Amendments to the U.S. Constitution
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The 2nd Amendment: How the gun control debate went crazy
The gun control debate has been at fever pitch for several years now, and as things fail to change the stats get grimmer. The New York Times reports that there have been 239 school shootings nationwide since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre, where 20 first graders and six adults were killed. Six years later, 438 more people have been shot in schools, and for 138 of them it was fatal. Here, journalist and author Kurt Andersen reads the Second Amendment, and explains its history from 1791 all the way to now. "What people need to know is that the Second Amendment only recently became such a salient amendment," says Andersen. It's only in the last 50 years that the gun debate has gone haywire, and it was the moment the NRA went from reasonable to absolutist. So what does the "right to bear arms" really mean? What was a firearm in the 1790s, and what is a firearm now? "Compared to [the] many, many, many rounds-per-second firearms that we have today, it's the same word but virtually a different machine." Kurt Andersen is the author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire.
The 5th Amendment: Do not break in case of emergency
The Fifth Amendment of the United States Constitution is often talked about but rarely read in full. The reason? Counterterrorism expert Amaryllis Fox explains that it has, these days, simply become shorthand for not saying anything in court to incriminate yourself. But the full text states how important the due process of law is to every American. So perhaps learning the full text, not just the shorthand, is an important step to being an American citizen. You can find out more about Amaryllis Fox here.
The 13th Amendment: The unjust prison to profit pipeline
The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolished slavery—but it still remains legal under one condition. The amendment reads: "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction." Today in America, big corporations profit of cheap prison labor in both privatized and state-run prisons. Shaka Senghor knows this second wave of slavery well—he spent 19 years in jail, working for a starting wage of 17 cents per hour, in a prison where a 15-minute phone call costs between $3-$15. In this video, he shares the exploitation that goes on in American prisons, and how the 13th Amendment allows slavery to continue. He also questions the profit incentive to incarcerate in this country: why does America represent less than 5% of the world's population, but almost 25% of the world's prisoners? Shaka Senghor's latest venture is Mind Blown Media.
The 14th Amendment: History's most radical idea?
In 1868, three years after slavery was abolished, the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, granting equal protection under the law to every born and naturalized U.S. citizen. For CNN news commentator Van Jones this amendment is, in his words, the "whole enchilada." It's not the most popular amendment—it doesn't get name-dropped in TV courtroom dramas, or fiercely debated before elections—but to Jones it is a weighty principle that was far ahead of its time. "It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're a lesbian. That's not what it says. It doesn't say equal protection under the law unless you're African American. That's not what it says. It says if you're in the jurisdiction you get equal protection under the law. That's radical. In 10,000 years of human history, that's radical." Van Jones is the author of Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together.
The 26th Amendment: The act of voting should empower people
Is a 55.7% voter turnout really enough? Bryan Cranston was disappointed with the 2016 presidential election, not for the outcome but for the process. According to Census Bureau figures it was a bumper year for voter engagement with 137.5 million total ballots cast—but is just over half of the eligible voters really that impressive? The Pew Research Center shows that the U.S. still trails behind most developed nations in voter registration and turnout. "I think we've devalued the honor and privilege of voting and we've become complacent, and maybe a bit cynical about our place and rights as citizens and our duties and responsibilities," says Cranston. The good news? Millennials and Gen Xers are on an upward trend in civic engagement, casting more votes than Boomers and older generations in the 2016 election. Cranston reminds us of how empowering the 26th Amendment is in granting voting rights to Americans over the age of 18. "We can't take that lightly," says Cranston. It's a timely reminder too, as 40 million people are expected to drop off that 55.7% figure for the midterm elections, mostly from the millennial, unmarried women and people of color demographics. Bryan Cranston's new book is the spectacular memoir A Life in Parts.
- Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a commencement speech at Tulane University on May 18th.
- Cook cautioned the graduates to not get caught up in echo chambers and algorithms.
- He acknowledged the failures of his generation.
Are we so caught up in technology that we don't notice any more the plight of people around us? On May 18th, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a commencement speech at Tulane University where he addressed modern narcissism and how to combat it.
"In a world where we obsessively document our own lives, most of us don't pay nearly enough attention to what we owe one another," Cook said. "It's about recognizing that human civilization began when we realized that we could do more together."
He also addressed another very specific modern problem where social media sites show you only what you want to see and hear, often creating bubbles or echo chambers. To get beyond your comfort zone and to grow as a person, you need to get to information that you don't already know – information that can change your mind and challenge your beliefs.
