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The Continuing Bizarre Decline in Science Reporting at The New York Times

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From an editors’ note appended to a New York Times report over the weekend, about COVID-19 vaccinations for children:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described actions taken by regulators in Sweden and Denmark. They have halted use of the Moderna vaccine in children; they have not begun offering single doses. The article also misstated the number of Covid hospitalizations in U.S. children. It is more than 63,000 from August 2020 to October 2021, not 900,000 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The report is from Apoorva Mandavilli, the reporter who replaced longtime science reporter Donald J. McNeil on the Times’s COVID beat — the same reporter who last month approvingly quoted an epidemiologist who was against booster shots for adults on the nonsensical grounds that “the added benefit may be minimal — and obtained just as easily by wearing a mask, or avoiding indoor dining and crowded bars.”

The difference between 63,000 and 900,000 hospitalized children is not a small error — it’s more than an order of magnitude difference. If nearly a million U.S. children had been hospitalized from COVID-19, our entire perception of this pandemic would be fundamentally different. How did this error even make it past editing? It’s not even a remotely plausible figure given our lived experience of this pandemic.

Here’s a good example of how mind-boggling this error is. The median household income in the U.S. is about $68,000. Imagine if The New York Times ran a story about economic policy which stated that the average household income in the U.S. was $900,000. That’s preposterous. Yet that’s exactly how bad the science reporting at the Times has gotten — an error of that magnitude regarding a crucial COVID statistic went into print.

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skivvie
920 days ago
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It’s becoming trite to ask “where are the adults?”
Draper, Utah
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Tim Sweeney’s June 30 Letter to Apple

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Epic CEO Tim Sweeney, in a letter to Apple on June 30:

Please confirm within two weeks if Apple agrees in principle to allow Epic to provide a competing app store and competing payment processing, in which case we will meet with your team to work out the details including Epic’s firm commitment to utilize any such features diligently to protect device security, customer privacy, and a high-quality user experience. If we do not receive your confirmation, we will understand that Apple is not willing to make the changes necessary to allow us to provide Android customers with the option of choosing their app store and payment processing system.

Hard to believe Apple didn’t go for this. Such careful copy-and-pasting makes for such a compelling argument.

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skivvie
1336 days ago
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AAAAaaaaamazing
Draper, Utah
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Enjoy this strange new audiovisual illusion from Caltech scientists

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Caltech researchers developed the illusion above to illustrate postdiction, a sensory phenomenon "in which a stimulus that occurs later can retroactively affect our perceptions of an earlier event." From Caltech Matters:

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," says first author Noelle Stiles (PhD '15), a visitor in biology and biological engineering and a postdoctoral scholar–research associate at USC. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process. For example, how does the brain determine reality with information from multiple senses that is at times noisy and conflicting? The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem. When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes...."

Postdictive processing has been demonstrated within individual senses, but this work focuses on how the phenomenon can bridge multiple senses. The key to both of the new illusions is that the audio and visual stimuli occur rapidly, in under 200 milliseconds (one-fifth of a second). The brain, trying to make sense of this barrage of information, synthesizes the stimuli from both senses to determine the experience, using postdiction to do so.

Read more in the researchers' scientific paper: "What you saw is what you will hear: Two new illusions with audiovisual postdictive effects" (PLoS ONE)

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skivvie
2016 days ago
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The reason illusions are important, and why I've been fascinated by them for as long as I can recall, is that they are a window into how internally constructed our personal reality really is. They are an undeniable way to show someone that what you see/hear/think is entirely malliable, influencable, and often incorrect once compared to what's actually going on.

The implications of this are profound, including how you think about religion, philosophy, justice, empathy, time and on and on. Illusions are a very basic and easy to access window into all of these deep topics.

This illusion demonstrates how one sense affects another in terms of created perception.
Draper, Utah
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Woody Guthrie and the Family Trump

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More than a year ago, before the Iowa caucuses, the story of folk singer/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie’s hatred for his landlord, Fred Trump (father of Donald) started to circulate. (I believe the first piece was this nicely done essay at The Conversation, by Will Kaufman.)

