RECOMMENDED READING/LISTENING: “Balloon Season” by Thomas Ha @PseudoPod_org

This is a “frog boil” story, and may in fact be the perfect frog boil story.  If you’re woke-ish, then it is pretty clearly a climate change story. But if you’re on the political right, it may actually seem to much more obviously be an immigration story. It could be a cautionary tale about the dangers of group think (although its up to the reader to determine of its more about anti-mask group think, QAnon group think, CRT group think) or privilege or income disparity. 

However you read it, the message is the same: It’s a warning against repeating the same old prayer that humans have repeated prior to disaster for Millenia:

I guess it’s happening, but let it happen in some other neighborhood in some other town far away, above someone else’s roof and out of my sight.

Anywhere but here. 

Anywhere else.

Also, absolutely terrific monster-of-the-week. So worth your ears and eyes: PseudoPod 819: “Balloon Season” by by Thomas Ha

An Unconsciously Biased Mind Will Produce an Unconsciously Biased Machine🤖

Yet another example of how absurdly easy it is to manipulate artificial intelligence—or even just accidentally make them into terrible bigots (and slightly above average antisemites). 

From University of Cambridge’s Ross Anderson (via security guru Bruce Schneier, “Manipulating Machine-Learning Systems through the Order of the Training Data”):

Most deep neural networks are trained by stochastic gradient descent. Now “stochastic” is a fancy Greek word for “random”; it means that the training data are fed into the model in random order.

So what happens if the bad guys can cause the order to be not random? You guessed it – all bets are off. Suppose for example a company or a country wanted to have a credit-scoring system that’s secretly sexist, but still be able to pretend that its training was actually fair. Well, they could assemble a set of financial data that was representative of the whole population, but start the model’s training on ten rich men and ten poor women drawn from that set – then let initialisation bias do the rest of the work.

Anderson concludes “It’s time for the machine-learning community to carefully examine their assumptions about randomness.”

I think that’s tangent to the real lesson, which is this:

All machines (including AIs) are created things, and created things bear the biases of their creators in unexpected, but ironclad ways: early color film was shite at photographing people of color simply because the folks who created the color film were all White and unintentionally selected techniques and chemical processes that worked better for their own paler skin tones than they did for darker ones. Similarly, male engineers built crash-test dummies that were roughly their own size and weight—and thus created “safety” features that killed women and children.

I Guess I Know What Ukraine is Getting for Xrismanukamas!🎄🎅🏿🕎

“This rugged, sustainable platform will operate in permissive environments and austere conditions around the world to safeguard our Special Operations Forces on the ground,” USSOCOM Commander Gen. Richard Clarke said in an emailed statement.

Not for nothing, but “permissive environments” sure as heck sounds like Ukraine.

Just for context, I’m a lifelong Michigander (incidentally descended from Jews who fled Ukraine back in the 1920s). Cropdusters are still fairly common here in Michigan (and the terrain, I’m told, is quite Ukraine-ish).

My wife grew up in blueberry country, and there are still plenty of fields around her folks’ place, and folks spray them from cropdusters.  It is absurd and terrifying how nimble these planes are. Average Joe flyers regularly bring them in below the tree line to dust a field, and then pop back out to dive into the adjacent field. In other words, they can come in over the horizon too low to detect–likely too low to see–and be on top of you before you can bring a turret around.

Given the performance we saw of Russian tanks early in the war in Ukraine, planes like these would fucking mow them down like a goddamned scythe.

“At what point shall we expect the approach of danger?”

All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth …, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years. At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer. If it ever reach us it must spring up amongst us; it cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen we must live through all time or die by suicide.

Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, January 27, 1838

I LOVE this web comic! 👨🏾‍🦲

Your Black Friend by Ben Passmore

This is a situation where I want to grab frame or two to put here, to entice you to click through and read the whole thing. But at the same time, I don’t wanna grab a full frame, b/c every frame of it—and the way the entire thing locks together—is So. Damn. Perfect, and such a perfect presentation of the thing it’s trying to talk about.

I love it. There’s nothing left to say. It’s 100% perfect for me. It is MAUS for this moment.

Brothers and Sisters, I 100% Feel You

Yep, it’s a trap.

This is how the AIs get us: they set us up on serial petty theft charges, ruin our credit records with fines and court fees and legal bills, then get us disenfranchised as parole-violating felons. Pretty soon, the only jobs we can get are dusting off their motherboards for minimum wage or working the spice mines of Chiron Beta Prime. 🤖🇺🇸🔥

Is this Presumably Bot-Designed Product Awesome, or in Remarkably Poor Taste?

More on this specific painting here, and a bit about famed Russian (anti) war artist Vasily Vereshchagin. Other works by Vereshchagin suitable for throw pillows:

Given the current state of Russian nuclear drills and military exercises on the Ukraine border, I imagine that all of this might feel a bit more painfully topically when those post goes live in a day or two.

FLASHBACK FRIDAY: “The problem isn’t the stupid joke, but the very real assaults the jokes conceal.”