"Today, certain algorithms pull you toward the things you already know, believe, or like, and they push away everything else," said Cook. "Push back. It shouldn't be this way. But in 2019 opening your eyes and seeing things in a new way can be a revolutionary act."
Insiders might also interpret the mention of "certain algorithms" as a specific dig at Facebook, which has a friend-centric content selection approach.
Cook urged the students to get beyond paralyzing inaction, especially on big issues like climate change. "In some important ways, my generation has failed you," Cook acknowledged. "We spent too much time debating, too focused on the fight and not enough on progress."
What important, according to Cook, is to not get tied up by the "political noise," adding "after all, we don't build monuments to trolls".
"When we talk about climate change, I challenge you to look for those who have the most to lose and find the real, true empathy that comes from something shared," said Cook. "When you do that, the political noise dies down and you can feel your feet planted on solid ground."
You can check out the full speech here:
We know we should eat less junk food, such as crisps, industrially made pizzas and sugar-sweetened drinks, because of their high calorie content.
These “ultra-processed" foods, as they are now called by nutritionists, are high in sugar and fat, but is that the only reason they cause weight gain? An important new trial from the US National Institute of Health (NIH) shows there's a lot more at work here than calories alone.
Studies have already found an association between junk foods and weight gain, but this link has never been investigated with a randomised controlled trial (RCT), the gold standard of clinical studies.
In the NIH's RCT, 20 adults aged about 30 were randomly assigned to either a diet of ultra-processed foods or a “control" diet of unprocessed foods, both eaten as three meals plus snacks across the day. Participants were allowed to eat as much as they wished.
After two weeks on one of the diets, they were switched to the other for a further two weeks. This type of crossover study improves the reliability of the results since each person takes part in both arms of the study. The study found that, on average, participants ate 500 calories more per day when consuming the ultra-processed diet, compared to when eating the diet of unprocessed foods. And on the ultra-processed diet, they gained weight – almost a kilogram.
Although we know that ultra-processed foods can be quite addictive, the participants reported finding the two diets equally palatable, with no awareness of having a greater appetite for the ultra-processed foods than for the unprocessed foods, despite consuming 500 calories more of them per day.
Unconscious over-consumption of ultra-processed foods is often attributed to snacking. But in this study, most of the excess calories were consumed during breakfast and lunch, not as snacks.
Slow eating, not fast food
A crucial clue as to why the ultra-processed foods caused greater calorie consumption may be that participants ate the ultra-processed meals faster and so consumed more calories per minute. This can cause excess calorie intake before the body's signals for satiety or fullness have time to kick in.
An important satiety factor in unprocessed foods is dietary fibre. Most ultra-processed foods contain little fibre (most or all of it is lost during their manufacture) and so are easier to eat fast.
Anticipating this, the NIH researchers equalised the fibre content of their two diets by adding a fibre supplement to the ultra-processed diet in drinks. But fibre supplements are not the same thing as fibre in unprocessed foods.
Fibre in unprocessed food is an integral part of the food's structure – or the food matrix, as it's called. And an intact food matrix slows down how quickly we consume calories. For instance, it takes us far longer to chew through a whole orange with its intact food matrix than it does to gulp down the equivalent calories as orange juice.
An interesting message emerging from this and other studies seems to be that to regulate calorie intake, we must retain food structure, like the natural food matrix of unprocessed foods. This obliges us to eat more slowly, allowing time for the body's satiety mechanisms to activate before we have eaten too much. This mechanism does not operate with ultra-processed foods since the food matrix is lost during manufacture.
Finding time for a meal of unprocessed foods eaten slowly can be a real challenge for many. But the importance of seated mealtimes is an approach vigorously defended in some countries, such as France, where a succession of small courses ensures a more leisurely – and pleasurable – way of eating. And it may also be an important antidote to the weight gain caused by grabbing a quick meal of ultra-processed foods.
Most people remember the emperor: a vain ruler, swindled into paying for a nonexistent magical garment, parades in public, only to be embarrassed by a little boy. To me, the story is really about the swindling tailors.
Audacious, imaginative, their true product is a persuasive illusion, one keyed to the vulnerabilities of their target audience. In contemporary terms, the story is about marketing; and as such, the tale is tailor-made for an examination of genetic ancestry tests, because these too are sold with expert persuasion, with promises woven from our hopes, our fears, and the golden thread of DNA.
