Sunday, February 10, 2019


Last year, nearly 40,000 people died in the U.S. from the use of firearms. Among those deaths, roughly 60 percent were suicides. And among those were more than 1000 young people between the ages of 10 and 19; nearly three children or teenagers every day.

As a quick internet search will show you, there's a lot of information available to parents, teachers and other concerned people about how to reduce the risk that a child will commit suicide. Unfortunately, many of these well-meaning and supposedly authoritative sources gloss over or fail even to mention the single biggest step to take to reduce the number of suicides by young people.

That step is--get guns out of their homes.

Young people and guns--a lethal combination

New research from the Boston School of Public Health (BUSPH) shows that on a state-by-state basis, every ten percent increase in gun ownership increases the youth suicide rate by 27 percent. That means that young people in states like Alaska, with the highest rate of gun ownership, were five times more likely to kill themselves than young people in states like New Jersey with the lowest percentage of guns in homes.

The rate of gun ownership varies greatly from state to state. The 10 states with the highest rates averaged more than one gun for every two households (52.5%), while the 10 states with the lowest gun ownership averaged just one gun per every five households.

Remarkably, gun ownership outweighed every other factor--poverty, race, educational levels, family structure, mental illness, drug and alcohol use, you name it--contributing to youth suicide. "This study demonstrates that the strongest single predictor of a state's youth suicide rate is the prevalence of household gun ownership in that state," says Michael Siegel, a community health researcher at BUSPH and the study's co-author.

The bottom line is clear. If you want to reduce the number of children and teenagers who kill themselves, the first and most significant thing to do is to get guns out of their homes.


You can find the full study here.


Young people in the U.S. are far more at risk from gun-related violence of all kinds than youth in other countries. You can read a zerospinzone post about that here.


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Friday, February 01, 2019


"Open the pod bay doors, HAL."
"I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that."

This classic exchange from Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, epitomizes the risks of a self-aware artificial intelligence.

 Looking through the eye of HAL 9000
a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey
Credit: Wikimedia

 People who tell us not to worry about the existential threat of super-smart artificial intelligence (AGI) often argue that however brilliant AI agents--such as deep learning programs or autonomous robots--become at specific tasks, they'll inevitably lack the general, all-purpose kind of intelligence  humans have. Without that high-level understanding of oneself, the world, and one's place in it, those soothing voices say, AI is and will remain a safe and helpful technology; just another tool like a laptop or a smartphone.

I'd like to believe in the lovely AI-enhanced future AI enthusiasts envision, but I keep coming across flaws in their shiny picture. One, that just came to my attention today, is that robots are becoming self aware. That brings them one step closer to becoming truly autonomous agents, not just eager-to-please tools with a Swiss-Army-knife-full of potentially superhuman skills, but entities with minds and goals of their own, like HAL.

 Robot arm with developing self image overlay
Credit: Robert Kwiatkowski/Columbia Engineering

The latest research along this line comes from Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University and graduate student Robert Kwiatkowski. They built an articulated robot arm with four degrees of freedom, allowing it to rotate, bend and grasp in a huge number of different ways. The arm was controlled by a deep-learning computer network. Deep learning networks mimic the human brain in being able to learn from experience, and are the basis of many of today's most powerful AI applications, such as Google's AlphaZero, which in the course of just one day of "play" became the world champion in chess, Shogi and Go.

Initially the arm's deep learning network--in effect its brain--had no idea of the size, shape or structure of the arm, nor of the ways it could move. However, much like a baby babbling as it learns to speak, the system made thousands of random motions from which it gradually created an accurate internal model of itself. What looks like a distorted shadow in the picture above is an overlay of the arm's model of itself early in its learning process. After 35 hours of practice, the system developed a very accurate self model. In the picture below, you can see how closely the shadowy overlay tracks the actual arm.

Robot arm with nearly perfect self image
Credit Kwiatkowski et al.

 You can watch a video of the robot "babbling" in order to create its self image here.

