Linklist: June 13, 2021

  • "AI promised to revolutionize radiology but so far it's failing" – "Nearly twenty years ago some colleagues and I came up with an improved analysis of serial dilution assays. The default software on these lab machines was using various seat-of-the-pants statistical methods that were really inefficient, averaging data inappropriately and declaring observations “below detection limit” when they were actually carrying useful information. We took the same statistical model that was used in that software and just fit it better. It wasn’t super-hard but there were various subtle twists, and we published our method in the journal Biometrics. I thought this would revolutionize dilution assays. Well, no. In the 17 years since that paper has appeared, it’s been cited only 61 times. And the assay machines still use some version of the same old crappy software. Why? It’s simple. We haven’t provided a clean alternative. It’s not enough to have a published paper showing how to fit the model. You need to program it in, and you need the program to handle all the bad things that might happen to the data, and we haven’t done that. Way back when we got an NIH grant to implement our model, but in the meantime things changed at the lab and we didn’t have access to a stream of data to try out ideas, and everything was a bit harder to implement than we thought, and we got tangled up in some issues with the raw data, and … well, we’ve returned to the problem recently so maybe we’ll make some progress, but the point is that it’s hard to come up with a usable replacement, even in a problem as clean and clearly defined as a numerical laboratory assay."

  • What makes quantum computing so hard to explain? – "Let’s start with quantum mechanics. (What could be deeper?) The concept of superposition is infamously hard to render in everyday words. So, not surprisingly, many writers opt for an easy way out: They say that superposition means “both at once,” so that a quantum bit, or qubit, is just a bit that can be “both 0 and 1 at the same time,” while a classical bit can be only one or the other. They go on to say that a quantum computer would achieve its speed by using qubits to try all possible solutions in superposition — that is, at the same time, or in parallel. This is what I’ve come to think of as the fundamental misstep of quantum computing popularization, the one that leads to all the rest. From here it’s just a short hop to quantum computers quickly solving something like the traveling salesperson problem by trying all possible answers at once — something almost all experts believe they won’t be able to do. The thing is, for a computer to be useful, at some point you need to look at it and read an output. But if you look at an equal superposition of all possible answers, the rules of quantum mechanics say you’ll just see and read a random answer. And if that’s all you wanted, you could’ve picked one yourself."

  • The double exploitation of deepfake porn – "Deepfakes, she says, are created to humiliate a person, but “the bodies they steal also belong to someone. They belong to a human being.” Sex workers produce these scenes for profit, and being compensated is how they survive. Whether it’s filmed under contract or created DIY-style, like a cam show, porn that is altered and shared without the consent of the performers is an affront materially as well as morally. Deepfakes can be difficult to defeat from a defamation angle, so perhaps a more effective remedy would be to take porn seriously as a part of the digital economy and crack down on deepfaking as copyright infringement. Like musicians, filmmakers, and writers, porn performers have rights to their creative output. Unlike other media industries, however, porn is the target of a stigma that makes it difficult to fight for better treatment. “Our culture has a fundamental disdain for anyone who makes sex public and explicit,” says Werhun. As a result, few are willing to stand up for the intellectual property of sex workers. And, as long as the porn industry is the subject of moral panic instead of measured discussion, says John Paul Stadler, a media scholar from North Carolina State University, “there will be a kind of wilful forgetting around the predominant use of deepfakes.” But this crisis is bigger than porn. If porn performers can have their content brazenly stolen and modified, anyone’s images are fair game. What the porn industry now faces could be an indicator of what we can all expect from platforms in the coming years."

