US Congress takes charge of prayer breakfast event over concerns that it had become too political!

FILE - President Joe Biden speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

President Joe Biden speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, Feb. 3, 2022, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Dear Commons Community,

The National Prayer Breakfast, scheduled for later this week, is one of the most visible and long-standing events that brings religion and politics together in Washington.  It was announced yesterday that it is splitting from the private religious group that had overseen it for decades, due to concerns the gathering had become too divisive.

The organizer and host for this year’s breakfast, scheduled for Thursday, will be the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, headed by former Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.

Sen. Chris Coons, a regular participant and chairman of the Senate ethics committee, said the move was prompted in part by concerns in recent years that members of Congress did not know important details about the larger multiday gathering.

Coons, D-Del., said that in the past, he and Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, the committee’s vice chairman, had questions about who was invited and how money was being raised.  As reported by the Associated Press.

The annual event “went on several days, had thousands of people attending, and a very large and somewhat complex organization,” Coons said in an interview. “Some questions had been raised about our ability as members of Congress to say that we knew exactly how it was being organized, who was being invited, how it was being funded. Many of us who’d been in leadership roles really couldn’t answer those questions.”

That led to lawmakers deciding to take over organizing for the prayer breakfast itself.

Pryor, president of the new foundation, said the COVID-19 shutdown gave members a chance to “reset” the breakfast and return it to its origins — a change he said had been discussed for years.

“The whole reason the House and Senate wanted to do this was to return it to its roots, when House members and Senate members can come together and pray for the president, pray for his family and administration, pray for our government, the world,” Pryor said.

Pryor said members of Congress, the president, vice president and other administration officials and their guests are invited to Thursday’s prayer breakfast, which will be held at the visitors’ center at the Capitol. He anticipated between 200 and 300 people would attend.

Pryor said he hoped the smaller event will regain the intimacy that is similar to the weekly nondenominational prayer gatherings on Capitol Hill. Groups of senators and representatives have long held unofficial meetings for fellowship and to temporarily set aside political differences.

The prayer breakfast addressed by the president has been the highlight of a multiday event for 70 years. Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to attend, in February 1953, and every president since has spoken at the gathering.

The larger event, put on by a private religious group called the International Foundation, has always been centered around “the person and principles of Jesus, with a focus on praying for leaders of our nation and from around the world,” the group’s spokesman, A. Larry Ross, said in an email.

More than 1,400 people are registered for the two-day event, with one-third of those from outside the United States.

President Joe Biden, who has spoken at the breakfast the past two years, is set to do so again. In 2021, he made remarks from the White House during a virtual breakfast the month after the building was attacked by supporters of former President Donald Trump intent on trying to stop the certification of the 2020 election.

At last year’s address from the Capitol, Biden talked about the need for members of Congress to know one another more personally.

“It’s hard to really dislike someone when you know what they’re going through is the same thing you’re going through,” he said.

In recent years, questions about the International Foundation, its funding and attendees had led some to reconsider the involvement of Congress.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., stopped coming in 2016 because the event “had become an entertainment and lobbying extravaganza rather than an opportunity for spiritual reflection,” a Kaine spokeswoman wrote in an emailed response to questions. Kaine will attend Thursday.

The gathering came under heightened criticism in 2018 when Maria Butina, a Russian operative, pleaded guilty in 2018 to conspiring to infiltrate conservative U.S. political groups with the aim of advancing Russian interests. According to court documents, she attended two breakfasts in hopes of setting up unofficial connections between Russian and U.S. officials.

It took on political undertones with Trump shattering the custom of the address being a respite from partisan bickering. He used his 2020 speech to criticize his first impeachment and attack political opponents, including Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Earlier this month, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter signed by 30 groups to the White House and members of Congress asking them to boycott the event because of questions about the International Foundation.

The organization’s co-president, Annie Laurie Gaylor, said the foundation’s basic concerns with the breakfast remain despite the split with the larger religious gathering.

“For decades, FFRF has protested the appearance of the National Prayer Breakfast being a quasi-governmental gathering, which pressures the president and Congress to put on a display of piety that sends a message that the United States is a Christian nation,” she wrote.

This sounds like a good decision on the part of our national leaders!


David Firestone:  Bill Barr’s Image Rehab Is “Kaput”

Trump to Bill Barr: 'How the F--- Could You Do This to Me?': Book

Dear Commons Community.

David Firestone, a member of The New York Times editorial board, had an extensive piece yesterday entitled, “Bill Barr’s Image Rehab Is Kaput.”  In it, he reviewed the details of former US Attorney General Bill Bard’s descent as an unscrupulous  underling for Donald Trump and how he has tried in the past year to clean up his image.  Mr. Firestone concluded that it is too late for that and his attempts have come to naught.

Below is the entire essay.



The New York Times

“Bill Barr’s Image Rehab Is Kaput”

Jan. 30, 2023

By David Firestone

Mr. Firestone is a member of the editorial board.

Former Attorney General William Barr has spent the last year in a desperate salvage operation for what’s left of his legal and ethical reputation. During his 22 months in office, he allowed his Justice Department to become a personal protection racket for his boss, Donald Trump, and left prosecutors, the F.B.I. and other law enforcement officials subject to the worst impulses of the president. But then, in his 2022 memoir, Mr. Barr did an about-face, bashing Mr. Trump for lacking a presidential temperament and singling out his “self-indulgence and lack of self-control.”

In the book, he urged Republicans not to renominate Mr. Trump in 2024, accusing the former president of going “off the rails” with his stolen-election claims by preferring the counsel of “sycophants” and “whack jobs” to that of his real advisers. Clearly concerned that history was paying attention, he was even stronger in his videotaped testimony to the Jan. 6 committee, loosing a variety of barnyard epithets and bitter insults to describe Mr. Trump’s legal strategy. He said the president had become “detached from reality” and was doing a disservice to the nation.

