The Moon and Simulacra

Our weekly Discontents, 8/2/2021

The moon hung low in the hazy twilight, like a yellow light that would never turn red. To the unblinking eye of the Tesla below, the moon above the highway didn’t just resemble a yellow light, it was a yellow light, and the car’s autonomous systems responded accordingly. Nevermind that it was a highway, that the light was unchanged for miles of road: as best the machine knew, it was approaching an intersection, and the car needed to slow down.

Here is that exact moment, as documented and shared on twitter:

In 23 seconds, we see a sort of mundane failure. When I first saw the clip, I quipped that “so the thing about sensors and autonomous systems is that novel environmental conditions can cause them to fail in new and untested ways, and when you put them around civilians that increases the risk for everyone involved in case, say, the car thinks the moon is a yellow light.”

Understandably, I received a lot of responses about the moon itself not exactly being a “novel environmental condition,” which, fair point. Iconic Mr. Show sketch aside, no engineer should really make “blow up the moon” a central part of their plans for image recognition. The moon is a durable feature of the sky and if it can cause error, it means the sensor was poorly designed.

Computer vision, the broad term for feeding data from electro-optical cameras into image processing software, can err and will err in ways that seem strange. Any human witnessing the moon over that road would be able to immediately rule out a traffic light as a possibility, even if the moon’s color in the haze led them to think more “UFO” than “known object.”

Computer vision, trained on data sets in laboratory and controlled test settings, can get better. Those captchas, showing scenes of traffic and asking users to, say, “identify all traffic lights” in a grid of pictures are one way of collecting such training data. Yet even the most rigorous training system can fail when an image doesn’t match exactly the training. Computer vision researchers used a small piece of tape on a 35 mph sign to convince a Tesla that the speed limit was actually 85 mph.

Sensors, wrapped in modernity and sold as cutting edge, have the feel of perfection, which is why it’s important to talk about how and when sensors fail.

On October 5th 1960, an early warning radar in Thule, Greenland, told NORAD that a Soviet nuclear attack was coming.

As David Wright described it for the Union of Concerned Scientists:

This radar was built in Greenland to provide an early glimpse of just such an attack and to allow time for the U.S. to launch a nuclear response. And U.S. land-based missiles were—and are—kept on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within a matter of minutes if such a warning comes in. Even with this advance warning, the short flight time of incoming ballistic missiles (about 30 minutes) severely limits the time available for double-checking the warning data and deciding what to do. Confronted with credible warning, the president would have perhaps 10 minutes to decide whether to launch.

The object detected over the horizon had reflected radar, but it was no Soviet missile or plane. It was instead the moon itself. Wright goes on to say that, after a flurry of confusion, no launch order was given, and the engineers figured out how to filter out radar returns from the moon when determining early warnings.

In the case of the Tesla reading the moon as a traffic light, the main harm was inconvenience, a driver annoyed at the flailing semi-autonomy of a luxury vehicle. In the future, such errors are likely to emerge in vehicles designed for less human supervision, and the consequences of error will be measured in tangled metal and broken bodies. On battlefields, where countries field increasingly autonomous machines, the likelihood of a robot brain making a lethal decision in error only increases over time.

Humans err, all the time, but mostly in known and predictable ways. What autonomy brings to machines is new error, abrupt error, error that can cause sudden harm for humans having to improvise against wholly new behavior.

In an abstract sense, it’s almost charming to see a robot slow down and appreciate the wonder of the moon glowing traffic-light yellow on a hazy night. As an engineering and policy problem, it’s a nightmare in waiting.

Without further ado, here’s the rest of the Discontents team.

The Insurgents

Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau

This week we had a great conversation with YouTube and Twitch streamer Abelina Sabrina. Why can't democrats even pretend to care about the concerns of young people who overwhelmingly supported Bernie Sanders in the 2020 democratic primary? Instead they're throwing their bodies on the tracks to prevent Nina Turner from winning a congressional seat, Nancy Pelosi is holding press conferences to say that taxation is theft, and they're planning a 4d chess election strategy of telling everyone the Republicans are the party that wants to Defund the Police.

Meanwhile, the trials of Daniel Hale and Steven Donzinger represent a clear warning to anyone that might be getting ideas about challenging the military or industrial evils of the decaying US empire.

Welcome to Hell World

Luke O’Neil

Today Miles Howard catches us up on the abject failure of the Democrats to do anything to help renters as the eviction moratorium comes to an ignominious end.

“Over the course of this wretched weekend, the Democratic party leadership treated renters like a forgotten class project that’s suddenly due. But that’s essentially what renters are to America’s politicians: a neglected project.”

