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post #4: german green hydrogen biz eyes proto-nazi death camp island for new factory site

may 22nd, 2024

new human remains are still being discovered on namibia’s shark island, but german green energy goals have to be met

A Namibian-registered German company is trying to build a green ammonia/”clean energy” facility in Namibia on an island that also happens to be the site of a concentration camp from the 1900s where some 3,000 Namibians were murdered by colonizers in a systematic genocide. German colonizers, in a German genocide, for which the descendants of genocide victims still haven’t received reparations.

Shark Island is a windy protrusion off Namibia’s southern Atlantic coast that carries somber meaning for the Ovaherero and Namaqua peoples. After both groups separately rebelled against the vicious German colonial apparatus in the summer of 1904, the nearly uninhabitable island was reinvented as a proto-Nazi death camp. Some of the island's 3000 victims were reputedly thrown into the sea to be eaten by sharks after death. Like the "Final Solution" 35 years later, the last phase of the Namibian genocide was its most deadly. Shark Island is the best-preserved of the six death camps where the rebels, along with the rest of their communities, were abused, starved, frozen, and worked to death building a German railway line to the mainland--all part of a genocide that eventually took as many as 100,000 Namibian lives.

The historical significance of Shark Island goes beyond modern Namibian borders, however. The Germans used these death camps to hone the strategies of systematized violence they would later wield on Jews, Roma, Sinti, communists, queer people, and other undesirables under the Nazi regime. The racist violence also reinforced the ideology that would become a tenet of the Nazi worldview. One soon-to-be Nazi medical scientist, Eugen Fischer, began his career in medical experimentation on dead and dying Herero and Namaqua prisoners on Shark Island. Thus Shark Island actually holds the memory of two genocides: the resting place of the Ovaherero and Namaqua victims of German genocide also served as an incubator for the extreme racism that would be used to justify the Holocaust.

A new analysis from nonprofit Forensic Architecture of the sites of the worst brutality suggests the physical traces of colonial violence still permeate those spaces, despite systemic underfunding of their preservation. The investigation suggests Shark Island still hosts the unmarked graves and unburied remains of the victims of the death camp. Many Namibians and human rights advocates have called for a planned expansion of the port on Shark Island—now properly Shark Peninsula—to be halted in light of these grisly discoveries. Human remains have also been found in the poisoned wells of the Omaheke Sandveld. Investigators also note that the evidence suggests the death toll of the genocide could be much higher than the prevailing estimates.

"While Germany has in recent years accepted moral responsibility for the genocide, they disclaim legal responsibility, avoiding the obligation to pay reparations and facilitate restitution," explain the Forensic Architecture authors. "Across Namibia, monuments honour the perpetrators of genocide, mass graves of victims are unmarked, and sites of atrocity fall into ruin. The majority of the country’s viable land is owned by white descendants of European colonists while Black descendants of genocide victims live in intergenerational poverty.”

(Watch the full video from Forensic Architecture on the physical remnants of German colonialism in Namibia here.)

That hasn't stopped the Namibian government from seizing all opportunities to develop the island. Hyphen Energy, a German company with a new Namibian partnership, fulfills both the German national goals of clean energy investment and the Namibian goals of clean energy development. “At full scale development, the project will produce 2 million tonnes of green ammonia annually before the end of the decade for regional and global markets, from ~7GW of renewable generation capacity and ~3GW of electrolyser capacity, cutting 5-6 million tonnes (annually) of CO2 emissions, with Namibia’s annual 2021 emissions totalling 4.01 million tonnes.” The Hyphen website also has the audacity to pitch Namibia as an ideal site for a green hydrogen project because of its low population. It was, of course, colonial starvation and brutality that made the second most sparsely populated country. It was colonial armies who made huge swaths of ancestral lands unusable for generations by working the fragile soils to the point of aridity and literally poisoning village wells.