The hollow and self-serving nature of this turnabout was always apparent. Mr. Barr never made these concerns public at a time when his dissent would have made a difference. Instead, he left office in 2020 showering compliments on his boss, praising Mr. Trump’s “unprecedented achievements” and promising that Justice would continue to pursue claims of voter fraud that he must have known were baseless.

But if Mr. Barr harbored any fantasy that he might yet be credited with a wisp of personal integrity for standing up for democracy, that hope was thoroughly demolished on Thursday when The Times published the details of what really happened when Mr. Barr launched a counter-investigation into the origins of Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. The reporting demonstrated a staggering abuse of the special counsel system and the attorney general’s office, all in a failed attempt by Mr. Barr to rewrite the sour truths of Mr. Trump’s history.

It was bad enough when, in March 2019, Mr. Barr tried to mislead the public into thinking the forthcoming Mueller report exonerated Mr. Trump, when in fact the report later showed just how strong the links were between the campaign and the Russian government, which worked to help defeat Hillary Clinton. A few months later Mr. Barr assigned John Durham, a federal prosecutor in Connecticut, as a special counsel to investigate Mr. Mueller’s investigation, hoping to prove Mr. Trump’s wild public allegations that the federal intelligence officials had helped instigate the claims of Russian interference to damage him.

Attorneys general are not supposed to interfere in a special counsel’s investigation. The whole point of the system is to isolate the prosecution of sensitive cases from the appearance of political meddling. But the new Times reporting shows that Mr. Barr did the opposite, regularly meeting with Mr. Durham to discuss his progress and advocating on his behalf with intelligence officials when they were unable to come up with the nonexistent proof Mr. Barr wanted to see. (Aides told Times reporters that Mr. Barr was certain from the beginning that U.S. spy agencies were behind the allegations of collusion.)

When the Justice Department’s own inspector general prepared to issue a report saying that, while the F.B.I. made some ethical mistakes, the investigation was legitimate and not politically motivated, Mr. Durham lobbied him to drop the finding. When that effort was unsuccessful, Mr. Barr reverted to his usual pattern of trying to spin the report before it was issued, disagreeing with its finding before it was even out. Mr. Durham then followed up with a similar statement, shattering the clear department principle of staying silent about a current investigation.

The two men even traveled to Britain and Italy together, pressuring government agencies there to disclose what they told U.S. spy agencies about the Trump-Russia connections. That infuriated officials of those governments, who said they had done nothing of the kind, and no evidence was ever found that they had. But on one of those trips, The Times reported, Italian officials gave the men a tip which, people familiar with the matter said, linked Mr. Trump to possible serious financial crimes. (It is not clear what those crimes were, and more reporting will be necessary to reveal the details.) Did Mr. Barr follow protocol and turn the tip over to regular prosecutors in his department for investigation? No. Instead, he gave it to his traveling companion, Mr. Durham, who opened a criminal investigation but never made it public and never filed charges, and when word began to trickle out that a suspected crime had been discovered, he falsely let the world think it had something to do with his original goal.

The Durham investigation, of course, has never presented any evidence that the F.B.I. or intelligence agencies committed any misconduct in the course of the Russia investigation, bitterly disappointing Mr. Barr and especially his patron, Mr. Trump, who had assured his supporters for months that it would produce something big. Desperate for some kind of success, Mr. Durham indicted Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who had worked for Democrats in their dealings with the F.B.I., over the objections of two prosecutors on the special counsel team who said the case was far too thin and who later left the staff.

Mr. Sussmann was acquitted last May of lying to the bureau, and the jury forewoman told reporters that bringing the case had been unwise. Mr. Barr later tried to justify the trial by saying it served another purpose in exposing the Clinton campaign’s starting the Russia narrative as a “dirty trick.” The trial did nothing of the kind, but it did expose Mr. Barr’s willingness to abuse the gratuitous prosecution of an individual to score political points against one of Mr. Trump’s most prominent enemies.

One of the other casualties of this deceitful crusade was the deliberate damage it did to the reputations of the F.B.I., the intelligence agencies and officials in Mr. Barr’s own department. All of these agencies have had many problematic episodes in their pasts, but there is no evidence in this case that they willfully tried to smear Mr. Trump and his campaign with false allegations of collusion. They were trying to do their jobs, on which the nation’s security depends, but because they got in Mr. Trump’s way, Mr. Barr aided in degrading their image through a deep-state conspiracy theory before an entire generation of Trump supporters. Republicans in the House are launching a new snipe hunt for proof that these same government offices were “weaponized” against conservatives, an expedition that is likely to be no more effective than Mr. Durham’s and Mr. Barr’s.

But weakening the country’s institutions and safeguards for political benefit is how Mr. Barr did business in the nearly two years he served as the nation’s top law enforcement official under Mr. Trump. He has a long history of making the Justice Department an instrument of his ideology and politics; when he was attorney general in 1992 during the Bush administration, the Times columnist William Safire accused him of leading a “Criminal Cover-up Division” in refusing to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether the Bush administration had knowingly provided aid to Saddam Hussein that was used to finance the military before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Under Mr. Trump, Mr. Barr did the opposite, demanding that an unnecessary special counsel do the bidding of the White House and trying to steer the investigation to Mr. Trump’s advantage. His efforts came to naught, and so will his campaign to be remembered as a defender of the Constitution.

David Firestone is a member of the editorial board. Mr. Firestone was a reporter and editor at The Times from 1993 to 2014, including serving as a congressional correspondent and New York City Hall bureau chief, and was executive editor for digital at NBC News until 2022.


The Earth’s inner core may be stopping its spin and reversing itself – Eh!

Earth's core, illustration.

Earth’s inner core is made mostly of solid iron, and can rotate separately from the outer parts of the planet.Credit: Johan Swanepoel/SPL

Dear Commons Community,

Thousands of miles beneath our feet, Earth’s interior might be doing something strange. Scientists think that the inner core spins faster than the rest of the planet — but sometime in the past decade, according to a study, it apparently stopped doing so.