Once the robot arm's brain had an accurate self image, it could very quickly learn how to perform any number of specific tasks. In the video above, you can watch the arm pick up balls and place them in a container, and also print words.

And, much like a person learning to perform a familiar task under unusual circumstances, for example with one arm in a cast, the robot rapidly modified its self image when the experimenters substituted a longer, bent piece for one segment of the arm.

Until now, the authors explain, human programmers had to spell out a robot's size, shape, and potential movements in order for it to function. “But if we want robots to become independent, to adapt quickly to scenarios unforeseen by their creators," says Lipson, "then it’s essential that they learn to simulate themselves."

The researchers also suspect that having a self image able to plan and execute a multiplicity of tasks may represent a crucial step in human development. "We believe that this separation of self and task may also have been the origin of self awareness in humans," they write.

It may seem like a long way from a robot arm generating an accurate self image to a high-functioning, seemingly self aware AI like HAL. However, the pace of development in AI is dazzlingly fast and only getting faster. It may not take many iterations before Siri or your Google Assistant isn't just a chatty interface with an amazing collection of knowledge and skills, but a self aware entity, potentially with a mind of its own.


For a more in-depth assessment of the risks of AI, here's a recent report.

And for an earlier zerospinzone commentary on the subject, click here.


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Followers of Zerospinzone know that I've been following the worldwide effort to eradicate polio, a disease that killed or paralyzed 350,000 children per year not long ago. Since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) was launched in 1988, polio has been wiped out in country after country and continent after continent. The wild polio virus now hangs on in only a few countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

The good news is that in the first month of 2019 exactly zero cases of polio were reported. Not a single child fell ill with this once terrifying and deadly scourge. What a great achievement!

Polio virus--it may soon exist only in a few super-secure laboratories

This doesn't yet mean that the virus has been completely eradicated. It may still lurk undetected in a few countries, and there's a very small but real risk that the attenuated virus used for oral inoculations can mutate in some individuals and cause cases of the disease. This complicates the polio end-game, during which at-risk populations may need to receive injections of a vaccine that uses killed virus particles, a costlier and more difficult undertaking.

However, this month with no polio cases tells us that the decades-long worldwide campaign to eradicate polio is closing in on its goal.

The apparently growing number of parents who are choosing not to have their children vaccinated might give a moment's thought to the 1950s, when polio paralyzed 15,000 children per year in the U.S. alone, and smallpox disfigured or killed an estimated 50 million people every year. A massive, worldwide effort similar to the current battle to eradicate polio succeeded brilliantly; the last case of smallpox occurred in 1979. Had anti-vaccination sentiment and propaganda been as strong then as now, millions of people would have been disfigured, paralyzed, or would have died needlessly.


Seventy people, most of them children, have died from measles in the Philippines just in the past month. Every one of those deaths was preventable.


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Friday, January 04, 2019


One of the central challenges at this moment in history is homing in on the truth in the midst of a tumult of half truths, false news, spin-doctoring, propaganda, weaponized disinformation and outright lies.

Two recent events brought this home to me.

The first is the subject of my previous blog, "The big picture--the history, size, shape and shape of Russian disinformation." The New York Times video that I summarized in that post demonstrates that "Russiagate," Russia's use of stolen and leaked documents, troll farms and social media to stir up discord and influence the 2016 presidential election, is just the very sharp tip of a huge iceberg of "active measures" or disinformation dating back to the Soviet Union during the depths of the Cold War and continuing today. In addition to tilting the electoral balance and  likely handing the presidency to Trump, in personal and practical terms, this ongoing, multi-decade campaign means that almost any piece of news or information one comes across may truly be "fake news"--a targeted distortion or flat-out lie perhaps cunningly wrapped around a bit of truth to make it more palatable.

If you haven't seen the video, please click here and take the time to view it.