The lasting socioeconomic effects of the genocide is part of why Namibian chiefs previously rejected Germany’s offer of a 1bn euro "apology" in 2021. Not only was the number insultingly low, a testament to Germany's refusal to accept legal (and therefore economic) responsibility for its campaign, but it reflected the German authorities' disinterest in reevaluating the human cost of the genocide in accordance with modern data. Reparations are still under discussion and the second phase of Forensic Architecture's investigation is now underway, but it remains to be seen whether this glimpse into the true scale of a historical horror will force a reckoning between descendants of perpetrators and of victims and survivors.

post #3: tumblr ceo has meltdown, reveals history of systemic transmisogyny, shits pants

february 27th, 2024

matt mullenweg's fragile ego ushers in a new wave of harassment for trans women users

trans women and trans femmes have called out tumblr's evident transmisogyny for over a decade. openly trans users, especially Black women and sex workers, are routinely booted from the platform for innocuous posts under the guise of "community guidelines". a few days ago, trans user @predstrogen made a joke the new CEO didn't like. in the meltdown that followed, matt mullenweg not only axed OP's account for what was clearly a facetious statement, but went on to violate data privacy law by stalking tumblr users who had reblogged the joke approvingly (all trans women) onto other platforms. you can read @predstrogen's full goodbye letter here.

maia arson crimew (on tumblr @nyancrimew) pointed out an immediate uptick in the normally predictable flow of transmisogynistic hate mail it receives, including messages that specifically referenced mullenweg's failprop campaign following tumblr's expulsion of @predstrogen.

bizarrely, in one of many (as yet undeleted, but we'll see) posts on the topic on his tumblr, mullenweg appeared to confirm long-held suspicions that tumblr's moderation had been transphobic by design during a period that ended years before mullenweg's tenure. during that time, transphobic moderators used tumblr as a site for their personal vendettas against trans femmes. by reporting fully clothed selfies of trans femmes as 'sexually explicit', those moderators expelled countless members of the tumblr community during their reign. they also contributed to a widespread culture of harassment towards trans women on tumblr.

in response to users' demands for an explanation, mullenweg updated his profile to include a pinned post that outlines his personal values. because what trans sex workers who lose access to their primary means of income really want is to know that the cis man who could have reversed it believes in Freedom of Body Modification. what really matters to him is not the impact his company's policies have on the lived experiences of trans users, but that everyone on the internet knows that he, matt, is personally a really nice guy.

as trans tumblr user @kalamity-jane wrote, "Matt's "principles and beliefs" are nothing more than a meaningless genuflection because it's motivated not by the selfless desire to make us feel safer here, it's motivated by his need for us to think he's actually a "good boy" and this all just a misunderstanding."

Posts are disappearing as mullenweg moves into Phase: Failspin and tries to cover his ass, but unfortunately for him, tumblr's receipts game-- like its hate mail game-- is famously unmatched.

UPDATE: on sunday @staff posted a statement that appears to directly contradict much of what mullenweg has said in the days since @predstrogen's removal. calling themselves "a few of the trans staff at tumblr and automattic", the authors lamented an alleged misrepresentation in @predstrogen's original removal notice that made the case appear more transmisogynist than it really was. they then say of the ceo's response: "Matt thereafter failed to recognize the harm to the community as a result of this suspension. Matt does not speak on behalf of the LGBTQ+ people who help run Tumblr or Automattic, and we were not consulted in the construction of a response to these events." the post also promises renewed prioritization for anti-harassment tools and internal reporting systems.

post #2: we took technology that sucks on the ground and put it in the sky

february 15, 2024

the competition heats up (bad)

since my last post on the topic i have continued to receive pitches about "new" AI applications, but most of them have been repeats of (bad) ideas i've heard before. but there are exceptions. below are two that stand out.

case 1. writing obituaries

last month, when a respected US basketball player died tragically, at least one human being employed by MSN's purported editorial department decided it was the perfect time to whip out the obituary-writing bot. the result, archived here, looks almost identical to most of the soulless word hash regurgitated by large language models under the "news" heading--and they might have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for that headline: brandon hunter useless at 42.

msn, microsoft's news brand, has operated with mostly AI "reporters" since 2020.

in more ambiguous news, there are also now a slew of "ai obituary generators"--online tools that turn details about dead loved ones into complete obituaries. i've never had to write one but i've heard it's miserable work, so maybe this is one use-case that is actually worth the compute power. maybe.

case 2. ai-enabled gadgetbahn (sky edition)

self-driving vehicles have already made the world worse. the tesla autopilot feature was involved in 736 crashes and 17 deaths as of july. they weren't really gadgetbahns (grifty/pointless transportation "innovations") until google's alphabet's own waymo fused one dubious idea (self-driving cars) with arguably the first gadgetbahn ever (taxis). in 2017 they released a plague of self-driving taxis on unsuspecting US streets.