“We were quite surprised,” say Yi Yang and Xiaodong Song, seismologists at Peking University in Beijing who reported the findings  in Nature.

The results could help to shine light on the many mysteries of the deep Earth, including what part the inner core plays in maintaining the planet’s magnetic field and in affecting the speed of the whole planet’s rotation — and thus the length of a day. But they are just the latest installment in a long-running effort to explain the inner core’s unusual rotation, and might not be the final word on the matter.

“I keep thinking we’re on the verge of figuring this out,” says John Vidale, a seismologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “But I’m not sure.”

Researchers discovered the inner core in 1936, after studying how seismic waves from earthquakes travel through the planet. Changes in the speed of the waves revealed that the planet’s core, which is about 7,000 kilometres wide, consists of a solid centre, made mostly of iron, inside a shell of liquid iron and other elements. As iron from the outer core crystallizes on the surface of the inner core, it changes the density of the outer liquid, driving churning motions that maintain Earth’s magnetic field.

The liquid outer core essentially decouples the 2,400-kilometre-wide inner core from the rest of the planet, so the inner core can spin at its own pace. In 1996, Song and another researcher reported studying earthquakes that originated in the same region over three decades, and whose energy was detected by the same monitoring station thousands of kilometres away. Since the 1960s, the scientists said, the travel time of seismic waves emanating from those earthquakes had changed, indicating that the inner core rotates faster than the planet’s mantle, the layer just beyond the outer core.

Later studies refined estimates of the rate of that ‘super-rotation’, to conclude that the inner core rotates faster than the mantle by about one-tenth of a degree per year. But not everyone agrees. Other work has suggested that super-rotation happens mostly in distinct periods, such as in the early 2000s, rather than being a continuous, steady phenomenon. Some scientists even argue that super-rotation does not exist, and that the differences in earthquake travel times are instead caused by physical changes on the surface of the inner core.

Last June, Vidale and Wei Wang, an Earth scientist also at the University of Southern California, threw another wrench into the works. Using data on seismic waves generated by US nuclear test blasts in 1969 and 1971, they reported that between those years, Earth’s inner core had ‘subrotated’, or rotated more slowly than the mantle. Only after 1971, they say, did it speed up and begin to super-rotate.

Now, Yang and Song say that the inner core has halted its spin relative to the mantle. They studied earthquakes mostly from between 1995 and 2021, and found that the inner core’s super-rotation had stopped around 2009. They observed the change at various points around the globe, which the researchers say confirms it is a true planet-wide phenomenon related to core rotation, and not just a local change on the inner core’s surface.

The data hint that the inner core might even be in the process of shifting back towards subrotation. If so, something is probably happening to the magnetic and gravitational forces that drive the inner core’s rotation. Such changes might link the inner core to broader geophysical phenomena such as increases or decreases in the length of a day on Earth.

Still, many questions remain, such as how to reconcile the slow pace of the changes that Yang and Song report with some of the faster changes reported by others. The only way out of the morass is to wait for more earthquakes to happen. A “long history of continuous recording of seismic data is critical for monitoring the motion of the heart of the planet”, say Yang and Song.

“We just have to wait,” Vidale adds.

Although the scientists do not seem alarmed, the issue appears serious to me!


Dissident Homeschool:  Where Home-Schoolers Learn about ‘Wonderful Nazis’

The Dissident Homeschool channel on Telegram shares "Nazi-approved material" for home schooling.

Dear Commons Community,

The Huffington Post has a featured article this morning on the “Dissident Homeschool, a Telegram group that is a resource for neo-Nazis who want to teach their kids hate at home.  Here is an excerpt.

“On Nov. 5, 2021, a married couple calling themselves “Mr. and Mrs. Saxon” appeared on the neo-Nazi podcast “Achtung Amerikaner” to plug a new project: a social media channel dedicated to helping American parents home-school their children.

“We are so deeply invested into making sure that that child becomes a wonderful Nazi,” Mrs. Saxon told the podcast’s host. “And by home-schooling, we’re going to get that done.”

The Saxons said they launched the “Dissident Homeschool” channel on Telegram after years of searching for and developing “Nazi-approved material” for their own home-schooled children — material they were eager to share.

The Dissident Homeschool channel — which now has nearly 2,500 subscribers — is replete with this material, including ready-made lesson plans authored by the Saxons on various subjects, like Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee (a “grand role model for young, white men”) and Martin Luther King Jr. (“the antithesis of our civilization and our people”).

There are copy work assignments available for parents to print out, so that their children can learn cursive by writing out quotes from Adolf Hitler. There are recommended reading lists with bits of advice like “do not give them Jewish media content,” and there are tips for ensuring that home-schooling parents are in “full compliance with the law” so that “the state” doesn’t interfere.

The Saxons also frequently update their followers on their progress home-schooling their own children. In one since-deleted post to Telegram, they posted an audio message of their kids shouting “Sieg Heil” — the German phrase for “hail victory” that was used by the Nazis.

Over the past year, the Dissident Homeschool channel has become a community for like-minded fascists who see home schooling as integral to whites wresting control of America. The Saxons created this community while hiding behind a fake last name, but HuffPost has reviewed evidence indicating they are Logan and Katja Lawrence of Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Logan, until earlier this week, worked for his family’s insurance company while Katja taught the kids at home.

The Anonymous Comrades Collective, a group of anti-fascist researchers, first uncovered evidence suggesting the Lawrences are behind Dissident Homeschool. HuffPost has verified the collective’s research.

The Lawrences did not respond to repeated requests for comment made via phone calls, text messages and emails. A HuffPost reporter also left a message in the Dissident Homeschool channel asking Mr. and Mrs. Saxon for comment about the Anonymous Comrades Collective’s research. That message was immediately deleted by the channel’s administrators, who then disabled the channel’s comment and chat functions.”