Elsewhere I’ve seen a number of people speculating on Twitter lately about how the rollout of the vaccine might have gone differently if Americans actually had, you know, a specific primary care doctor of their own that they knew and trusted throughout their lives. It reminded me of this piece I did a while back talking about just that: How few of us 1) have a doctor 2) know who they are 3) actually ever see them when we do need care.

“lol I have to leave a message with the front office who will leave a message with the nurse who will leave a message with my doctor who will tell my nurse to call me back 3 days later,” one person told me.

“I’ve been to my doctor’s office 4 times in the last year and have not seen my doctor. I think he might have died and the staff is covering it up,” added another.

Read all the rest here.

Last week I spent a few days on the beach in Maine and reflected on the passage of time and death and the bullshit way poets talk about birds and Modest Mouse and E.B. White and climate change all the other fun stuff you think about when you’re on vacation.

There must have been hundreds of them just the ones we could see obviously there are more than a hundred crabs out there I think and we leaned down to get a closer look at one because it seemed like he had a long silver tail reflecting bright off the sun but no it was just some kind of mackerel type of guy he had hanging out of his crab mouth. It was way too large for a hermit crab to have taken a bite of and maybe it was the radiating pain or the hangover from the night before or the realization that everything is about to be fucked again from the covid variants but I started to feel something like disquiet instead of gaiety it felt like we were on the beach from Annihilation and the gulls so many gulls were screaming in their horrible bird language like they were supremely pissed off about something like when you want to explain how you feel to someone so badly but you cannot find the appropriate words for it and instead you lash out and later feel poorly about it.

Read the rest here. It’s paid-only but here’s 33% off.

Then I looked back on all The Strokes stuff I’ve written about in Hell World over the years including the first (2001) and last (2020) times I saw them, plus I unearthed an old interview I did with Julian Casablancas, and took a stab at my top 25 non Is This Is? songs. Read it here.

Wars of Future Past

Kelsey D. Atherton

I have one other quick moon related story this week, so I’m slipping it in here. At the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, there was a drone swarm that created a spherical moon out of flying robots. It was neat, in the way that drone light shows are neat and paper over the wholesale destruction that goes into every Olympics. The announcer said it was also unprecedented, which is the moment I turned off the ceremony.

The swarm, of 1,800 drones, contained a fraction of drones in the latest Guinness World Record for drone swarms. I know this because the military keeps pointing to spectacle drone swarms as though they are a military threat. The 2018 Olympics literally had a swarm, which appeared in military powerpoints mere months later. The world record gets set it seems twice a year, sometimes by an incremental increase in drone swarms and sometimes by a much larger increase. In October 2020, the record was for 3,051 drones. (That swarm, also, contained a moon made of drones.) By May 2021, there was a new record, set at 5,164 drones.

In the long run, the Olympics getting a basic, googleable fact wrong means very little, but it stuck in my craw, since I’m bound to see it again in some future powerpoint. The latest Wars of Future Past is about none of these things; it’s focused instead on weapon longevity, and I would be stunned if any kind of swarm makes it into a service life of several decades.

The Flashpoint

Eoin Higgins

Do summer camps owe it to parents to tell them if staff working with their children are vaccinated? I'd argue yes, and so would climate journalist Amy Westervelt, whose children are attending Challenger Sports Soccer Camp this year. 

Westervelt hosted two coaches from the camp in her home for a week in early July, only to find at the end of the visit that one was an anti-vaxxer—who didn't disclose this fact at first and spent days in her home around her children without a mask. 

"I gather that he has religious or political beliefs that have kept him from getting the vaccine — that’s his choice, but I was given no information and thus no choice about whether I wanted to expose my kids to that risk," Westervelt said in an email to the camp. "I strongly encourage you to disclose vaccine status to parents, this is really not right."

For more on this story, click here

Also last week, a cross post from Discourse Blog featuring audio from an attempt by MSNBC bosses to crush the nascent union drive at the media giant. 

Upcoming: How Covid affected line cooks, worries over evictions, and the human cost of the anti-vax movement. Sign up and don't miss a story.

Foreign Exchanges

Derek Davison

Last week Foreign Exchanges contributor Kate Kizer published her latest column, unpacking what “centering human rights” really means from an American perspective:

After four years with a mentally unstable crook in the White House, it’s easy to understand why so many, particularly in Washington’s foreign policy establishment, might find Biden’s narrative compelling, and even calming. It would seem especially appealing to progressive activists in the United States, who have been courageously organizing for decades to fight back against illiberal encroachment here at home.

But amidst intensifying global human rights and climate crises, we can’t continue to gaslight ourselves that slapping pro-democracy rhetoric on zero-sum economic, ideological, and military strategic competition will make anyone’s lives better, except those of the rich.

