, more HUMAN? Well, that remains to be seen.

Friday, September 15, 2023

Florida's orange crop going the way of the dinosaurs (and bananas)

I had no idea, but apparently Florida's orange crop has been decimated in recent years. The culprit? A bacteria with the unlikely name of huanglongbing (HLB), more commonly known as "citrus greening". 

As the name maybe suggests, the bacterial disease has been known in China for nearly a hundred years, but it has only arrived in Florida since 2005. It has also been seen in Texas and California, as well as in some other citrus-producing countries like Brazil, although not quite as disastrously as in Florida. Florida's orange crop is expected to total about 16 million 90-lb boxes this year, compared to 240 million in 2004, a drop of about 93% by my calculations.

The disease is spread by a tiny bug called the Asian citrus psyllid, and there seems to be little that can be done about it (pesticides seem to kill more good bacteria than bad). The bacteria from the bug's saliva chokes the flow of sugar and minerals in citrus trees, causing their fruit to not ripen properly, and ultimately killing the trees in 5-20 years (usually 8-10 years), depending on the maturity of the trees, which would normally live for around 50 years.

This, together with increasingly frequent and destructive hurricanes, a higher likelihood of damaging frosts, and high land prices in Florida, have led many citrus farmers to abandon their citrus farms and sell up. The inventory of citrus groves in the state is less than half what it was 25 years ago, and the value of the orange crop just a third of its value a decade ago. It is the major industry and top employer in large swaths of central Florida.

So, enjoy your cheap orange juice while you can. It may not be around for much longer (along with bananas!)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Are we still seeing anti-vax diatribes? (oh yes, X!)

I can't believe we're still doing this after all these years: dispelling and rebutting myths about vaccines by the right wing. 

As an updated, more targeted vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, Anthony Fauci, the ex-White House chief medical advisor and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, came out of retirement for an interview, and has been willfully misinterpreted and/or misunderstood all over again, presumably by the same bunch of ill-informed and combative yahoos who used to do it while he was gainfully employed.

Carefully cherry-picking and editing their quotes, some people picked up on Fauci saying, "There's a very, very, very low risk, particularly in young men, of getting a myocarditis". (Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle caused by some infections. It is usually mild and self-resolves, but in a few isolated cases it can be fatal.)

Cue outrage and mass hysteria in some social media circles, particularly on Elon Musk-owned X (Twitter), which has recently become the default hang-out of the hard right. "Fauci now admits the vaccine causes myocarditis" (he has been telling that to anyone who would listen for over 2 years). "Prison now!!!" (yes, 3 exclamation points!!!) "This guy should be on trial for crimes against humanity" (I can't even think of a suitable response to that).

Did these people not even bother to listen to, or read, the very next line in Fauci's interview? "But if you look at the risk of myocarditis from COVID itself, it is greater than the risk of the vaccine". Because, as Fauci and others also pointed out in 2021, when this issue first raised its head: 1) the risk of contracting myocarditis from a vaccine (or any other source) is very, very small; 2) it is usually a very mild condition, and most people recover with no lasting damage; and 3) the risk of contracting myocarditis is much greater from a COVID infection than it is from a vaccine shot (so COVID vaccines are actually reducing the incidence of myocarditis in the general population).

I imagine, Fauci will probably creep back into the privacy of his well-earned retirement after this.

Some of the social media posters we are talking about here felt it incumbent on themselves to point out that their posts would have been banned on the old Twitter, while the new, permissive X allows such misleading and dangerous garbage to see the light of day. Quite. QED.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

How is Sweden the poster child for COVID policy?

As summer winds down and COVID-19 ramps up again, it's interesting that Sweden is being held up by the anti-lockdown crowd here in Canada as the poster child for how NOT to lock down. 

Maybe you remember, back in the na├»ve days of 2020, everyone else was locking down hard (or not so hard, depending on the country). But Sweden - sensible, judicious, progressive Sweden - was doggedly bucking the trend, and doing its best to pretend that nothing was happening (I wrote about it here). 

Actually, to say that Sweden had no lockdown is a big exaggeration. It had social distancing measures, limits on gatherings, visits to nursing homes were banned, working from home was strongly encouraged, etc. But most measures were suggested rather than imposed, reliant on Sweden's much-vaunted public spirit and common sense, and many businesses did voluntarily close down, although that aspect was under-reported at the time.

Anyway, as the months dragged on, it turned out to be a poor decision, as Sweden registered a much higher death rate than neighbouring countries, and one of the highest per capita COVID death rates in the world. Even Sweden's top doctor, once the most ardent advocate of the laissez faire policy, admitted that the policy had probably led to many more COVID than necessary, and was overall a mistake. Certainly, even today, the country admits that it failed to protect its elderly.

Fast-forward to September 2023, after the dust has well and truly settled, and the right-wing in Canada is arguing that there should be no lockdowns (actually none has been suggested), and Exhibit One for their argument is that Sweden's no lockdown policy - exaggerated, as I have explained - led to the lowest rate of excess mortality in Europe (4.4% excess deaths, compared to Europe's 11.1% and Canada's 7.6%, says this article), and far fewer deaths "no matter how you measure it".

Say, what? How does that gel with previous reports that Sweden fared much worse than other countries. Well, partly it is due to the use of excess deaths statistics rather than deaths directly from COVID. Excess deaths are a measure of how many more people die each month (or year) from all causes compared to the "normal". 