Hatred at its worst!


“The New York Times” Readers Discuss How Chatbots Will Change Education?

4 Biggest Challenges in Chatbot Development and How to Avoid them


Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times compiled the “Letters to the Editor” of a number of readers who responded to a recent article it published on the emergence of chatbots and ChatGPT. 

Below are the letters!

Interesting takes!



To the Editor:

Readers discuss how students are using artificial intelligence to write papers for them.

This technology could become a boon to learning. It makes cheating easier, too.

I teach philosophy and religious studies at a liberal arts college. This is what I tell students:

I’m here for you after nine years of graduate study and 35 years of teaching. All my learning is available to you, along with my personal attention and help. But I have zero training — and less interest — in hunting down or trying to defeat academic dishonesty.

I will help you encounter interesting, challenging, sometimes difficult ideas, and I will help you ponder them rigorously with your classmates. It will expand and strengthen your mind, and thereby enlarge your potential as a human being. In the process you will earn my respect and — what is more important — you will respect yourself.

Or, you can choose to cheat to get a grade you did not earn. That door is open for you, if that’s the person you want to be. It’s your education, paid for with your, or someone else’s, money. Ultimately, the person you will have cheated is yourself.

Robert J. Miller
Huntingdon, Pa.
The writer is a professor at Juniata College.

To the Editor:

Writing is a skill: It takes years to become an effective writer and many more to develop deep thought and personal style. In high school, I took a number of English and history exams, but none taught me more than the traditional essay assignment. With the time to probe deeply into my thinking and carefully unearth evidence, I discovered all sorts of worlds beyond the explicit nature of texts, and I had the opportunity to explain them fully while finding my voice.

Reforming courses by removing writing from the curriculum altogether (or forcing very quick writing), as described in this article, cheats me and so many students of the opportunity to invest in ourselves and our ability to think.

So, as a high school senior who’s staring down the prospect of a college education, I’m desperately hoping we can find a more nuanced solution for avoiding ChatGPT plagiarism.

Elizabeth Gallori
Brookline, Mass.

To the Editor:

A.I. can be detected without elaborate technology by the use of a pretest. Before instruction begins, teachers ask students to write a short essay in class. Using the results as a baseline, they can compare subsequent essays.

Even the best teachers cannot transform barely literate students into star writers. Essays that suddenly shine are almost always the product of A.I.

Walt Gardner
Los Angeles
The writer taught English for 28 years.

To the Editor:

The brouhaha over students turning to artificial intelligence chatbots to craft papers seems premature. I suggest there are “tells” that help spot what I’d call the “machine provenance” of papers turned out by chatbots.

One tell is the often thin gruel of an essay’s content, lacking nuance, sophistication, depth, imagination and fine granularity of detail and expression of thought.

Another tell is that the language seems formulaic. That is, stilted, dryly stylized and without flair — almost roboticized in its tone, syntax, cadence and coherence.

Even worse is that chatbot essays sometimes include factual inaccuracies.

Educators ought, therefore, to vigilantly track the development of increasingly robust detection apps. A.I. chatbot text generation, arguably still in its toddlerhood, presages immense gains in capabilities in the very short term, when tells may disarmingly fade.

Keith Tidman
Bethesda, Md.

To the Editor:

After reading about the uncanny ability of ChatGPT to generate papers indisguishable from those written by students, one question remains. If multiple students from the same class submit the same question, will each receive a unique A.I. response paper of sufficiently differentiated content?

P.S.: This letter was written by the author using whatever language/vocabulary skills he has acquired over the years.

Richard M. Frauenglass
Huntington, N.Y.
The writer is a former adjunct assistant professor of mathematics at Nassau Community College.

To the Editor:

Chatbots and artificial intelligence will be able to perform only as well as the humans who create these technologies. If teachers are giving A’s to essays that a chatbot can easily replicate, with eloquent but analysis-free writing that relies on generalizations and memorization but lacks nuance and attention to evidence, they are not really asking students to think.

If new A.I. technologies force educators to “up their game,” as one says, to encourage careful and specific analysis, their students will surely benefit.

This article suggests a need for an even more critical revolution in education to emphasize the deep thinking that A.I. cannot (and might never be able to) replicate.

Betty Luther Hillman
Portsmouth, N.H.
The writer teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy.

To the Editor:

If ChatGPT is so effective at creating college-level content, I wonder if professorial hand-wringing about student plagiarism is to deflect us from focusing on instructors’ potential use of it to create lectures or exams!

Bryan Stone
Cham, Switzerland

To the Editor:

Re “A.I., Once the Future, Has Become the Present. What Do We Do Now?,” by Kevin Roose (“The Shift,” Business, Jan. 13):

One problem with the ChatGPT program is that it could be used by students to write assignments. But Mr. Roose points out that it could also be put to good use. For example, it could write personalized lesson plans for each student, or serve as an after-hours tutor.

However, such programs could do much more: They could completely replace teachers and the traditional classroom.

Consider a patent I received a few years ago for a learning method in which a student is presented with a question. If the answer is accurate, that question will be presented less often in the future, and vice versa. Over time, most time will be spent working on questions that are poorly answered.

No teacher can keep track of where every student stands with respect to every subject, but a computer program could do just that. With the right kind of A.I.-based tutor, practically any subject could be taught efficiently and at low cost.

ChatGPT does not perform that function, but some successor could well do so.

William Vaughan Jr.
Chebeague Island, Maine

Maureen Dowd on Artificial Intelligence and ChatGPT: They’re great when the emperor is Marcus Aurelius. Not so great when the emperor is Caligula!

Dear Commons Community,

Columnist Maureen Dowd takes on artificial intelligence and Chat GPT in a piece this morning entitled,A.I.: Actually Insipid Until It’s Actively Insidious.”  Here is an excerpt.