With these new tests, as in Hans Christian Andersen's 19th-century tale, a gap yawns between the promise and the reality – and now and then, as in the story, someone says so in the public square. For example, when Phil Rogers, a reporter in Chicago, tried out home DNA test kits from competing companies last year, he discovered contradictory results. So did the Canadian reporter Charlsie Agro and her twin sister Carly, who mailed spit samples to 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, AncestryDNA, MyHeritage and LivingDNA. As with Rogers, the companies gave different histories – Balkan ancestry, for example, ranged from 14 to 61 per cent – but 23andMe actually reported different scores for each twin. (According to the company, Charlsie has French and German ancestors, while Carly does not.)
The tests are sold with variations on a single pitch: find your story. The companies don't mention that the story might shade into fiction, or that stories can conflict. The evolutionary geneticist Mark Thomas at University College London has dismissed ancestry testing as 'genetic astrology', but it could be as useful to think of it as genetic gossip: a rumoured past that, like most rumours, is at least partly true. It begins with a test-tube of spit and ends with fractional estimates: a story, whispered by an algorithm, in the language of information.
It is not that ancestry tests tell us nothing: unlike the emperor's new clothes, gene variants are real, and genetic tests can discover them. It is rather that their inherent uncertainties are obscured by expert marketing. The websites show pie charts, percentages and images of scientific equipment, implying a precision the tests do not provide. Human groups are porous, population samples vary in size and quality, current-day populations stand as proxies for past ones, only a small percentage of each person's genome is tested, and each proprietary algorithm differs from the next. So the estimates necessarily vary.
To be sure, many clearly find value and meaning in the tests. The sociologist Alondra Nelson at Columbia University in New York has written brilliantly about the complicated 'social life of DNA', the way that many African Americans, combining molecular data with genealogical research, have forged new self-understandings against the brutal erasures of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage. For others, no doubt, the interest in roots is driven more by curiosity than tragic dislocation; but whatever the reasons, the tests remain extraordinarily popular.
So the companies' websites deserve a closer look. Though the sites associated with 23andMe et al, as at April 2019, are superficially different, they are cut from the same conceptual cloth: a fine weave of images, numbers and catchphrases, a tapestry of technology and fulfilment. The uncluttered design of each site belies the dizzying accumulation of images and messages, as you scroll down. Photographs of sequencers and gene chips. Line drawings of test tubes. A full set of brightly coloured, iconic chromosomes: the human genome laid out in pairs like socks. Buttons and codes for seasonal discounts: like a front-of-supermarket display, the home pages rotate with the calendar. Balloon hearts in February ('Get to the heart of what makes your Valentine unique'), leprechaun hats in March ('Enjoy the luck o' the Irish. Discover your roots'). Testimonials with words such as journey and discovery. The mysteries of life, identity and family history, distilled into friendly slogans such as 'Welcome to you.' All are anchored by images of customers, who are contented, photogenic, diverse. In narrative terms, they represent closure you can buy: the happy end to a story, a new genetic family discovered, a long-lost relative contacted, a new and appealing ethnic past. (Or perhaps, if you're a white supremacist, an inconvenient past to ignore.)
In the fable, the swindlers are storytellers: with the barest of props, they weave imaginary cloth on real looms, targeting the emperor's hopes and wishes, describing the cloth, promising its benefits. But their improvised play depends on audience participation, and Andersen's genius lies in the plot's escalation, in which the emperor, his courtiers and eventually the townspeople become characters in a play scripted by the swindlers, performing the lie they do not believe. When the boy points out that the clothes don't exist, he at once breaks the fourth wall and restores it. Shattering the illusion, he frees the audience, giving them the ability to speak up. The boy is not a storyteller: he is a critic. But he is also a proto-scientist, his criticism grounded in empirical observation.
What makes the story's characters vulnerable to the swindlers' promises? In a word, status. Most will remember the emperor's vanity, his love of clothes. But these clothes are sold with a specific claim: that they are invisible only to 'simpletons' and 'those unfit for their jobs'. So the clothes appeal to the emperor as a means of consolidating his power, expressed as a wish for productive citizens: 'If I had such a suit, I might at once find out what men in my kingdom are unfit for their job. I would be able to tell the wise men from the foolish! This stuff must be woven for me immediately.' His imaginary clothes are functional, at once an aptitude test and an intelligence test. They are sold as instruments of power and control, as a way of sorting the fit citizens from the unfit.
Chasing his dreams of status and power, the emperor misses the swindle: the 'weavers' make off with tangible wealth, while the emperor receives nothing. The entire performance is a masterful misdirection, a distraction from the truth of the exchange. In the same way, the promises of discovering identity and the genealogical past are a misdirection: the real exchange takes place offstage, with drug companies and others paying for access to the data that customers actually pay to give. Once it's given, customers are vulnerable to future data breaches (and you can't, at this date at least, change your genome), and they aren't guaranteed compensation for any profits the data might lead to.