It attempts to cast blame on events like COVID-19 for deaths of all kinds, even long after the main waves are long passed. It is supposed to take into account the impact of the pandemic on things like delayed medical care, the effects of isolation, etc. Is this a "better" measure of the impact of a disease, and of a country's performance in many dealing with it? Maybe, maybe not.

At any rate, as the National Post article mentioned above crows, this measure often puts Sweden in a very good light, better even than the likes of Australia and New Zealand, which had strong lockdowns and very, very few COVID deaths.

But measuring excess deaths is by no means easy (there is no internationally-agreed methodology, and it involves all sorts of assumptions). A detailed report in the Spectator, which the National Post article largely relies on, makes this point very well. OECD statistics, for example, do show Sweden lower than most other developed countries cumulatively (i.e. after 3 years), but much higher than many others back in 2020. Also, excess deaths per 100,000 population shows Sweden best in class using some methodologies, but much worse than New Zealand, Australia, Denmark and even Canada when using Data from Germany's Max Planck Institute. So, "no matter how you measure it"? Not quite. 

I understand the desire to look at cumulative deaths as (maybe) giving a better long-term impression of how a country did. But, using the well-regarded Our World In Data stats for cumulative deaths from COVID, reasonably considered the gold standard for statistics of this sort, Sweden appears middle-of-the-pack, better than the UK and US, but significantly worse than Finland, Denmark, Norway, Australia and Canada

Our World In Data's cumulative excess deaths stats show a pretty similar picture. There is Sweden, better than the UK and US, worse than Denmark, and pretty much exactly the same as Australia, Norway, France, Germany, Finland and Canada. Go figure.

So, "no matter how you measure it"? Not quite. 

And anyway, to assume that Canadians, without government mandates, would be as sensible and public-spirited as Swedes is a huge stretch. Sweden is a very special place in that respect. Voluntary measures might fly in Sweden, maybe even in some parts of Canada. But large swathes of Western and Central Canada, for example, would have no intentions of doing the right thing, not if it interfered with their God-given right to do whatever the hell they want.

Saturday, September 09, 2023

Enbridge out of step with the world

Enbridge is a good example of much that ails this country. When I see the smug smile of new CEO Greg Ebel, as in a recent article in the Globe and Mail, and read his words, I get a slightly-sick, slightly-angry, slightly-depressed feeling in my stomach. (Can stomachs be angry or depressed? I think mine is.)

Enbridge has never been a great climate change champion - its core business is pumping oil through pipelines! - but Ebel is taking the company further to the dark side. One of his early moves was to buy up three (large) US natural gas utilities for US$9.4 billion. Yes, they have that much in petty cash.

Ebel is a big proponent of natural gas. He calls it "sustainable and affordable energy", and says it will play a crucial role in the world's low-carbon future. He wants to make Enbridge into a "three -legged stool" (a weird metaphor) selling oil, natural gas and renewables, but very much in that order.

He thinks that Canada's Liberal government is off base with its opposition (as he sees it) to natural gas. "The Germans, Japanese and South Koreans came to Canada looking for more energy, and we've turned them away. What message does that send to our allies, trading partners and the developing world?" Well, actually, it sends the message that oil and gas is 20th century technology and we need to be looking to electricity and renewables to deal with the climate crisis. But that's not a message Ebel wants to hear.

Ebel talks a good game (in his own way), but he is also out of step with most of the business and investment community. His announcement of the purchase of the US gas utilities met with a solid silence, and Enbridge share price sank to a 2½-year low. Over the last 5 years, Enbridge shares have only risen a paltry 1.6%. Now, most of that was from before Ebel's tenure as CEO (although he was still Chair), but it seems like he is unwilling to read the writing on the wall. Just another dinosaur in Western Canada.

Vehicle obesity is now a thing (and it's a problem)

A recent(ish) article in The Atlantic and another in the Globe and Mail just this weekend look at an aspect of modern vehicle production that has proceeded under the radar for years, but which requires some discussion (and some action).

SUVs and trucks - and even to a lesser extent regular cars - have been getting bigger and fatter in North America, and the switch to electric-powered vehicles is set to make this trend even more marked. As with people, this kind of obesity carries with it a plethora of problems, from road and pedestrian safety to infrastructure degradation to excessive tire wear.

Light trucks in general are about a third heavier than they were 30 years ago. EV versions of these trucks are about a third again heavier than their gasoline equivalents. For example, the EV version of the GMC Hummer - always a special case, to be fair, and a caricature of the macho road warrior truck - weighs in at over 4 tonnes (4,100 kg), and the battery alone weighs more than a Honda Civic! But the more commonly-seen F-150 Lightning is almost 3 tonnes, a third more than the gasoline equivalent, and its battery weighs over 800 kg, the weight of ten big men. My own Kona Electric, a small SUV I guess, weighs in at 1,690 kg, apparently.

Unlike in Europe, SUVs and trucks make up the majority of new vehicles sold on this side of the Atlantic. Yes, there are still too many cars on the narrow streets on Europe's towns and cities, but they are at least smaller and lighter. And, while there are a lot of new EVs on those streets, there is also a bigger proportion of 2-, 3- and 4-wheeled e-bikes and scooters.

Also, many European countries are realizing the additional costs associated with bigger and heavier vehicles. Norway (of course) is considering a weight-based tax to steer buyers away from the heaviest EVs and other vehicles. France already has one. Where France and Norway goes, North America usually follows - decades later, and kicking and screaming. 

A 4-tonne EV makes no sense, environmentally or in any other respect, so a tax on heavyweight vehicles to subsidize small urban EVs and electric bikes would be a good step in the right direction.