“So far, our mind children, as the roboticist Hans Moravec called our artificially intelligent offspring, are in the toddler phase, as we ooh and aah at the novelty of our creation. They’re headed for the rebellious teenage phase. When A.I. hurtles into adulthood and isn’t so artificial anymore, we’ll be relegated to being the family pets, as a resigned Steve Wozniak put it.

Silicon Valley is reeling at the prowess of an experimental chatbot called ChatGPT, released by OpenAI in late November and deemed “scary good” by Elon Musk. Musk, one of the founders with Sam Altman, left and now Microsoft is a partner.

There’s keening that ChatGPT — couldn’t they have come up with a better name, like HAL? — will eliminate millions of jobs. Why hire a college graduate if a bot can do the same work faster and cheaper? No more arguments about work-from-home rules, no more union fights. You don’t need to lure A.I. back into the office with pizza.

ChatGPT opens a Pandora’s box of existential fears. Silicon Valley brainiacs have talked about safeguards and kill switches for A.I., but you know they won’t pull the plug when their baby turns into M3gan.

Once A.I. can run disinformation campaigns at lightning speed, will democracy stand a chance? We seem headed toward a Matrix where “it will become cheaper to show fakes than to show reality,” Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, wrote in Tablet. Will bad actors use A.I. to promote bigotry or hijack nuclear weapons?

As Musk once told me about his A.I. angst: “It’s great when the emperor is Marcus Aurelius. It’s not so great when the emperor is Caligula.”

Her conclusion:

“For now, ChatGPT is typing, not writing. The creative spark requires humanity. But soon, A.I. could be sentient. Then we’ll need our dog bowls.”

Good insight on the part of Dowd!

The entire column is below.



The  New York Times

Maureen Dowd

“A.I.: Actually Insipid Until It’s Actively Insidious”

Jan. 28, 2023

By Maureen Dowd

Opinion Columnist

WASHINGTON — The alien invasion has begun.

Some experts say that when artificial intelligence takes off, it’s going to be like Martians landing on the National Mall.

So far, our mind children, as the roboticist Hans Moravec called our artificially intelligent offspring, are in the toddler phase, as we ooh and aah at the novelty of our creation. They’re headed for the rebellious teenage phase. When A.I. hurtles into adulthood and isn’t so artificial anymore, we’ll be relegated to being the family pets, as a resigned Steve Wozniak put it.

Silicon Valley is reeling at the prowess of an experimental chatbot called ChatGPT, released by OpenAI in late November and deemed “scary good” by Elon Musk. Musk, one of the founders with Sam Altman, left and now Microsoft is a partner.

There’s keening that ChatGPT — couldn’t they have come up with a better name, like HAL? — will eliminate millions of jobs. Why hire a college graduate if a bot can do the same work faster and cheaper? No more arguments about work-from-home rules, no more union fights. You don’t need to lure A.I. back into the office with pizza.

ChatGPT opens a Pandora’s box of existential fears. Silicon Valley brainiacs have talked about safeguards and kill switches for A.I., but you know they won’t pull the plug when their baby turns into M3gan.

Once A.I. can run disinformation campaigns at lightning speed, will democracy stand a chance? We seem headed toward a Matrix where “it will become cheaper to show fakes than to show reality,” Jaron Lanier, the father of virtual reality, wrote in Tablet. Will bad actors use A.I. to promote bigotry or hijack nuclear weapons?

As Musk once told me about his A.I. angst: “It’s great when the emperor is Marcus Aurelius. It’s not so great when the emperor is Caligula.”

Several years ago, I interviewed the OpenAI founders in San Francisco, as well as other Valley digerati. And that is when I realized that we are doomed. For the Lords of the Cloud, as they form their sleek new world, we’re VCRs.

That is why I feel free to kick back and shoot the breeze with our incipient overlords. I read that you could use advanced A.I. to interview historical figures. So I conducted my dream interview with Shakespeare, bantering with the Bard.

“Greetings, fair sir or madam,” ChatGPT said, embodying Shakespeare.

What is your response to those who think “The Merchant of Venice” is antisemitic?

“While it is true that some of the language and imagery used in the play may be considered offensive by modern standards,” he replied, Shylock “is a complex and multifaceted figure who is both villain and victim.”

The Bard of Avon, as he called himself, cautioned that while the Oscar-winning movie “Shakespeare in Love” was “whimsical,” “it should not be taken as a factual representation of my life.”

Can you write me a love sonnet?

He could, even though, as he said, he was “a mere machine.” One stanza read: “With eyes that shine like stars upon the sea, And lips as sweet as summer’s ripest fruit, Thou art the one my heart doth long to see, And in thy beauty, all my dreams take root.”

Shakespeare, it ain’t. Still, I tell him, I would love to be the heroine in a Shakespearean comedy! It took ChatGPT only moments to write “The Clever Maid.”

“Act I, Scene 1: A grand ball is being held in a grand estate. You, the fair maiden, are in attendance, dressed in the finest gowns. However, you are not there to dance and make merry, for you have a secret mission.

“Act II, Scene 1: You sneak away from the ball and make your way to the estate’s library. There, you discover a hidden door, which leads to a secret chamber. Inside, you find a chest filled with precious jewels.

“Act III, Scene 1: As you are admiring the jewels, you hear a noise. It is the estate’s owner, a wealthy and arrogant nobleman. He catches you red-handed but instead of punishing you, he is taken by your wit and charm.

“Act IV, Scene 1: The nobleman reveals that the jewels were a test of character and he had been seeking a clever and resourceful woman to be his wife. You are overjoyed and accept his proposal.

“Act V, Scene 1: The play ends with a grand wedding ceremony and a celebration of your cleverness and wit.”