waymo currently "drives" in two cities: greater phoenix (whose transit authority, SEPTA, will operate at a 240 million dollar deficit in 2024) and san francisco (where extreme de facto segregation means even decent public transit services like BART and muni functionally only serve the wealthy). and while waymo's cars are not teslas, they still aren't as crashproof as their marketing suggests (in june, a waymo vehicle killed a dog).

naturally some tech entrepreneur has been looking for a third hot luxury tech trend to combine with this disaster to balance the whole thing out somehow. e-hang, a guangzhou-based corporation, has decided that the thing this hot mess needs is drones. they want to put human beings in unmanned aerial vehicles and fly them through the airspace over city centers--what chinese government types call a city's "low-altitude economy".

the EH216 is technically an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) vehicle, designed for "short trips" (its battery maxes out at 19 miles). it reaches a top speed of 62 mph/100kph. in october the chinese aviation authority officially declared the 216--and its two-seater version, the EH216s--skyworthy, though only test voyages have been completed so far.

and wouldn't you know it, the shit is actually selling. the company has already won contracts to sell 100 EH216 series units to the UAE and 50 to shenzhen for "aerial tourism". they also convinced to the catalonian government to build a vertiport at lleida-alguaire international airport in spain.

as fun as it would be to try to regulate transit airspace over high-density cities, i am cautiously optimistic about society's ability to reject this new scheme. i'm basing this prediction on previous attempts to introduce luxury tech into public spaces. waymo's self driving vans and cars are targets of constant vandalism in arizona, in particular because they seem categorically incapable of navigating a standard T-intersection. waymo and cruise (a general electric subsidiary) are among the driverless cars that routinely attempt to pull over at the first sign of san francisco's famous fog. three days ago, someone torched an unoccupied waymo car with a firework in downtown sf. in the same city the activist group safe street rebels, have been systematically disabling autonomous vehicles since 2022 by "creating unicorns" (gluing orange cones to their hoods so they freak out and refuse to move).

if drone taxis ever fly in the US, i'd predict people will respond to them the way they already have to waymo vans and cars, and to drones, delivery robots, and other technological symbols of extreme wealth and need inequality--techno-luxury products that wander too close to a public that instantly recognizes what they are. as in, they will attempt to shoot them down by any means available.

post #1: the worst ways to make money with AI

part 1 of ??? (August 26, 2023)

introduction (why write about bad ideas?)

in 2019, popular mechanics asked me to write a 'decade in review' article about how AI evolved during the 2010s. the resulting piece was more of an explainer of AI buzzwords that were relatively new to me at the time than a glimpse into my personal opinions on any of these technologies. over the past four years, while the technologies behind automated bias and mega-dataset processing have only changed a little, the role of AI in human life is coming into sharper focus. and since this is a blog post, i can just come out and say it: AI fuckin' sucks, guys.

when journalists become 'established' on a beat, strangers on the internet start sending story ideas out of the blue. sometimes the idea is tangentially related to something that interested you anyway and it all comes together in glorious harmony, like when a random PR email about IoT-enabled buoys dovetails with a mini-obsession on my part with FCC airwave regulation to illustrate the increasingly crowded radio space in north america. most of the time, though, the pitches tech journalists get are chewed-up corporate drivel. interviews are always proposed with the CEO or founder--a sure sign that the executive, not a media expert, is the one designing the pitch. the very last person you want to ask about why a technology matters is the person who believes the right choice of words will make them the next tech billionaire. when the product in question is even slightly AI-adjacent, all the above gets worse: the executive's expectations for publicity and profit are even higher, while their understanding of how their own product actually works tends to gradually approach zero.

given these circumstances, it may not be surprising that i've never even followed up on an unsolicited AI pitch, let alone turned one into an actual story. in fact, the pitches i have received on the subject regularly remind me that we're still in the phase of AI evolution where anyone with enough money can pay a programmer to slap an algorithm on an ill-gotten dataset and sell subscriptions to whatever it churns out. while i'm probably never going to write an *official* article about all these garbage ideas and why they suck, it occurred to me recently that it might be worth explaining why that will never happen, even if only to myself.