The second eye-opener came from the rapidly advancing field of artificial intelligence (AI). The high-tech company NVIDIA, which specializes in graphic processing, has perfected a neural network that generates convincing portraits of people who've never existed. Here's an example:

Add to this Google Assistant's natural voice and speech and so-called "deep fake" videos like the one that seamlessly melded Scarlett Johansson's face to a porn star's body and you realize that in the immediate future we may be watching or reading about absolutely convincing videos of events that didn't take place, seeing politicians saying things they would never say, and witnessing public figures (or our next-door neighbors, friends or family members) saying and doing things they never did.

In other words, as hard is it is today to try to figure out if a news story is factual or an analytic or opinion piece is at least fact-based, telling truth from lies is going to get a lot, lot harder, and soon.

There's a famous quote of uncertain origin--"A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on." I think many of us would agree that recent history provides convincing vindication of the idea. The quote, however, needs to be updated in this age of the internet, 24-7 news cycles, social media and individually-tailored feeds of news, ads and come-ons. Perhaps a more up-to-the-minute version would read, "A swarm of lies can go viral and encircle the globe in minutes or hours, drowning out the truth completely."

I think it's vital to realize that it's not just other people who are the targets and victims of manipulation, disinformation and increasingly sophisticated fake news; it's all of us. Whether you're on the right receiving the latest reason to "lock her up" or on the left hearing about ICE's latest outrage at the border, an evangelical hearing that God has hand-picked Trump to save the US or a non-believer being provoked by the same story, we all need to realize that, like geese being fattened to make foie gras, we're being force-fed a diet that suits someone else's agenda, but is almost certainly not in our own best interest.

As FACEBOOK is discovering now that it belatedly tries to cut down on hate speech and disinformation, highly charged, sensational posts are the ones that generate clicks (and revenue). "As content gets closer to the line of what is prohibited by our community standards," says CEO Mark Zuckerberg, "we see people tend to engage with it more." And as their army of 20,000 fact checkers and content reviewers is finding out, making this kind of call is extremely hard. To get a sense of the size of this problem, Facebook says that it deleted 1.5 billion accounts between June and November of last year, and WhatsApp says it's deleting 2 million accounts every month to try to stop the flow of fake news.

I don't pretend to have a formula, an algorithm, or even much of a clue how to determine if what I'm reading or viewing online is truth or lies, meaningful argument or weaponized propaganda, especially as the purveyors of disinformation get more and more sophisticated and have more and more powerful tools at their disposal.

My alarm bells go off if a story seems too good to be true, or too bad--meaning that it too neatly confirms my preconceived views. In that case it probably is the information equivalent of junk food.  And I'm determined to tune out pretty much anything that tries to bypass my brain and push emotional buttons--communications using terms such as "urgent," "crisis," "demand," "decimate," or  "eviscerate" (button-pushers I found in just one page of emails). 

No doubt these steps are just a start, but given how toxic a diet of lies can be, I'm determined to up my game. What about you?




Saturday, December 29, 2018


If you're like me, every so often you come across something--an idea, a talk, an event--that ties all kinds of things together and makes them perfectly clear. This 47-minute video from the New York Times entitled Operation InfeKtion did that for me, putting the drip-by-drip revelations about Russian intervention to divide the US and help elect Trump into the context of Russia's, and before that the Soviet Union's multi-decade practice and perfection of the art of disinformation.

Remember Pizzagate?
Just one of many disruptive interventions. 
Photo credit: Blink O'fanay

I don't usually take the time to watch videos, but this very clear, well researched and well made piece from the Times was worth every minute. If you want to understand the origin, goals, scope and sophistication of Russia's disinformation apparatus, and how that all came together to stir up confusion and division among Amerians, denigrate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump, click here and watch the video. As I post this piece, the video has been watched by just 145,000 people. It needs to be seen by 145,000,000.

As many commentators have pointed out, the US is far from innocent when it comes to intervening in other nation's elections and internal affairs. Just note the 800 military bases that the US maintains in some 70 countries. However, that fact doesn't relieve us of the responsibility to understand what has been and is still being done to us by a very skillful, practiced and determined adversary, or to at least start to learn how to counter it.