The story goes like this: Between 1950 and 1952, Guthrie lived in a Federal Housing Administration-funded low-income apartment building in Brooklyn’s Coney Island built by Fred Trump. But Trump (who already had a history of bigotry, including an arrest at a Klan parade that turned into a riot in 1927), quickly worked to segregate even his federal developments, prohibiting black tenants from renting in majority-white complexes or neighborhoods.

Guthrie moved out of the Trump building when his two-year-lease was up, but wrote a song about it called “Old Man Trump”:

I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate
He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts
When he drawed that color line
Here at his Beach Haven family project

Beach Haven ain’t my home!
No, I just can’t pay this rent!
My money’s down the drain,
And my soul is badly bent!
Beach Haven is Trump’s Tower
Where no black folks come to roam,
No, no, Old Man Trump!
Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!

And in fact, Donald and his father Fred would eventually be sued for housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act of 1968; this was 1973, and was the first time Donald Trump ever appeared in the New York Times (“Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City”). They settled the lawsuit in 1975.

But that’s not the end of the story. The present-day Trump slogan “America First” is a direct callback to the America First Committee, an isolationist antiwar group that formed after the outbreak of World War 2 in Europe. It included pacifists and farmers and students and socialists and businessmen and a lot of wealthy, anti-Semitic, pro-German, pro-fascist Americans, notably its main spokesman Charles Lindbergh.

As it happens, one of Woody Guthrie’s best protest songs, “Lindbergh” (or “Mister Charlie Lindbergh”) is about America First. It criticizes Lindbergh and the group, but also the devil’s bargain socialist and other workers’ groups across the midwest had made in partnering up with pro-Nazi capitalists:

Hitler said to Lindy: “Stall ‘em all you can,
Gonna bomb Pearl Harbor with the help of old Japan.”
In Washington, Washington.

Then on a December mornin’, the bombs come from Japan,
Wake Island and Pearl Harbor, kill fifteen hundred men.
In Washington, Washington

Now Lindy tried to join the army, but they wouldn’t let him in,
Afraid he’d sell to Hitler a few more million men.
In Washington, Washington

So I’m a-gonna tell you people, if Hitler’s gonna be beat,
The common workin’ people has got to take the seat
In Washington, Washington.

And I’m gonna tell you workers, ‘fore you cash in your checks:
They say “America First,” but they mean “America Next!”
In Washington, Washington.

Easy enough to remember.

Tags: Donald Trump   music   politics   Woody Guthrie
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skivvie
2632 days ago
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History is amazing ... The lines that can be drawn to string it together are intricate and deep. Woodie Guthrie's ties to the Trump family history for instance... Exhibit 1. Great reading about the history of the Trump family regardless.
Draper, Utah
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Penn and Teller Burn a Flag in the White House

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“You go to law school?”

“No, clown school.”

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skivvie
2697 days ago
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The irony is that they don't even burn the flag.
Draper, Utah
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★ Walt Mossberg: ‘Why Does Siri Seem So Dumb?’

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Walt Mossberg:

So why does Siri seem so dumb? Why are its talents so limited? Why does it stumble so often? When was the last time Siri delighted you with a satisfying and surprising answer or action?

I have an answer for this: when I discovered during the NBA playoffs that Siri can tell you the Vegas betting odds for sporting events.

In recent weeks, on multiple Apple devices, Siri has been unable to tell me the names of the major-party candidates for president and vice president of the United States. Or when they were debating. Or when the Emmy awards show was due to be on. Or the date of the World Series. […]

Google Now, on the same Apple devices, using the same voice input, answered every one of these questions clearly and correctly. And that isn’t even Google’s latest digital helper, the new Google Assistant.

If you try most of these broken examples right now, they’ll work properly, because Apple fixed them after I tweeted screenshots of most of them in exasperation, and asked the company about them.