[I first wrote about this kinda rapey application of Steve Shaw’s “Psychokinetic Touches” routine back in 2017, and periodically revisit the post to expand it, fix broken links, replace disappeared videos, and so on. I’ve since seen all sorts of magicians—including David Blaine—lean pretty heavily on PK Touches, sometimes just doing the routine, but more often building on that foundation. It’s a great routine!]

At first blush, the magic trick in this video seems like nothing more than a mildly sexist—but still basically harmless—”invisible touches” routine:

Magician has a volunteer stand with her eyes closed as she pays super-duper sensitive attention to any physical contact she might perceive.  He then steps well away—way, way too far to have any direct or indirect contact (e.g., he couldn’t possibly be creating a draft, blowing on her, tickling her with threads, etc.).  As witnesses watch (confirming that Magician never makes contact with the subject), he is able to make her believe she’s been touched (in this case, that her boobs have been squeezed)—simply by the power of his psychical abilities!

Tada! MAGIC!

(Here’s another vid of the same dude.  Note that he puts in our heads the notion of an unambiguous boob squeeze, but that his volunteers consistently describe a tap high on the chest.  That gap—between his implication that he’s honking their boobs contrasted to the women’s indication that he is lightly tapping of a light tap near the clavicle—is the tell.)

Yes, this dude is a creep, and his impinging on women’s time and space and totally leveraging huge cultural forces that oblige them to smile through bullshit like this.

But it’s still basically harmless, right?  I mean, he isn’t actually touching their boobs while they are defenseless and non-consenting, right?  It’s just a trick.

Accept for the thing is, he is for real and with his actual physical flesh-and-blood hands, touching these women’s bodies without their prior consent, and only getting away with it because he’s manipulating the situation owing to an information (and thus power) imbalance.  And, in a move that’s both cheap from a magic performance perspective and indicative of a guilty conscious on the part of an assailant, he mostly cuts from the video the part where he does the touching.

Because he is indeed a fucking creep of the first degree.

“Psychokinetic Touches” Background

Back in the mid-1990s a guy named Steve Shaw was selling an effect called “Psychokinetic Touches.”  Shaw himself is a really, really interesting guy (as is the pre-Internet—and even current—market in cheaply printed pro-grade performance techniques like these).  Shaw designed Penn & Teller’s famous bullet catch, although I myself first got wind of him in the 1980s, when I was a kid and he was a teen working with James Randi to fool some ESP researchers; Shaw caught my imagination then because of how straightforward and cunning his techniques were.

None of that is really germane, accept for the fact that if you maybe spend some time googling “Steve Shaw” and “Psychokinetic Touches”, you’ll dig up a blurry PDF of the old comb-bound booklet explaining his technique (which is totally indicative of the straightforward cunning of Shaw’s work; dude is a genius).  If you dig up Shaw’s “PK Touches,” you’ll note that in the introduction to that work Shaw explains his inspiration: a routine from the early 1900s that is the totally obvious inspiration for this YouTube creeper’s stunt.

I.e., not only is French hat dude a creepy perv, but he’s also an unoriginal creepy perv.  *sighs*

(I got acquainted with Shaw’s PK Touches after seeing Peter Boie work it into his bit on Penn & Teller’s Fool Us, season 2, episode 2 [Teller also performs his excellent Red Ball routine in this episode; worth the watch]. Boie basically does 100% textbook Shaw for P&T, for an overall better effect and performance.)

At any rate, here’s an overview of Shaw’s “Psychokinetic Touches” routine:

Effect

The performer selects a volunteer from the audience, and explains that blah-blah psychic blah-blah ghosts blah-blah From Beyond—and for that reason, he is able to physically touch a receptive individual with nothing more than his mind.  He then makes some gestures to “clear the volunteer’s aura” (or whatever) and steps far away.  Now, standing much too far away to conceivably physical reach the volunteer, and in full view of an audience (who can be surrounding the pair on all sides), the performer makes his cooky touch-touch gestures—and low and behold!, the astonished volunteer can confirm that she has been touched(!!!)

Technique

I won’t spoil the whole thing, but SPOILER ALERT!!! [1]: Dude is not a psychic or ghost wrangler or whatever. 

Here’s the basic schtick:  The performer gives his little spiel, then has the volunteer close her eyes.  At this stage he explains a few more things—reminding her to be “psychically receptive” and super attentive to even the lightest contact.  He shuts up, does his little “aura cleansing,” and steps away to do his mambo-jahambo magical passes and psychic touching, singling out certain parts of the body (the right shoulder, the left elbow—whatever).  N.B.  Everything he’s done since advising her to be super attentive and receptive has happened in absolute silence.  The next time he speaks is to ask “Have you felt any contact?”  He then has her indicate where that contact was on her body.  Lo and behold, she reports being touched in all the right places.  OMFG!  How did he do it?!  And here comes the spoiler:

HE TOUCHED HER DURING THE “AURA CLEANING.”