The report reverse-engineers seven key ingredients to a successful disinformation campaign. Once you've seen the list, you'll start to see them everywhere, contributing to the miasma of misinformation and disinformation that we are immersed in. Here they are:

1. Find the cracks in the targeted society.
2. Create a big, dramatic, emotionally charged lie.
3. Wrap that lie around a kernel of truth.
4. Conceal your hand.
5. Find some "useful idiots" to back it up or propagate it.
6. If you're exposed, deny, deny, deny.
7. Play the long game.

To which I would add, in this era of social media, "Repeat, repeat, repeat on as many platforms as possible."

Russia's "meddling" in our 2016 elections may have been their most successful disinformation program, but this documentary shows that it was far from their first, and will not be the last.

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Monday, December 17, 2018


You may have heard about Greta Thunberg, the 15-year-old Swedish student who made headlines worldwide by skipping school for a month to demand action on climate change by camping out on the steps of the Swedish parliament.

Greta Thunberg and friends
on strike for climate action
Credit: Marc Fermenia

If you haven't heard her remarkable speech at the plenary session of the UN Climate Summit at Katowice, Poland, you need to. Every word rings true, and should make anyone who is not already acting to save the planet get moving now. What an amazing young person--she's like an old-testament prophet in the body of a 15-year-old girl.

You can see her speech here.  Please watch it. Every sentence hits home.

And here's a brief video she made to be played at the Davos meeting of the rich and powerful.

If you need more convincing, you can read more about the importance of her speech at Grist.

And to learn a bit more about this amazing young person, please view her TED talk here.


Saturday, November 24, 2018


The swift rise and rapid collapse of McCarthyism more than sixty years ago offers evidence and a relatively recent example of the capacity of American society and democratic institutions to recover from the paralyzing sway the politics of fear, xenophobia, ethnic division and subversion can temporarily hold over the body politic.

Donald Trump and Joseph McCarthy

Surfacing during eras of extreme cultural stress, and highly dependent on the symbolic appeal of simplistic purifying or redemptive solutions targeting infectious ‘alien’ agents—the Red Menace in the ‘50s or terrorist Muslims and Central American caravans today-- such movements rely on two basic ingredients. First, a heightened fear that ‘enemies’ have penetrated the nation’s porous borders, taking advantage of our over-tolerant institutions; and second the powerful appeal of a self-appointed charismatic leader willing to transcending normal institutional limits in order to protect the vulnerable homeland and root out by any means necessary subversive elements within and without.

There have been previous outbreaks of what historian Richard Hofstadter first described as the “Paranoid Style” in American politics. But the infectious America First nationalism and anti immigrant fear-mongering of Donald Trump today has only one major parallel: the fierce anti-communist witch-hunt fanned to a fever pitch by the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, in the early 1950’s. Though different in scope and scale, both McCarthyism and Trumpism share a common script, and, if history is any guide, contain similar seeds leading to their own ultimate devolution and destruction.

McCarthy was late to recognize but quick to exploit the enormous potential and power that extreme and undocumented charges against ‘elite’ government officials could bring at a critically unsettling moment in the early Cold War. Aided and enabled by ambitious politicians, credulous reporters and officials like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover willing to use the Senator for their own purposes, McCarthy was suddenly elevated to a position where even the threat of his investigations could silence or destroy powerful individuals and institutions at every level of government and society. Even without Trump’s enormous degree of institutional authority, McCarthy’s assumed power, for a time, seemed unlimited.

Though initially challenged by a few members of his own party who recognized the danger he posed to constitutional freedoms, and later, publicly, by media figures such as the respected broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, it was, importantly, McCarthy himself whose continuing excesses brought him down.

Legal decisions ultimately prevented some of his most extreme actions, though not before thousands of individuals had their careers and lives destroyed by mere threats or charges. Exposed to a national audience during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn’s bullying misuse of power, prompting the famous line uttered by Attorney Joseph Welch: “Senator, have you at last no decency left?” exposed him for the demagogue he was.

