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Wed, 22 Jan 2020
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Siri & Alexa might be having a sex change, but why does your phone's voice assistant need to be gender-neutral?

gender neutral
© AFP / Getty Images North America / Sara D. Davis
Projects to develop gender-neutral voice assistants to replace the historically dominant white and Chinese male voices are not solving a real problem - they are creating one.

As products like Alexa and Siri face mounting criticism that the technology behind them disproportionately misunderstands women and ethnic minorities, voice software companies are developing gender neutral voice systems to ensure that the voice tech industry becomes more inclusive - both when it listens and talks.

This might sound positive, but it is absurd in the extreme. What precisely is the problem these companies are trying to solve?


British consultancy firm predicts 'global unrest' to spread from 47 to 75 countries this year

protests global unrest
Almost a quarter of the world's countries witnessed a surge in protest and unrest last year and that figure is set to rise further in 2020, according to a new study.

There are 195 countries in the world, if the Vatican and Palestine are included, and a newly released index of civil unrest has claimed that 47 of those states witnessed a rise in civil unrest in 2019.

The data model, published Thursday by socio-economic and political analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft, has also predicted that in 2020, the number will balloon to 75 countries.

Comment: Verisk Maplecroft is a British "data analytics organisation" that "quantifies risk" for financial investors, corporations and govts.

The U.K. consultancy identified Hong Kong and Chile as the two flashpoints suffering the largest increases in unrest since the beginning of 2019. Neither country is expected to find peace for at least two years, according to the research.

Comment: We haven't seen the full report, but based on the firm's summary and media reports about it, they seem to have omitted the unrest in Western countries.

Depending on how far they go to dethrone Trump, civil war conditions could brew in the US. There has been a 15-month-long insurgency in France. A secessionist movement in Catalonia, Spain, has flared up twice in 3 years. Then there's the acute risk of unrest resulting from Brexit (including, but not limited to, the Scottish secessionist movement and the Irish reunification movement).

And what about the unrest in Europe as a whole if another wave of war refugees results from the US economically-strangling/bombing Iran?

Arrow Down

Man charged with beating driver of school bus full of kids

School bus
A bus driver in North Carolina was transporting kids to school when her ex-boyfriend boarded the vehicle and began beating the woman, who managed to keep her foot on the brake even after being knocked to the floor, police said.

The Scotland County Schools driver had stopped to pick up students along her morning route Tuesday in Laurinburg when 46-year-old Kenneth Latrel Revels boarded unexpectedly, the Laurinburg Police Department said in a statement.

Revels is accused of punching her repeatedly and stomping her head after knocking her to the floor. As many as 20 children were on board, watching while she struggled to keep her foot on the brake to prevent the bus from "moving uncontrollably."


Over nine years - more than 100 billion pain pills saturated the nation

© John Moore/Getty Images
From 2006 through 2014, more than 100 billion doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone were distributed nationwide, according to federal drug data.
Newly disclosed federal drug data shows that more than 100 billion doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone were shipped nationwide from 2006 through 2014 — 24 billion more doses of the highly addictive pain pills than previously known to the public.

The data, which traces the path of every pain pill shipped in the United States, shows the extent to which opioids flooded the country as deaths from the epidemic continued to climb over nine years.

The Washington Post and the company that owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia first obtained the data, collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration, from 2006 through 2012 after waging a year-long legal fight. In July, The Post reported that the data revealed that the nation's drug companies had manufactured and distributed more than 76 billion pain pills.

Comment: Fatal addiction: Chris Hedges reports on America's opioid crisis


"Security incident"? Flights diverted as RAF demands 'unplanned' closure of airspace for operational mission


Dozens of flights including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic services to Heathrow are diverted or delayed as RAF demands 'unplanned' closure of airspace for operational mission
Dozens of flights bound for Heathrow were diverted or delayed this morning after an RAF plane demanded an 'unplanned' use of airspace.

At least four Heathrow-bound British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic aircraft were forced to land at other airports such as Gatwick, Stansted and Luton.

Meanwhile, many other flights were delayed as a result of planes being 'stacked' above Greater London as they waited for airspace to clear.

The closure of airspace - which began at around 9am on Friday - lasted for approximately 20 minutes.

Comment: Landing at a different airport is quite the inconvenience for travellers, one wonders just exactly what this "sortie" entailed?

See also: Sonic boom wakes thousands of residents, shakes houses, as RAF jets scramble to intercept unresponsive aircraft near London


Glassdoor is broken: Anonymous reviews are a double-edged sword

glassdoor app
Public reviews serve an essential purpose in holding governments and institutions, stores and restaurants, and teachers and employers accountable. I fully and enthusiastically support transparency, including for private companies like my own. The problem is that literally anyone can lob a reputational bomb online, and it can be as devastating (and career-threatening) as any other kind of exploitive or maliciously opportunistic behavior, including those of unsavory leaders who deserve exposure.