Sounds more like a Salma Hayek heist movie. I spent the rest of the afternoon soliciting love poems from John Donne, Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, who called me a “telltale columnist.” I tried to channel Sylvia Plath, but ChatGPT told me that would be “inappropriate.”

The most entertaining mimicry was when A.I. Kendrick Lamar wrote me a rap: “Listen up, I got a story to tell, ’bout a journalist who’s sharp as a nail. She’s got the pen and the power, To make politicians cower.”

For now, ChatGPT is typing, not writing. The creative spark requires humanity. But soon, A.I. could be sentient. Then we’ll need our dog bowls.


Video of Memphis Police Beating Tyre Nichols Released Last Night!

The image from video released on Jan. 27, 2023, by the City of Memphis, shows Tyre Nichols leaning against a car after a brutal attack by five Memphis police officers on Jan. 7, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. Nichols died on Jan. 10. The five officers have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other offenses. (City of Memphis via AP)

Tyre Nichols

Dear Commons Community,

Last night, the Memphis Police Department released video of Tyre Nichols being beaten by police.  The video along with commentary courtesy of NBC News is below.  Further reporting from Sky News follows.

What a tragedy!



Sky News

Tyre Nichols: Last words of US man who died after police ‘beating’ were ‘mum, mum, mum’, says lawyer

Five sacked Memphis police officers, who are all black, have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes, including assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression, over the death of Tyre Nichols.

The final words of a US motorist who died after he was allegedly beaten by five police officers were “mum, mum, mum”, according to a lawyer.

Tyre Nichols, 29, passed away in hospital three days after the confrontation following a traffic stop in the city of Memphis, Tennessee, on 7 January.

Bodycam footage of the altercation is expected was released last evening.

His family said the “very horrific” video showed officers savagely beating the FedEx worker for three minutes in an assault their lawyers likened to the Los Angeles police attack on motorist Rodney King in 1991.

Tyre Nichols
Image: Tyre Nichols

Five sacked officers, who are all black, have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes, including assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression, over Mr Nichols’s death.

Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, who is representing his family, said when the public watches the footage they will see him calling out for his mother.

He said: “When you all see this video, you’re going to see Tyre Nichols calling out for his mum.

“He calls out three times for his mother. His last words on this earth are, ‘mum, mum, mum’. He’s screaming for her. When you think about that kidnapping charge, he said ‘I just want to go home’.”

“It’s a traffic stop for God’s sake. A simple traffic stop.”

RowVaughn Wells, mother of Tyre Nichols. Pic: AP
Image: RowVaughn Wells, the mother of Tyre Nichols. Pic: AP

Mr Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, told reporters: “For a mother to know their child was calling them in their need and I wasn’t there for him. Do you know how I feel right now? Because I wasn’t there for my son.”

Ms Wells recalled she had “a really bad pain in my stomach” and once she found out what happened she realised “that was my son’s pain that I was feeling”.

“For me to find out my son was calling my name, you have no clue how I feel right now,” she added, struggling to hold back tears.

Clockwise from top left: Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean and Justin Smith have been sacked
Image: Clockwise from top left: Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean and Justin Smith have been sacked

She also said she had not yet seen the video but urged anyone with children not to let them watch it.

“I have never seen the video but what I have heard is very horrific.”

She added the charged officers had “disgraced their families”.

“I want to say to the five police officers who murdered my son, you also disgraced your own families when you did this.

“But I am going to pray for you and your families. Because this shouldn’t have happened. We want justice for my son.”

She has pleaded for peaceful protests.


Police pulled Mr Nichols over for alleged reckless driving before there was an “altercation” where officers used pepper spray on him, according to Shelby County district attorney Steve Mulroy.

Mr Nichols then tried to flee on foot and another altercation followed, he added.

His family say the officers beat him and the injuries he sustained during the encounter led to his death.

Relatives accuse police of causing him to have a heart attack and kidney failure. Authorities have only said he experienced a medical emergency.

The officers were assigned to the ‘scorpion’ unit which focuses on violent street crime. The family’s lawyers want it to be disbanded.

Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis has said the department will review scorpion and other specialised units.

President Joe Biden said the Nichols family and the city of Memphis deserve “a swift, full and transparent investigation”.

“Public trust is the foundation of public safety, and there are still too many places in America today where the bonds of trust are frayed or broken,” he added.

University of Arkansas System Considering Purchasing the University of Phoenix!

University of Phoenix in talks with University of Arkansas System affiliate

Dear Commons Community,

The University of Arkansas System has confirmed that it’s eyeing a complete acquisition of what was once the premier mega-university in the country.

The for-profit in question, the University of Phoenix, has roughly 85,000 students, down from a peak of nearly half a million in 2010. Most of its courses are online, with a primary focus of serving adult learners.

Any purchase would be done through a newly created nonprofit affiliate, which would “support and facilitate” the transition of the University of Phoenix to nonprofit status, system spokesperson Nathan Hinkel confirmed. The Arkansas Times, which broke the news, reported that the price tag could sit somewhere between $500 million and $700 million. The system has not confirmed those estimates.  As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The goal … is to advance the system’s mission of providing affordable, relevant education to a broad range of students, and introducing the UA System to new educational markets,” Hinkel wrote in a prepared statement to The Chronicle.

The system already bought a smaller for-profit — Grantham University — in 2021, creating the University of Arkansas Grantham. It then folded in its existing online arm, eVersity, last summer.

While many details, including the timing for a potential deal, remain unclear, four experts who spoke with The Chronicle say the news underscores the further dismantling of the for-profit market, and traditional institutions’ continued banking on online education as a funnel for new students and revenue — even though most campuses shuttered by the pandemic have reopened.

If a deal goes through, “This is the culmination of the era of the for-profits,” said Phil Hill, a partner at the ed-tech consultancy MindWires. “It’s not that there are no for-profits anymore … but it’s putting a real definitive cap on this decade-and-a-half decline of the for-profit sector. “

For years, for-profit institutions have faced both ideological and regulatory battles.