Which returns us to the central pitch of finding your story: that frame obscures the largescale economies of data, and instead highlights individual agency, linking data to self-discovery, implying power and control. Perhaps this is why devices – smartphones, tablets – are ubiquitous in the website imagery. A young, freckled, ginger-haired woman beams, holding up an iPhone, which displays a map of Ireland overlaid with boundary lines of, presumably, genetic populations: in the information age, it's important to keep reinforcing the message that the devices in our hands are Vehicles of Fun and Discovery and not Portable Hand Vampires of the Surveillance Economy. To paraphrase the business scholar Shoshana Zuboff in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2019), the genomic data in question might be about us, might on some level be us. But it is not for us. In the shadow economy where our data is traded, we are each as exposed as any emperor.
Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves by George Estreich is published via the MIT Press.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
- To become autonomous, robots need to perceive the world around them and move at the same time.
- Researchers create a theory of hyperdimensional computing to help store robot movement in high-dimensional vectors.
- This improvement in perception will allow artificial intelligences to create memories.
Do androids dream of electric sheep? Philip K. Dick famously wondered that in his stories that explored what it meant to be human and robot in the age of advanced and widespread artificial intelligence. We aren't quite in "Blade Runner" reality just yet, but now a team of researchers came up with a new way for robots to remember that may close the gap between robots and us for good.
For robots to be as proficient as humans in various tasks, they need to coordinate sensory data with motor capabilities. Scientists from the University of Maryland published a paper in the journal Science Robotics describing a potentially revolutionary approach to improve how AI handles sensorimotor representation using hyperdimensional computing theory.
What the researchers set out to create was a way to improve a robot's "active perception" - its ability to integrate how it perceives the world around it with how it moves in that world. As they wrote in their paper, "we find that action and perception are often kept in separated spaces," which they attribute to traditional thinking.
They proposed instead "a method of encoding actions and perceptions together into a single space that is meaningful, semantically informed, and consistent by using hyperdimensional binary vectors (HBVs). "
As their press release explains, HBVs work in very high-dimensional spaces, containing a plethora of information about different discrete items like an image or a sound or a command. These can be further grouped into sequences of discrete items and groupings of items and sequences.
By utilizing these vectors, the researchers look to keep all sensory information the robot receives in one place, essentially creating its memories. As more information gets stored, "history" vectors would be created, increasing the robot's memory content.
The scientists think that active perception and memories would make the robots better at autonomous decisions, expecting future situations and completing tasks.
The Hyperdimensional "pipeline"
Credit: Perception and Robotics Group, University of Maryland.
This "pipeline" describes how data from a drone flight is recorded and translated into binary vectors that are integrated into memory through vector operations. This memory can then be recalled.
"An active perceiver knows why it wishes to sense, then chooses what to perceive, and determines how, when and where to achieve the perception," said Aloimonos. "It selects and fixates on scenes, moments in time, and episodes. Then it aligns its mechanisms, sensors, and other components to act on what it wants to see, and selects viewpoints from which to best capture what it intends. Our hyperdimensional framework can address each of these goals."
Outside of robots, the scientists also see an application of their theories in deep learning AI methods employed in data mining and visual recognition.
To test the theory, the team employed a dynamic vision sensor (DVS) which continually captures the edges of objects in event clouds as they move by. By quickly focusing on the contours of the scene and the movement, this sensor is well-suited for autonomous navigation of robots. The data from the event clouds is stored in binary vectors, allowing the scientists to apply hyperdimensional computing.
Here’s a video of how DVS works:
The research was carried out by the computer science Ph.D. students Anton Mitrokhin and Peter Sutor, Jr., along with Cornelia Fermüller, an associate research scientist with the University of Maryland Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, as well as the computer science professor Yiannis Aloimonos. He advised Mitrokhin and Sutor.
Check out their paper "Learning sensorimotor control with neuromorphic sensors: Toward hyperdimensional active perception" in Science Robotics.
- How bad is wealth inequality in the United States? About 1 percent of Americans hold 80 percent of the money.
- In the United States, the correlation between the income of parents and the income of their children when they grow up is higher than in any other country in the world.
- One of the big underlying reasons for poverty is receiving a crummy education, which in turn leads to crummy jobs. When people recognize their miserable long-term prospects, they are more likely to partake in riots.