Sunday, July 25, 2021

Last Call For If You Come At The Queen...

Republican House minority leader Kevin McCarthy is in way over his head, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi outsmarted him yet again. After McCarthy's tantrum over Pelosi denying Jim Jordan the chance to wreck the January 6th Select Committee and withdrawing all five Republican picks he had, Pelosi turned to Trump foe and pro-impeachment GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger to join.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced Sunday she has appointed GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger to the House select committee to investigate the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, bolstering the Republican presence on the panel after GOP leadership pulled its appointees last week. 
"Today, I am announcing the appointment of Republican Congressman Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran and Lieutenant Colonel in the Air National Guard, to serve on the Select Committee," Pelosi said in a statement. "He brings great patriotism to the Committee's mission: to find the facts and protect our Democracy." 
Kinzinger, a vocal critic of former President Donald Trump who was one of 10 House Republicans to vote for his second impeachment, is joining Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming as the only Republicans on the new select committee. 
"Let me be clear, I'm a Republican dedicated to conservative values, but I swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution—and while this is not the position I expected to be in or sought out, when duty calls, I will always answer," the Illinois Republican said in a statement Sunday. 
Kinzinger's appointment may bring additional legitimacy to one of the most consequential investigations ever conducted by Congress and will likely make it harder for Republicans to argue that it's a partisan endeavor -- although they quickly framed Pelosi's announcement that way. 
"The Speaker has structured this select committee to satisfy her political objectives," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement Sunday.
And with one move, Pelosi deftly disarmed not only her Republican detractors, but the media scolds who cried foul and screeched about Pelosi not wanting a real bipartisan committee. Of course, Pelosi has now appointed two Republicans, and I'm betting she's working behind the scenes to get more.
I still stand by my statement that there are no good Republicans left, but there are at least ones willing to do the goddamn job. 

I'll take it.

Un-Vaccination Nation, Con't

As delta variant COVID cases explode across red states like Florida, Texas and Missouri, and the Biden administration is letting FOX News and other disinformation outlets quietly know they will be sued into oblivion if they continue, suddenly Republicans are having those come to Jesus moments they should have has nine months ago about urging everyone who can to get the vaccine, while still vowing to ban health mandates that would prevent the spread of the virus.


Former White House press secretary and Republican Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced in an op-ed that she has been vaccinated against the coronavirus and urged others to do so.

"Like many of you, I have had a lot of misinformation thrown at me by politicians and the media during the pandemic. And, like many of you, I spent a lot of time sorting through it all, trying to make the best decision I could for myself and my family," Sanders wrote in the entry published over the weekend in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. "Based on the advice of my doctor, I determined that the benefits of getting vaccinated outweighed any potential risks."

The fact that former President Trump and his family had been vaccinated, Sanders said, helped her make her decision.

"If getting vaccinated was safe enough for them, I felt it was safe enough for me," she wrote.

Sanders has received Trump's endorsement in the Republican primary in Arkansas and is looking to replace outgoing Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), who cannot run again due to term limits.

Arkansas is one of several states in the Southeast and Midwest with lower-than-average vaccination rates, as the delta variant of the coronavirus sweeps through the nation.

"I understand that the decision to be vaccinated is deeply personal and not an easy one to make," Sanders wrote in her op-ed. "As the number of covid cases and hospitalizations once again rise exponentially in Arkansas, information is emerging that I hope people will consider."

She concluded her entry with advice for Arkansans still debating the merits of being vaccinated: "Pray about it, discuss it with your family and your doctor. Filter out the noise and fear-mongering and condescension, and make the best, most informed decision you can that helps your family, community, and our great state be its very best."
Pretending that the choice to get the vaccine is "deeply personal" is actual condescension, enabling bad actors to continue while jettisoning any semblance of responsibility, and all this after Huckabee Sanders gleefully vowed to never allow a public health mandate again last week if she is elected governor of Arkansas.
Besides, we know full well that people are refusing the vaccine literally just to spite Biden and a government they see as illegitimate.

George Grabryan and Mike Melton have been helping people here on the bank of the Tennessee River survive devastating tornadoes, floods and other disasters for decades. Ask any local official in rural Lauderdale County, and they have the two emergency managers’ numbers saved in their phones — just in case.

But Covid-19 has broken those bonds. Despite Grabryan and Melton’s best efforts, only 34 percent of county residents are vaccinated, even as the highly transmissible Delta variant has driven up new infections by 300 percent in the last two weeks. Three people have died, and health officials predict that many more will follow before the summer mist lifts off the cornfields.

Many people here and elsewhere in the Southeast are turning down Covid-19 vaccines because they are angry that President Donald Trump lost the election and sick of Democrats in Washington thinking they know what’s best. State and local public health officials have struggled to combat that deep-rooted obstinance. But they don’t want more on-the-ground help from the White House, fearful it would prolong the current surge — even as the Biden administration has begun approaching southern states with offers to send federal “surge teams” on door-knocking campaigns.

The pushback from both state officials and people who refuse vaccination underscores the extent to which the federal government may never be able to convince rural, conservative populations in parts of the South to get the shot. And it raises questions about how the Biden administration will shape its response to Covid-19 over the next several months as more schools and businesses reopen and Delta spreads.

“To say that politics doesn’t play a part would be wrong,” Melton said. “I think the national figures get people talking about the vaccine and that can sometimes take the wrong fork in the road and go the wrong way.”

Local public health officials and physicians in this part of the country are convinced that they are doing everything they can to save lives — pulling 15-hour days to set up pop-up mobile vaccine units, monitor patients on respirators, and administer rounds of therapeutics. But they can only do so much. They will not go to people’s homes to try and twist their arms, they say, and they do not want federal officials to do so either.