Bad press about deceptive marketing practices and poor post-graduate outcomes has largely soured public opinion of the sector. The University of Phoenix itself agreed to shell out $191 million in 2019 to settle a Federal Trade Commission complaint accusing the institution of advertising nonexistent partnerships with employers such as AT&T and Microsoft.

With a for-profit, “you’re enrolling at a school where the less they spend on actually serving you, the more they get to pocket,” said Robert Shireman, director of higher-education excellence and a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. So in many consumers’ eyes, attending a nonprofit institution “provides some protection.”

For-profits also have an increasing amount of red tape to navigate, said Eddy Conroy, a senior adviser with the education-policy program at New America. The recently revised 90-10 rule requires for-profits to draw at least 10 percent of their revenue from areas outside of Title IV financial assistance and military-education benefits. The latest Education Department regulatory agenda, posted in early January, also announced plans to revisit a “gainful employment” rule that would hold institutions accountable for their graduates’ abilities to pay off debt.

Basically, “for-profits no longer want to be defined as for-profit,” Conroy said.

Some of the more high-profile acquisitions include Purdue University’s acquisition of Kaplan University in 2017 to form Purdue Global, and the University of Arizona’s purchase of Ashford University in 2020 to create the University of Arizona Global Campus. If an acquisition of the University of Phoenix goes through, it would leave Grand Canyon University as the largest remaining for-profit institution.

(Grand Canyon has itself tried to shed its for-profit designation, and sued the Education Department in 2021 for rejecting its bid to be considered a nonprofit entity.)

University of Phoenix spokesperson Andrea Smiley told The Chronicle that the institution recognizes that the higher-ed landscape is changing, and that officials’ main priority is finding a solution that keeps — and expands — Phoenix’s mission to serve adult learners.

“Entities are always evolving; they have to because the marketplace changes. The environment that you’re in changes,” Smiley said. “We’ve seen significant success over the last five to seven years in serving the adult learner, and we’d like to see that success continue.”

A December 2021 article from Work Shift, a project of Open Campus Media, captured some of that growth. It reported that the University of Phoenix had been trimming its catalog of available programs to focus more on graduating its students and getting them into better-paying jobs, and that its official retention rate — which covers first-time, full-time students in bachelor’s programs — had risen to 41 percent, up from about 27 percent in 2017.

In some instances, acquisitions of online for-profits haven’t been clean breaks. In the University of Arizona’s case, for example, Ashford University’s owner, Zovio Inc., stayed on as an online-program manager for Arizona’s newly minted Global Campus (that arrangement prematurely ended last year). This would not be the case here, Hinkel confirmed in an email.

“The structure being considered, from what I understand, would not entail any ongoing relationship between University of Phoenix’s current ownership and the nonprofit,” he wrote.

The University of Arkansas System’s interest in the University of Phoenix aligns with another trend, experts like Hill said: Public colleges or systems trying to quickly expand their online offerings, and extending their reach to nontraditional students — including adult learners — as undergraduate enrollment on the whole continues to fall.

The pandemic accelerated the adoption of online courses and programs at many institutions. And data shows that even with many in-person restrictions lifted, student interest in learning online remains strong. Recently released Fall 2021 Ipeds data analyzed by The Chronicle revealed the percentage of students enrolled only in distance education was nearly double the percentage in 2017 — 30.4 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively.

“Covid helped alert us to the fact that there are a lot of people who are still going to want in-person learning, but it also made people more comfortable with online as an option,” Shireman said. So universities, the University of Arkansas System included, are “trying to find ways to have larger-online footprints to help protect them against enrollment declines.”

Why the for-profit acquisition route, though? Most institutions have established an online presence in other ways: Many have contracted with private companies for online-program-management services, which can include everything from recruiting and marketing to tech support and software. In another approach, the University of North Carolina system is tapping $97 million in pandemic-recovery funding to form its own online-learning platform. Others, like the University of Florida, began their venture into online education with outside help, but now maintain smaller-scale, and fully in-house, operations.

Experts say acquiring a for-profit might feel less risky, and more streamlined.

“They’ve already got the infrastructure in place, and they’ve already got students in place,” said Dominique Baker, associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University. “A lot of these pieces can be appealing.”

The University of Arkansas System declined to say more about why it’s interested in a for-profit acquisition in particular. The system’s proposal for buying the for-profit Grantham University, though, spoke to its ambitions to seize a large proportion of the online market. “Higher education is in a period of disruption,” the proposal read. “We believe we are well positioned to take a bold step toward being the premier online institution serving working adults in the south.”

Apart from these initial musings, experts are waiting to learn more. Where will the financing come from? Will the University of Phoenix’s name be preserved? Who would be responsible in the case of future lawsuits or borrower-defense claims?

Baker wonders about quality assurance too. Who will teach these courses? Are University of Arkansas System faculty members involved in these discussions?

“I see value in online education,” she said. “My concerns are around: How do we deliver that education? And what is our goal? … It’s the method of how we’re doing this that I think is incredibly important. ”

The quote from Eddy Conroy:  “Basically, “for-profits no longer want to be defined as for-profit”  says it all. Most of them never recovered from the stigma of the student loan scandals in 2010.



OpenAI’s DALL-E – Draws Anything at Your Command!

DALL-E images generated based on the question:  “Do an impressionist painting of an Italian family growing up in an apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen in the South Bronx in the 1950s.”   (Click on to enlarge.)

Dear Commons Community,

OpenAI, one of the world’s most ambitious artificial intelligence labs, which has shocked the education world and beyond with its Chat GPT-3 essay writer, also has a program (DALL-E) that lets you create digital images simply by describing what you want to see.

They call it DALL-E in a nod to both “WALL-E,” the 2008 animated movie about an autonomous robot, and Salvador Dalí, the surrealist painter.