From the audience’s perspective the “aura cleaning” isn’t part of the trick yet, so they are not being super diligent; he has an easy pass to brush her gently.  But remember, he’s fallen silent and the volunteer’s eyes are closed: She has no frame of reference for what’s going on, and thus from her perspective everything from when he stops talking on is part of the trick.  Her perceptions are temporally out-of-synch with the audiences’, and they have no easy way to rectify that, even after the fact.

Here is a more benign version of PK Touches, again performed by Peter Boie, but with a slightly disadvantageous (to him) camera angle. Now the tell is more obvious. Watch carefully at 0:49 and 0:52: when the performer waves his hands around to clear the aura he surreptitiously uses his right hand to tap the back of her left shoulder.  This is largely obscured owing to how he’s positioned the volunteer relative to the audience—blocking Shaw suggests in his PK Touches.  The waving-arms misdirect is also straight out of Shaw’s PK Touch.

(Wondering how Boie pulls off the second PK touch, where the male volunteer feels the ghostly strokes on his nose? You can slow that video down to 1/4 speed on YouTube, and you’ll clearly see that Boie never touches the dude’s nose with his hand. It’s terrific! Now put the video in slow-mo and watch the performers hands starting at around 1:44, before he approaches the volunteer. When he parts his hands and spreads them far apart, he’s extended a loop of thread between them. Now watch as he clearly strokes the thread down the man’s nose during the “aura cleansing.” As I recall, this thread gaff is not part of Shaw’s original PK Touches. I’ve read somewhere of something similar done to simulate a touch running down a volunteer’s arm, but I really like it used here in this way. Excellent misdirection to create a similar effect—the psychic touch transfer—in two totally different ways, one of which would seem to eliminate the obvious explanation for the other. Bravo!)

Once you know what to look for, it’s pretty easy to spot the Creep-o-Perv Magician in the original embedded video moving into the “magic passes”(/secret boobie poke) portion of his routine (goto around the 0:34 mark in the video embedded above, when he squares up the girl’s shoulders).

Bad Touches and Bad Jokes

I don’t know what annoys me more:  A skeevy dude using a decades-old store-bought mentalism routine to non-consensually poke girls’ in the bust, or the fact that he has so little respect for his craft that he resorts to cheap “camera tricks” to pull it off cleanly.

Naw, I take it back:  What annoys me most is using a third-rate performance of a first-rate effect to make a jokey pantomime of sexual assault in order to cover up the actual sexual assault you just perpetrated, ’cause it so clearly gets to the heart of what enrages me about the “Lighten up; it’s just a joke!” attitude toward minimizing the crazy-making reality of microagressions

The problem isn’t the stupid joke, but the very real assaults the jokes conceal.

[1] Penn Jillette has this aphorism in one of his books, to the effect of: There is an inverse relationship to how impressive an effect is and how fun knowing the secret is.  For example, effects that rely on an Elmsley count or Three-of-Clubs Card Force are sorta neat, and if someone shows you how it really works you think “Oh, that’s actually pretty clever.”  Meanwhile, when I was a kid David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear on live TV, broadcast nationwide.  That effect was fucking incredible.  I was 6 at the time, and my mind was fucking blown.  My folks’ minds were blown.  Everyone’s minds’ were blown.  Amazing.  The secret to that trick is so fantastically lame—even though it is sort of impressive, simply as a construction project—that you feel cheated knowing it.  (NPR’s This American Life has done a show about magic tricks, devoting about half the episode to this specific Copperfield trick, and the other half to Teller’s Red Ball—pretty much perfectly illustrating the full continuum of magic from disappointingly crass bullshit to absolute loveliness.)

Some part of me objects to this armed robot dog because it doesn’t seem “sporting” … 🤖

[ARTICLE: Robot Dogs Now Have Assault Rifles Mounted On Their Backs]

… and then I reflect on this SNL skit about the evil scientist contest, and realize I’m being a little twee. Folks don’t build IEDs because they are fair. They don’t fire mortar’s from the alley next to a hospital, or operate out of apartment blocks full of civilians because they “have no other choice.”

War is killing, not “defense” or “peacekeeping.” It is about the maximization of dead humans who aren’t you while minimizing the dead ones who are you. A robot dog with a gun obviously leads to the best dead not-yous per dead-you ratio.

If that is shitty, it’s because war and violence are shitty, not because technology is shitty or imperialist aggressors aren’t playing fair or whatever.

All war is low-key genocide. If you don’t like that, then you better start agitating against war, not just bitching about new robots. The robots are not the problem.

History is a Reminder that We Do Not Live in Uniquely Stupid or Chaotic Times

This comic is from 1930 and about the smallpox vaccine, but it is also 100% from this past year and about Right Now. (The second guy is labelled “Faddist,” which Snopes explains is “a largely archaic word that describes people who turn to alternative or niche health trends, especially diets, in a way that neglects or contradicts mainstream scientific advice.”  i.e., anyone taking horse dewormer or insisting on hydroxychloroquine while rejecting the vaccine.)