  • Escape from Little Island – "The commodification of public space is a final insult to working residents of American cities, so many of which are racing to refashion themselves as gated communities for the ultrarich. These post-High Line parks also represent a failure of imagination in those we’ve entrusted with stewarding our public space. City planning, in the end, is about power over the future, as urban geographer Samuel Stein argues in Capital City: Gentrification and the Real Estate State. “Planning is the way we shape space over time,” Stein writes. The ruling class will happily shape the spaces of our future if we let them. But it’s possible to imagine otherwise. “Communities and movements,” he writes, “plan strategies for survival and resistance, and produce ‘insurgent’ plans that chart the way from deprivation to freedom.” It’s only in the context of our radically diminished expectations for existing civic infrastructure that vanity projects like Little Island can look like public gifts at all. Breaking with the false freedom that privatized city planning offers is not just about rejecting Little Island, and the many parks that will surely float behind it, as useless distractions. It will mean defending our real common spaces from disinvestment, neglect, and violent regulation by the neoliberal state."

  • How fighter jets lock on (and how the targets know) – "And what about missiles? Again, a radar lock is not required. For heat-seeking missiles, a radar lock is only used to train the seeker head onto the target. Without a radar lock, the seeker head scans the sky looking for "bright" (hot) objects, and when it finds one, it plays a distinctive whining tone to the pilot. The pilot does not need radar in this case, he just needs to maneuver his aircraft until he has "good tone," and then fire the missile. The radar only makes this process faster. Now, radar-guided missiles come in two varieties: passive and active. Passive radar missiles do require a radar lock, because these missiles use the aircraft's reflected radar energy to track the target. Active radar missiles however have their own onboard radar, which locks and tracks a target. But this radar is on a one-way trip, so it's considerably less expensive (and less powerful) than the aircraft's radar. So, these missiles normally get some guidance help from the launching aircraft until they fly close enough to the target where they can turn on their own radar and "go active." (This allows the launching aircraft to turn away and defend itself.) It is possible to fire an active radar missile with no radar lock (so-called "maddog"); in this case, the missile will fly until it's nearly out of fuel, and then it will turn on its radar and pursue the first target it sees. This is not a recommended strategy if there are friendly aircraft in close proximity to the enemy."

  • Burnout from an organizational perspective – "The term “burnout” first came into use in the early 1970s in the context of air traffic control, after an increase in human error-precipitated collisions was linked to frustrations with increased traffic, poor human-machine interfaces, and the general monotony of the work. Described by the WHO as “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” burnout is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.” But just as the early research on burnout showed it to be a fundamentally systemic problem—since the air traffic controllers being studied were extremely well-trained in coping with stress (many were military veterans)—more recent researchers also describe the causes of burnout as collective, and impossible for an individual to fix without a systems perspective. Factors like overwork or insufficient resources play a role in burnout, but according to Christina Maslach, of University of California, Berkeley, and Michael Leiter, at Saint Mary’s University, it’s at least as important to focus on fairness, transparency, and purpose in the workplace. Comparing workers to cucumbers in vinegar, Maslach said: “We should be trying to identify and analyze the critical components of ‘bad’ situations in which many good people function. Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they had been submerged.”"

  • A popular household fern may be the first known eusocial plant – "Reproductive division of labor—typically a reproductive queen and nonreproductive workers and soldiers—is one classic criterion for eusociality. DNA analysis of the 10 fern colonies confirmed that the majority contained genetically identical individuals, though two nests held more than one genotype. Eusociality typically requires two other conditions. One is overlapping generations, meaning one generation co-occurs with the next. The other is cooperative brood care, meaning collectively feeding and supporting offspring through division of labor. It’s unclear if those conditions were satisfied in the case of the ferns, says evolutionary biologist Sandra Rehan, at York University in Toronto Canada. There was no generational data in this study, she notes. And since the ferns spread asexually on shared roots, they don’t actually exhibit an active system of resource acquisition typical of brood care. But Uli Ernst, a behavioral ecologist at the the Apicultural State Institute at the University of Hohenheim, Germany, adds that since older and younger ferns (their clones) live together sharing water and nutrients, one could technically call these overlapping generations and brood care. One key question is what defines an individual fern. If a colony can begin with a small plume of strap fronds sticking up from a few nest fronds and then spread asexually on the same roots, perhaps it is a single plant, Rehan says. Strawberries, too, spread on stolons, and a whole field can represent a summer’s growth of one plant. The difference, Burns says, is that the whole strawberry patch looks the same."

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