OpenAI, backed by billions of dollars in funding from Microsoft, has recently started  sharing the technology with the general public.  

I tried DALL-E with several different requests a few days ago.  As some of you know, in 2020, I published  a novel (Our Bathtub Wasn’t In the Kitchen Anymore under the pen name, Gerade DeMichele) about growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s.  I had a very difficult time finding an image for the cover.  I finally settled on a combination of images that my wife Elaine assembled after days of searching in our photo albums and on the Internet.

In any case, I tried DALL-E a couple of days ago with the request:

“Do an impressionist painting of an Italian family growing up in an apartment with a bathtub in kitchen in the South Bronx in the 1950s.”

The images above were generated by DALL-E  in about 30 seconds.

I was flabbergasted by its results.

A team of seven researchers spent two years developing the technology, which OpenAI plans to offers as a tool for people like graphic artists, providing new shortcuts and new ideas as they create and edit digital images. Computer programmers already use Copilot, a tool based on similar technology from OpenAI, to generate snippets of software code.

But for many experts, DALL-E is worrisome. As this kind of technology continues to improve, they say, it could help spread disinformation across the internet, feeding the kind of online campaigns that may have helped sway the 2016 presidential election.

“You could use it for good things, but certainly you could use it for all sorts of other crazy, worrying applications, and that includes deep fakes,” like misleading photos and videos, said Subbarao Kambhampati, a professor of computer science at Arizona State University.

A half decade ago, the world’s leading A.I. labs built systems that could identify objects in digital images and even generate images on their own, including flowers, dogs, cars and faces. A few years later, they built systems that could do much the same with written language, summarizing articles, answering questions, generating tweets and even writing blog posts.

Now, researchers are combining those technologies to create new forms of A.I.  DALL-E is a notable step forward because it juggles both language and images and, in some cases, grasps the relationship between the two.

“We can now use multiple, intersecting streams of information to create better and better technology,” said Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, an artificial intelligence lab in Seattle.

DALL-E is what artificial intelligence researchers call a neural network, which is a mathematical system loosely modeled on the network of neurons in the brain. That is the same technology that recognizes the commands spoken into smartphones and identifies the presence of pedestrians as self-driving cars navigate city streets.

A neural network learns skills by analyzing large amounts of data. By pinpointing patterns in thousands of avocado photos, for example, it can learn to recognize an avocado. DALL-E looks for patterns as it analyzes millions of digital images as well as text captions that describe what each image depicts. In this way, it learns to recognize the links between the images and the words.

When someone describes an image for DALL-E, it generates a set of key features that this image might include. One feature might be the line at the edge of a trumpet. Another might be the curve at the top of a teddy bear’s ear.

Then, a second neural network, called a diffusion model, creates the image and generates the pixels needed to realize these features. The latest version of DALL-E, unveiled on Wednesday with a new research paper describing the system, generates high-resolution images that in many cases look like photos.

Though DALL-E often fails to understand what someone has described and sometimes mangles the image it produces, OpenAI continues to improve the technology. Researchers can often refine the skills of a neural network by feeding it even larger amounts of data.

To be sure, DALL-E isn’t perfect.  I tried several other requests using more conceptual keywords such as “adaptive learning” and “online education” and the results were not very good.

Regardless, it is another step forward in the A.I. world!


U.S. Economy Shows Resilience to End 2022 – Defying Recession Fears!


Dear Commons Community,

The continued growth in the fourth quarter showed the resilience of consumers and businesses in the face of inflation and rising interest rates.The economy remained resilient last year in the face of inflation, war and a Federal Reserve intent on curbing the pace of growth.

A repeat performance in 2023 is far from guaranteed.

U.S. gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, increased at an annual rate of 2.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2022, the Commerce Department said on yesterday. That was down from 3.2 percent in the third quarter, but nonetheless a solid end to a topsy-turvy year in which the economy contracted in the first six months, prompting talk of a recession, only to rebound in the second half.

Beneath the quarterly ups and downs is a simpler story, economists said: The recovery from the pandemic recession has slowed from the frenetic pace of 2021, but it has retained momentum thanks to a red-hot job market and trillions of dollars in pent-up savings that allowed Americans to weather rapidly rising prices. Over the year as a whole, as measured from the fourth quarter a year earlier, G.D.P. grew 1 percent, down sharply from 5.7 percent growth in 2021.  As reported by The New York Times.

“2020 was the pandemic; 2021 was the bounce-back from the pandemic; 2022 was a transition year,” said Jay Bryson, chief economist for Wells Fargo.

The question is, a transition to what? Mr. Bryson, like many economists, expects a recession to begin sometime this year, as the effects of higher interest rates ripple through the economy.

The initial rebound from the pandemic recession was much stronger in the United States than it was in much of the rest of the world. The gap widened last year as the war in Ukraine threatened to push Europe into a recession and the strict Covid suppression policies in China constrained growth there.

But the U.S. economy faces fresh challenges in 2023. Inflation remains too high by many measures, and the Fed is expected to continue increasing rates in an effort to bring prices under control. A congressional showdown over raising the debt ceiling could cause further turmoil in financial markets — or a crisis if lawmakers fail to reach a deal.

Already, there are signs of strain, especially in the sectors most sensitive to higher borrowing costs. Construction activity and home sales have slowed significantly. Tech companies have announced tens of thousands of layoffs in recent weeks. Manufacturing output fell in November and December.

Still, in the consumer-driven U.S. economy, a recession is all but impossible as long as households keep opening their wallets. So far, they have done so. Consumer spending rose at a 2.1 percent rate in the fourth quarter, down only slightly from the third-quarter pace. Americans have proved particularly willing to shell out for vacations, restaurant meals and other services that they had to forgo earlier in the pandemic. Luxury spending, too, has remained strong, buoyed by higher-income consumers who are less affected by inflation.

Good economic news!