Amida Technology Solutions, of which I was a co-founder and where I still serve as CEO, is a 50-person data-management software company, based in Washington D.C. that specializes in health information. I started Amida on my kitchen table in 2013 with two members of the inaugural class of Presidential Innovation Fellows, and raised money from first-tier investors three years later. We grew by 50 percent in 2018 and faster still in 2019. The coming year looks promising. Anyone who has ever started a company from scratch, or made an early-stage investment, would find our nascent success unusual, if not remarkable.

Inevitably, over the years I've occasionally had to make tough decisions about letting people go. In every instance there were detailed discussions about what's missing and how to do better, delivered in a spirit of "hey, we're not on a good path here." But no matter how it is packaged, letting people go sucks. It is rough on the employer (because there are often personal relationships involved, and because the position needs to be re-filled) and it is, tautologically, terrible for the employee. And because these discussions need to be private and discreet, such decisions can be a shock to the rest of the team. In such a situation, a well-intentioned website like Glassdoor — a platform on which employees can post anonymous reviews of their present or former companies and employers — can become a repository for bitterness, resentment, and frustration.

Wedding Rings

'Setting sail for Valinor': Christopher Tolkien, son of 'Lord of the Rings' author, dies at 95 as fans honor his literary legacy

one ring rule them all
© Reuters / Ho New
Middle-earth just lost its best defender. Christopher Tolkien, son of 'Lord of the Rings' author JRR Tolkien and guardian of his works, has passed away aged 95, prompting a rush of condolences and emotional tributes from admirers.

The renowned author and editor's passing was announced on Thursday by the Tolkien Society, one of many institutions established in his father's honor. He is survived by three sons and his wife Baillie.

"All of us in the Tolkien Society will share in the sadness at the news of Christopher Tolkien's death," said the society's chair, Shaun Gunner. "Millions of people around the world will be forever grateful to Christopher for bringing us 'The Silmarillion,' 'The Children of Hurin,' 'The History of Middle-earth' series and many others."

"We have lost a titan and he will be sorely missed."

Comment: See also:

No Entry

Facebook censors explainer clip recalling when western media liked Soleimani - and demonetizes popular account for sharing it

Qasem Soleimani
© Global Look Press /Xinhua /Ahmad Halabisaz
A poster of top Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani, killed in a US strike, is seen on a street in Tehran, Iran, on Jan. 3, 2020.
Facebook is doubling down on censorship of anything less than villification of slain Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani, deleting a clip showing his history of fighting terrorism - and demonetizing the account posting it.

The social media behemoth didn't just remove independent journalist Dan Cohen's 'In the Now' segment, "How 'good guy' Soleimani became US media's 'bad guy," from the show's page on Tuesday - it demonetized In the Now entirely, citing the typical unspecified violations of "community standards." The move comes amid an alarming escalation in the platform's crackdown on political speech that runs contrary to US foreign policy, a wave of censorship that has not been limited to Facebook.

Comment: See also:


Protests over citizenship law: Indian Liberal Elites like democracy if they agree with the results

Anti-CAA liberal protestor
© Reuters / Francis Mascarenhas
Protests in India over a controversial citizenship amendment law have curiously exposed the duplicity of liberals when it comes to their commitment to democracy.

Left-backed student unions and Muslim groups have been up in arms over a law that they perceive to be "anti-Muslim." Backing up this protest movement, liberal Indians have revealed their cards.

For the youth to resist the charms of "revolution" — to be angry without a cause and bask in the romance and idealism of protests is fine. Such a phenomenon is common across the world — and examples abound in India's own past. Pragmatism is usually a post-facto realization for the young.

As British conservative thinker, polymath and philosopher Roger Scruton said of the 1968 student agitation in Paris, an event that shaped his political thinking: "What I saw was an unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans" uttering "ludicrous Marxist gobbledegook."

Black Cat

Vetting fail: 'Fake officer' lied his way into Swedish military intel & NATO, hid forged credentials for decade

Military patrol Sweden
© Reuters / TT News Agency / File
Military patrol in Sweden
A Swedish man with no official training faked his way into the top ranks of Swedish military intelligence, helming sensitive projects before he was posted to NATO and later the Coast Guard. How did this happen?

The Swedish Armed Forces - and now NATO, which only learned of the deception this week - are furious, demanding to know how the man was able to slip through the cracks even after he was discovered and booted from his high-ranking Coast Guard post in January 2019 - only to reemerge at the helm of Sweden's UN mission to Mali.

The faker first bluffed his way into a supervisory role in the military in Kosovo and Afghanistan, forging a diploma from the Signal Troops Officers' College in Enköping with a fake colonel's signature, Dagens Nyheter revealed on Monday.