Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sunday Reading

Objective Evidence — Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic offers Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) proof of voter suppression.

Dear Senator Rand Paul:

If you want to be president of the United States one day, if you want more people to take you seriously as an independent thinker within the Republican Party, if you want to lead your party back to control of the Senate, or if more modestly you want simply to tether yourself to some form of reality, you are going to have to stop making false and insulting statements like you did Wednesday when you declared: “I don’t think there is objective evidence that we’re precluding African-Americans from voting any longer.”

I guess it all depends upon your definition of “objective evidence.” On the one hand, there are the factual findings about evidence and testimony contained in numerous opinions issued recently by federal judges, both Republican and Democrat, who have identified racially discriminatory voting measures. And on the other hand, there is your statement that none of this is “objective.” It’s a heavy burden you’ve given yourself, Senator — proving that something doesn’t exist when we all can see with our own eyes that it does.

Last August, for example, three federal judges struck down Texas’s photo identification law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act because it would have led “to a regression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.” Those judges did find that some of the evidence presented to them was “invalid, irrelevant or unreliable” — but that was the evidence Texas offered in support of its discriminatory law. You should read this ruling before you talk about minorities and voting rights.

While you are at it, you should also read the opinion — issued almost exactly one year ago — by another panel of federal judges who determined that Florida’s partisan plan to shorten early voting days constituted evidence of racial discrimination. Or if that doesn’t rise to your level of “objective evidence” read what U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, an appointee of President George W. Bush, wrote last fall in a voting-rights challenge in South Carolina. Section 5 of the federal law, he wrote, acted as a vital deterrent forcing recalcitrant lawmakers to enact less discriminatory voting measures.

Now, you may disagree with what all of these federal judges (Republican appointees as well as Democratic ones) concluded about the discriminatory nature of these laws, after they heard sworn testimony and read the voluminous records in these cases. But you can’t say they offered “no objective evidence” for the conclusions they reached. Your conclusion, on the other hand, directly contradicts the experiences of countless citizens, in and out of the South, who have been victimized by the new generation of voter-suppression efforts.

Stupid Computers — Gary Marcus of The New Yorker on why your computer doesn’t understand you.

Hector Levesque thinks his computer is stupid—and that yours is, too. Siri and Google’s voice searches may be able to understand canned sentences like “What movies are showing near me at seven o’clock?,” but what about questions—“Can an alligator run the hundred-metre hurdles?”—that nobody has heard before? Any ordinary adult can figure that one out. (No. Alligators can’t hurdle.) But if you type the question into Google, you get information about Florida Gators track and field. Other search engines, like Wolfram Alpha, can’t answer the question, either. Watson, the computer system that won “Jeopardy!,” likely wouldn’t do much better.

In a terrific paper just presented at the premier international conference on artificial intelligence, Levesque, a University of Toronto computer scientist who studies these questions, has taken just about everyone in the field of A.I. to task. He argues that his colleagues have forgotten about the “intelligence” part of artificial intelligence.

Levesque starts with a critique of Alan Turing’s famous “Turing test,” in which a human, through a question-and-answer session, tries to distinguish machines from people. You’d think that if a machine could pass the test, we could safely conclude that the machine was intelligent. But Levesque argues that the Turing test is almost meaningless, because it is far too easy to game. Every year, a number of machines compete in the challenge for real, seeking something called the Loebner Prize. But the winners aren’t genuinely intelligent; instead, they tend to be more like parlor tricks, and they’re almost inherently deceitful. If a person asks a machine “How tall are you?” and the machine wants to win the Turing test, it has no choice but to confabulate. It has turned out, in fact, that the winners tend to use bluster and misdirection far more than anything approximating true intelligence. One program worked by pretending to be paranoid; others have done well by tossing off one-liners that distract interlocutors. The fakery involved in most efforts at beating the Turing test is emblematic: the real mission of A.I. ought to be building intelligence, not building software that is specifically tuned toward fixing some sort of arbitrary test.

Under the Gun — Alex Pareene at Salon on why John Boehner has to keep making crazy threats.

You probably read [last week] about the efforts of John Boehner and the Republican leadership in the House to convince the rank-and-file members that shutting down the government until Obamacare is defunded is a Bad Idea, and not a Brilliant Political Maneuver. Robert Costa’s account in the National Review has the basic narrative. It looks, now, like Boehner has succeeded in defusing the shutdown threat. All he had to do was promise something worse. Now we are going to not raise the debt ceiling instead.

As Jonathan Chait points out, replacing the shutdown threat with a default threat is actually much crazier and more potentially disastrous. But Boehner couldn’t get Republicans to agree to just give up on defunding Obamacare this year. He had to promise to exchange their one crazy plan to do so with another one that will go into effect later. And when it is time for that one to go into effect, he will need to find something else to distract them for a little while, until the next crazy plan is ready to go. As Brian Beutler says, we’ve seen this play out over and over again. Boehner has to promise to let Republicans do some apocalyptic thing later in order to get them to avoid doing some apocalyptic thing now. So far we’ve avoided an apocalypse.

But the people Boehner is trying to deal with here don’t see any of these threats as particularly apocalyptic. They don’t really see anything at all that might contradict their ideological stances. The House members Boehner’s trying to walk back from the ledge don’t read the Times or the Post. They don’t care what Brookings or the CBO or CRS say. They believe every “nonpartisan” or “objective” information source to be a part of the vast liberal conspiracy, and they rely for their facts and predictions strictly on sources explicitly aligned with the conservative movement. And those sources are just telling them crazy, untrue things, all the time.

That’s Boehner’s problem: He’s trying to ease his members into the real world, where defunding Obamacare is impossible as long as Obama is in the White House, and where attempts to do so via incredibly unconventional means could have disastrous consequences. What makes his job more difficult is that this reality isn’t acknowledged by most of the conservative organizations his members, and his party’s voters, exclusively follow.

Doonesbury — They need women.