“I don’t know going door to door would help us,” said Karen Landers, an Alabama state health officer based in Sheffield. “People in more rural areas … you’re going on to their property. It might not be the best idea to have them do that because people are protective of their privacy.

There is precisely nothing that can be done now to convince the bulk of these folks to get the vaccine. It's not going to happen. We'll continue to try to save them and rehabilitate them as victims when they die and infect their family members, leading to more deaths, but at this point I'm tired of being told I have to have sympathy for the people trying to kill me.

We'll mourn them, of course.

But at some point we have to turn to take care of the living.

Sunday Long Read: Ghost In The Machine

This week's Sunday Long Read comes to us from Jason Fagone at the San Francisco Chronicle, which asks the question "Is it okay to build an AI chatbot of your dead fiancee?" and if that doesn't immediately creep you the hell out, the rest of this story will.

One night last fall, unable to sleep, Joshua Barbeau logged onto a mysterious chat website called Project December. An old-fashioned terminal window greeted him, stark white text on a black square:

14 November 1982


Unauthorized access is forbidden!

Enter electronic mail address:

It was Sept. 24, around 3 a.m., and Joshua was on the couch, next to a bookcase crammed with board games and Dungeons & Dragons strategy guides. He lived in Bradford, Canada, a suburban town an hour north of Toronto, renting a basement apartment and speaking little to other people.

A 33-year-old freelance writer, Joshua had existed in quasi-isolation for years before the pandemic, confined by bouts of anxiety and depression. Once a theater geek with dreams of being an actor, he supported himself by writing articles about D&D and selling them to gaming sites.

Many days he left the apartment only to walk his dog, Chauncey, a black-and-white Border collie. Usually they went in the middle of the night, because Chauncey tended to get anxious around other dogs and people. They would pass dozens of dark, silent, middle-class homes. Then, back in the basement, Joshua would lay awake for hours, thinking about Jessica Pereira, his ex-fiancee.

Jessica had died eight years earlier, at 23, from a rare liver disease. Joshua had never gotten over it, and this was always the hardest month, because her birthday was in September. She would have been turning 31.

On his laptop, he typed his email address. The window refreshed. “Welcome back, Professor Bohr,” read the screen. He had been here before. The page displayed a menu of options.

He selected “Experimental area.”

That month, Joshua had read about a new website that had something to do with artificial intelligence and “chatbots.” It was called Project December. There wasn’t much other information, and the site itself explained little, including its name, but he was intrigued enough to pay $5 for an account.

As it turned out, the site was vastly more sophisticated than it first appeared.

Designed by a Bay Area programmer, Project December was powered by one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems, a piece of software known as GPT-3. It knows how to manipulate human language, generating fluent English text in response to a prompt. While digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa also appear to grasp and reproduce English on some level, GPT-3 is far more advanced, able to mimic pretty much any writing style at the flick of a switch.

In fact, the A.I. is so good at impersonating humans that its designer — OpenAI, the San Francisco research group co-founded by Elon Musk — has largely kept it under wraps. Citing “safety” concerns, the company initially delayed the release of a previous version, GPT-2, and access to the more advanced GPT-3 has been limited to private beta testers.

But Jason Rohrer, the Bay Area programmer, opened a channel for the masses.

A lanky 42-year-old with a cheerful attitude and a mischievous streak, Rohrer worked for himself, designing independent video games. He had long championed the idea that games can be art, inspiring complex emotions; his creations had been known to make players weep. And after months of experiments with GPT-2 and GPT-3, he had tapped into a new vein of possibility, figuring out how to make the A.I. systems do something they weren’t designed to do: conduct chat-like conversations with humans.

Last summer, using a borrowed beta-testing credential, Rohrer devised a “chatbot” interface that was driven by GPT-3. He made it available to the public through his website. He called the service Project December. Now, for the first time, anyone could have a naturalistic text chat with an A.I. directed by GPT-3, typing back and forth with it on Rohrer's site.

Users could select from a range of built-in chatbots, each with a distinct style of texting, or they could design their own bots, giving them whatever personality they chose.

Joshua had waded into Project December by degrees, starting with the built-in chatbots. He engaged with “William,” a bot that tried to impersonate Shakespeare, and “Samantha,” a friendly female companion modeled after the A.I. assistant in the movie “Her.” Joshua found both disappointing; William rambled about a woman with “fiery hair” that was “red as a fire,” and Samantha was too clingy.

But as soon as he built his first custom bot — a simulation of Star Trek’s Spock, whom he considered a hero — a light clicked on: By feeding a few Spock quotes from an old TV episode into the site, Joshua summoned a bot that sounded exactly like Spock, yet spoke in original phrases that weren’t found in any script.

As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee?

There was nothing strange, he thought, about wanting to reconnect with the dead: People do it all the time, in prayers and in dreams. In the last year and a half, more than 600,000 people in the U.S. and Canada have died of COVID-19, often suddenly, without closure for their loved ones, leaving a raw landscape of grief. How many survivors would gladly experiment with a technology that lets them pretend, for a moment, that their dead loved one is alive again — and able to text?

That night in September, Joshua hadn’t actually expected it to work. Jessica was so special, so distinct; a chatbot could never replicate her voice, he assumed. Still, he was curious to see what would happen.

And he missed her

The question is "Is this at all healthy, or is it fetishizing grief?" There have been a number of movies and books over the years exploring the relationship between men and digital women, and they're all about pretty broken men.

But frankly I see more things like this happening in the years ahead. What kind of chatbot would be created by feeding it all of my blog and Twitter posts? Would it be me, even with 12 years of near daily material to work with?

Something worth thinking about.
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