Rather than trying to make “American Exceptionalism for the 21st Century” happen, the president would be better off recognizing that the threat to democratic aspirations and human dignity around the world is not merely emanating from American “enemies” like China, Iran, or Cuba. It is also the United States' behavior on the international stage and its own policies—at home and abroad—that enable and exacerbate an international climate of impunity for the dozens of human rights abusing governments that the US refuses to hold accountable in the name of “security.”

Also, if you haven’t yet, please check out my new podcast, American Prestige, with Daniel Bessner. Our fourth episode, including an interview with Bernie Sanders foreign policy adviser Matt Duss, just went out on Friday!


Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz

The Biden administration, for all its talk about building a more humane immigration system and respecting the rights of asylum seekers at the U.S. southern border, has become addicted to some draconian Trump-era restrictions, chief among them the so-called Title 42 order. This ostensibly pandemic-related measure isn’t even based in immigration law per se, but rather public health statutes meant to prevent the introduction of communicable disease to the country. For well over a year, the federal government under both Trump and Biden has used Title 42 to summarily expel migrants regardless of their intent to petition for asylum, sending them quickly either back across the border to Mexico or to their countries of origin.

Now, Biden has a problem: the Mexican government is increasingly refusing to accept expelled families, forcing the U.S. to allow them to petition for asylum (a right enshrined in other parts of domestic and international law, not that anyone seems to care much) and remain in the country. This past week, the Department of Homeland Security unveiled a workaround—it would begin subjecting migrant families to the expedited removal program, on the books since the punitive immigration reforms of the mid-90s. The Trump administration had successfully expanded the initiative to its full statutory breadth, and Biden has kept the expansion in place. As we broke down in last week’s BORDER/LINES, the announcement lays the groundwork for families to be quickly removed even if they can no longer be subjected to Title 42.

Essentially, expedited removal permits immigration agents to quickly deport people who are unable to prove on the spot that they are in the country legally or, if undocumented, have been present for two years or longer. They are subject to mandatory detention, don’t have the right to a lawyer, don’t get a hearing before an immigration judge, and can be deported directly by ICE or CBP in a matter of hours. Migrants can get a credible fear hearing if they affirmatively claim a fear of persecution or an intent to apply for asylum, but they have to know to do so and Border Patrol has been known to simply not record asylum requests. Unlike an expulsion, this is a legal deportation with the full range of consequences that entails, namely making it far more difficult to attempt to enter the country ever again. The use of this program against migrant families also means that the administration will likely have to reverse course on its efforts to end family detention, and instead potentially reopen some of the infamous family residential centers it had moved to close or repurpose.

Kim Kelly

Hey pals, I've been busy as sin over the past couple of weeks working on my book and continuing to cover the Alabama coal miners' strike (and getting extremely mad about the mainstream media's refusal to cover the story. On Saturday night, a miners' wife with whom I've become very close texted me to tell me that a boss had just driven his truck into the picket line, and hit two of the striking workers. This is the fifth documented instance of this kind of attack being waged on the line by company employees, and every moment that this isn't a national story is another potential catastrophe. Bosses can and have gotten away with murder before; there's very little stopping them from trying to do so again down on those Tuscaloosa County backroads. 

But my Patreon post this week is less about that then the big UMWA rally in New York City this past week, which saw hundreds of union members from across Appalachia travel to Manhattan to protest in front of BlackRock, which besides being a generally evil entity on its own, is a major investor in Warrior Met, the company these workers are on strike against. It was a really wonderful event, and a much different vibe than the rallies down in Brookwood; something about seeing that sea of camo beneath the skyscrapers felt important (and of course, the Harlan County comparisons are becoming more and more apt).

I'm headed back to Bama tomorrow for another big rally; I'll tell ya all about it next week. Oh, and one last thing - preorders for my book, FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor, are now live! I can scarcely believe it, but it's true. Please consider snagging a copy if you've been enjoying my work so far, and sharing the link with your pals. I promise it's gonna be good!

Discourse Blog

Hi everyone, Crosbie here from Discourse Blog. We finished out July with another installation in the Worst Politicians in America series, this time heading to Arizona to meet some prospective senators, corrupt city councilmen, despicable House members, and of course -- a sheriff so evil you really gotta read it to believe it. 

Early on in the week this sort of collective despair over evil politicians and Congressional inaction kinda got to me, and I wrote about the stagnant infrastructure bill and what it means that our system of politics doesn’t really function anymore. A cheery read for sure. Fortunately Caitlin also gave us a blog about iconic hairstyles from films, so you can really pick your poison when it comes to “extremely depressing content” or “fun blogs by fun writers.” We really got it all. 

Also last week: Keir Starmer’s face, the Democrats giving up on the poor, Osita Nwanevu on billionaires, JD Vance vs the ADL, and a content swap with Foreign Exchanges

Jack closed us out with his bird of the week: an Indian Roller. A really lovely one if you ask me! See you next Monday!