Once the spell was broken, the air went rapidly out of the balloon. Public approval diminished; previous supporters backed away from the spectacle. McCarthy’s political power in congress soon evaporated, and though in some cases it took decades, individuals and institutions McCarthy had attacked could begin to respond and rebuild.

We don’t know yet how many insulted American heroes, generals or admirals it will take, or how many humiliated or berated intelligence agents, or agencies. Nor how many ignorant and un-empathetic comments about the Puerto Rican hurricane, synagogue shooting or Californian fire victims.
How many juvenile or vile name-calling tweets belittling basketball players, commentators or political critics it will take to break the spell. But the spell will break. Indecency has its limits!

On the political side, the scale of the country’s growing repudiation of Trumpism is becoming increasingly evident as final vote counts in various regions confirm the strength of an actual ‘blue wave’ in national and state elections. Where Trump’s acolytes and enablers did win, their victories were hard-fought and far narrower than expected, often dependent on deliberate techniques of voter suppression and political gerrymandering. Denied or not, rising blue tides do indicate gradually melting poles of support.

True to form, and much like that of the earlier demagogue, the President’s immediate response was to attack: first by deriding losing candidates who had not sought his blessing; then by firing the Attorney General whom he had long blamed and demeaned for not sufficiently protecting him from the Mueller investigation, and then by appointing a strong supporter who would do so. Attempting to reassure his base, Mr. Trump then reignited his war with the fake news media, berating African American reporters at his first full news conference and then banning an assertive CNN reporter who insisted on asking difficult questions.

As vote counts tightened, he was quick to charge election officials with fraud, whipping up resentment and public passion against nameless ‘enemies’ as well as against the legitimate mechanisms of democratic governance. Most recently, in attacking a Federal Appeals Court ruling against his asylum policies, he incurred an unheard of rebuke by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who defined the independence of the Judicial System as a critical feature of American democracy countering the President’s attack by saying “there are no Obama judges, or Bush or Clinton judges…..”

Continual exposure to a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, willingness to incite violent passions, compulsion to lie, lack of empathy towards minorities, asylum-seekers, victims of natural disasters—and even homeless children-- and vindictiveness toward those in the press or public who dare to question his policies and behavior, appears to have begun to awaken a significant portion of the public, among them former supporters.

We may not know yet whether the “spell” has fully been broken, or where the  break point actually is, but it is clear politically that his self-inflated balloon has sprung leaks. Attacks on old ‘enemies’ (Hillary, ‘fake news’ media, congressional opponents, proponents of climate change, NATO allies) will go on, as well, but have passed their sell-by date. Those, and even newer threats like the ‘invasion’ of legitimate asylum-seekers from Central America may no longer serve to patch the increasingly visible holes. Failed tax policies, disruptive tariff wars and unexpected foreign events emanating from the Middle East—as well as the fallout from the Mueller investigation—may well complete the process.

Just as McCarthy’s rampage weakened democratic institutions at home while endangering America’s standing abroad, Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders and murderous tyrants can only undermine any remaining sense of America’s moral capacity to guide international affairs in a positive direction.

Yet, cultural and institutional limits to coarse, brutal and amoral practices in the name of public welfare do exist, and if modern American history is any guide, there is a point when ‘fevers’ (political or otherwise) do break. The question then is how basically healthy bodies can slowly recover and rebuild, and how much lasting damage has been done.

Les Adler


You can also view this post on OpEdNews


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Sunday, November 18, 2018


A friend alerted me to a superb and extremely sobering article by Bill McKibben in the November 26, 2018 edition of the New Yorker. Entitled "How Extreme Weather is Shrinking the Planet," the piece lays out in detail the depth of the climate crisis we're in, and how we got here with the help of Exxon, the Koch brothers, Rex Tillerson and decades of dithering or deluded politicians. 

McKibben offers a ray of hope, if we the people, worldwide, can come together and fight against disinformation and special interests for our own survival and the survival of the biosphere that supports us.

The future is here--Southern California wildfire
Credit: FEMA