so, as much out of spite as intellectual curiosity, i'm compiling a list of the worst AI-related business ideas I've heard over the past four years. some of them were pitched to me directly; others came from big PR newsletters, credulous tech rags, and tumblr. all of them elicit emotions in me that could not possibly have existed in a time before AI, so thanks for that. please enjoy these horrible, free ideas, and please pray with me to robot satan that not one of them ever successfully disrupts shit.

the list

tier III (harmless yet morally or intellectually offensive)

the EKG-headband-chatbot-therapist. finally, a technology that replaces expensive, human-error-riddled concepts like 'therapy' and 'empathy' with highly monetizable chatGPT. this one is only harmless as long as people see through the scam. but mental health care is expensive and inaccessible, so i worry about a future where garbage chat apps get hooked up to mental health surveillance channels to further pathologize and criminalize addiction and mental illness. large language models (LLMs) like the one that powers chatGPT also come with fun built-in vulnerabilities that are only starting to come to light. attackers can jailbreak the algorithm to mess with the bot's instructions--for example, by overriding safety features that keep it from encouraging self-harm, or by instructing the bot to imitate an abusive person (or to demand credit card information).

tier II (lots of potential to cause actual suffering)

AI-generated foraging guides written by nonexistent authors with nonexistent qualifications. AI has been "writing" books for half a decade already, but i personally didn't understand how dangerous that could be until i heard about this particular genre. because if there's one thing you want to trust a large language model to explain to you, it's the difference between toxic and edible mushrooms. while i haven't personally heard of anyone dying because they thought the foraging guide they bought had been fact-checked by a human being, it seems like that's the only possible outcome of selling this mush as a cheaper alternative to genuine expertise. in the words of Alexis Nikole Nelson (@blackforager), "i'm just worried that someone who doesn't know any better is going to poison themselves."

AI business books. books written by supposed AI business experts sell AI itself as an "exponential revenue driver". while many clearly buy into their own hype, my impression is that some of these dorks think they're only exploiting other executives, which is a noble pursuit. the problem is that we live on a planet suffering under the crushing "growth" of unrestrained capitalism. books like these help executives continue to delude themselves that data is immaterial, which means AI is magic that makes money out of theoretical numbers without hurting anyone. just like these authors, the execs and business hopefuls who buy these books see the economy itself as a bottomless font of profit and personal glory. that makes it a lot easier for everyone invovled to cordon off their expertise around the "business side" of AI, relegating human and environmental costs to footnotes in their own journeys to success.

tier I (suffering imminent)

AI assembly lines. an AI-first company is one that relies on an algorithm, but also, inevitably, on anonymous, undercompensated human labor. Mary L. Gray and Siddharth Suri's Ghost Work from 2019 explored the growing ranks of AI laborers--the humans workers who label datasets, flag mistakes, and otherwise provide common-sense checks to the AI's overconfident statistical analysis. they found that the field is much bigger and more diverse than they'd expected--and that worker protections are virtually nonexistent.

bias-multiplying surveillance and security systems. this thinking removes accountability from the human chain of command and creating technological deniability for violent treatment of unfairly feared groups. products like these are typically sold to business owners and cops--more of that good old-fashioned consolidation of power.

minority language control. linguistics has a long history of chewing up Indigenous and other oppressed groups' languages for the sake of intellectual exercise. AI hasn't changed that so much as made the process faster, less labor-intensive, and potentially much more profitable. openAI's translation app, whisper, was trained on thousands of hours of audio footage scraped from the web, including over a thousand hours of Maori language--all without endorsement, let alone input, from actual Maori people. the result of the scraping and analysis--a mediocre translation app--is hardly as important as the reaction of the speaker population. Maori ethicist and academic Karaitaiana Taiuru told Eco-Business, "Data is like our land and natural resources...If Indigenous peoples don't have sovereignty of their own data, they will simply be re-colonised in this information society."

machine learning drones. as if enabling remote murder weren't depressing enough, some drones now have AI-enabled navigation systems. these weapons learn from new environments and even make decisions in the air--where, of course, no one can physically stop them from carrying out unsupervised statistical robot justice. this is the most extreme example i can think of that demonstrates how AI can be used to create artifical boundaries between the human decision-maker and the humans and environment impacted by that decision. when WWII generals wanted bombs deployed, they at least had to hand off immediate culpability to the human pilots who carried out those orders. AI drones, and whatever other autonomous self-teaching weapons get churned out in the future, are the lethal endpoint of bias automation so far.