Indeed, Siri now knows Siri now does know the date and time of the next U.S. presidential debate, but where Siri fundamentally falls apart is its inability to maintain context and chain together multiple commands. Here was my interaction trying this just now, transcribed exactly as Siri heard me:

Me: When is the next presidential debate?1

Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Me: OK add it to my calendar.

Siri: OK, tell me the date and time of your event.

Me: Add the next presidential debate to my calendar.

Siri: I didn’t find any appointments about ‘presidential debate’ in the next three months.

Another attempt:

Me: When is the next presidential debate?

Siri: The third 2016 presidential debate will take place from 9:00pm to 10:30pm ET on Wednesday, October 19 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Me: Remind me about it one hour before it starts.

Siri: OK, I’ll remind you to ‘It starts’. When would you like to be reminded?

Five years in, this seems like a reasonable (and useful) thing to expect Siri to be able to do. 2

Mossberg:

For instance, when I asked Siri on my Mac how long it would take me to get to work, it said it didn’t have my work address — even though the “me” contact card contains a work address and the same synced contact card on my iPhone allowed Siri to give me an answer.

Similarly, on my iPad, when I asked what my next appointment was, it said “Sorry, Walt, something’s wrong” — repeatedly, with slightly different wording, in multiple places on multiple days. But, using the same Apple calendar and data, Siri answered correctly on the iPhone.

These sort of glaring inconsistencies are almost as bad as universal failures. The big problem Apple faces with Siri is that when people encounter these problems, they stop trying. It feels like you’re wasting your time, and makes you feel silly or even foolish for having tried. I worry that even if Apple improves Siri significantly, people will never know it because they won’t bother trying because they were burned so many times before. In addition to the engineering hurdles to actually make Siri much better, Apple also has to overcome a “boy who cried wolf” credibility problem.

I think “assistant” is the exact right term for this class of software. But I can’t imagine how stupid an actual human assistant would have to be not to understand a request like “Find out when the next debate is and put it on my calendar.”


  1. Even worse: If I ask “When is the next US presidential debate?” (note the “US”), Siri parses it correctly but instead of answering, falls back to an offer to display search results from the web. It seems wrong that a more specific query would fail. ↩︎

  2. To be fair, I tried the same two-step sequence (when’s the next debate?; add it to my calendar) with Google Assistant running in the Allo app on Android, and it failed in the same way. I remain unconvinced that Siri is behind the competition, and even if it is, I don’t think it’s by much. ↩︎︎

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skivvie
2745 days ago
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Every week or so I try Siri to do a menail task or answer a question. and every time without fail since it's inception it frustrates me. Then I tap the google icon and get what I want instantly. Apple is choking hard on their interaction model. And I get more annoyed all the time I can't just have google integrated into iOS in the same way siri is. Everything is amazing and everything sucks ;-)
Draper, Utah
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2 public comments
fxer
2745 days ago
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"even if Apple improves Siri significantly, people will never know it because they won’t bother trying because they were burned so many times before."

We call that the Apple Maps Effect
Bend, Oregon
gazuga
2744 days ago
I'd make a distinction between Siri and Maps from personal observation of Apple users. I think usage statistics bear me out on this one too. People don't need a voice assistant, and Siri has evolved over the years from bad to still not good enough, so they give up. People need mapping, and Maps has evolved from bad to good enough in many areas, especially North American cities, so they don't bother installing Google Maps.
koffie
2741 days ago
Where I live, the only thing Google Maps is better at than Apple Maps is public transport since that's simply not yet available here. I rarely need that, so Google Maps is installed, but hidden in some folder somewhere... Siri on the other hand is not very useful, the only time I use it is to call someone when I'm in my car, and only people that I know it will understand his/her name, otherwise I prefer the crappy car-UI to browse through my contacts that were synced over BT.
sirshannon
2745 days ago
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Context isn't the only problem. This interaction is just broken, as are others listed above, regardless of context or lack of context:

Me: Remind me about it one hour before it starts.

Siri: OK, I’ll remind you to ‘It starts’. When would you like to be reminded?
MotherHydra
2744 days ago
YEP. total dumpster fire.
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