36 tornadoes confirmed in deadly Southeast outbreak
Thursday, March 7
BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP) — The number of tornadoes confirmed to have touched down in a deadly weekend outbreak across the Southeast has risen to at least 36.
Survey teams for the National Weather Service found evidence of the twisters in Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina.
The most powerful was an E4 tornado blamed for killing 23 people Sunday in rural Lee County, Alabama. Its destructive winds reached 170 mph (274 kph) as it carved a path of destruction nearly a mile wide. The tornado trekked nearly 70 miles (113 kilometers) from western Alabama into Georgia after crossing the Chattahoochee River at the state line.
All of the tornado deaths were in Alabama, though several people in Georgia were injured.
Pastor haunted by task of notifying tornado victim families
By JAY REEVES and KIM CHANDLER
BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP) — With nearly two dozen people killed in a tornado outbreak that shattered a rural community in east Alabama, notifying the families of the dead was a huge, gut-wrenching task, done in the privacy of a country church.
Pastor Rusty Sowell, with the county coroner behind him, would put his hand on the door to each Sunday school classroom at Providence Baptist Church, where dozens of family members were told to gather. Inside, people awaited word on whether loved ones were dead or alive.
First they told one family that a relative was dead, and then another. Then there was another and another in a string of heart-shattering gatherings where people heard the worst possible news.
Sowell had preached about the mystery of death and the need for God. Now he focused on the faces of the survivors.
“It was surreal. It was sacred, if I can use that term,” he said.
There were 23 dead in all — 17 meetings with relatives. His eyes reddened Wednesday at the haunting memory of simply entering room after room after room.
“The toughest part was opening the door and looking in the eyes of that family member who was hoping against hope that it wasn’t their loved one that had died,” said Sowell, pastor of Providence Baptist. “I would say to myself, ‘Just breathe, just breathe.’”
Coroner Bill Harris’ radio had started crackling with a rising death count within minutes after an EF4 tornado ripped apart the Beauregard community in the deadliest U.S. tornado in almost six years. It was the largest of at least 11 twisters that struck the Southeast on Sunday, weather officials said.
First came confirmation of three deaths, he said, then five, then seven. As the number rose into the double digits, he began setting up a temporary command post at a middle school and called for help.
Once the dead were gathered from fields and roads and splintered homes, each was given a post-mortem examination in a portable autopsy facility set up in the school’s parking lot. The dead were identified either through ID cards, tattoos, scars or photos.
“We double-checked it and we doubled-checked it again,” Harris said.
Then came the process of notifying the next of kin at Providence Baptist, just a few miles from where the tornado scoured the ground, littering gullies with pieces of homes and stripping ridges bare of trees.
Many families already knew the worst, Sowell said, but it was still tough for them to hear the words.
Harris said it was easiest to let Sowell, an old friend, enter each room first, followed by another pastor, himself and then a sheriff’s investigator. As coroner, Harris said, he’s learned to let a pastor or someone else lead the way.
“When you’re the first one in the room they know it’s bad,” he said.
Some cried, Sowell said, and many were in shock. Some leaned on each other; many leaned on God in a community dotted with churches both large and small.
“I saw a lot of love from the family to each other, and a lot of faith. Their faith was holding them up,” he said.
Seven funeral homes in all are handling services for the 23 victims, Harris said, and one mortuary is preparing 10 bodies on its own.
Sowell is now overseeing a disaster recovery operation that’s taking in donations and dispensing food, water, clothes, tarps, cleaning supplies and more from a church building across the road from where families learned their relatives had died.
Harris said he hasn’t had time to think about the emotional magnitude of the loss in a county of more than 160,000 people. Relatives say one extended family lost 10 people in all, and officials said as many as 116 homes were destroyed or severely damaged.
“I’m still in go mode,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to put your blinders on and get the job done.”
AP video journalist Joshua Replogle contributed to this report.
Artificial intelligence must know when to ask for human help
March 7, 2019
Sarah Scheffler, Ph.D. Student in Computer Science, Boston University
Adam D. Smith, Professor of Computer Science, Boston University
Ran Canetti, Professor of Computer Science, Boston University
Disclosure statement: Sarah Scheffler receives funding from the Clare Boothe Luce Fellowship and from the Modular Approach to Cloud Security project (NSF Frontier grant CNS-1414119). Adam Smith receives funding from the National Science Foundation, the US Census Bureau, and the Sloan Foundation. In the past he has received funding for related work from a Google Faculty Award. Ran Canetti receives funding from the National Science Foundation and from the Israeli Science Foundation. He is faculty at Boston Unversity and at Tel Aviv University.
Partners: Boston University provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation US.
Artificial intelligence systems are powerful tools for businesses and governments to process data and respond to changing situations, whether on the stock market or on a battlefield. But there are still some things AI isn’t ready for.
We are scholars of computer science working to understand and improve the ways in which algorithms interact with society. AI systems perform best when the goal is clear and there is high-quality data, like when they are asked to distinguish between different faces after learning from many pictures of correctly identified people.
Sometimes AI systems do so well that users and observers are surprised at how perceptive the technology is. However, sometimes success is difficult to measure or defined incorrectly, or the training data does not match the task at hand. In these cases, AI algorithms tend to fail in unpredictable and spectacular ways, though it’s not always immediately obvious that something has even gone wrong. As a result, it’s important to be wary of the hype and excitement about what AI can do, and not assume the solution it finds is always correct.
When algorithms are at work, there should be a human safety net to prevent harming people. Our research demonstrated that in some situations algorithms can recognize problems in how they’re operating, and ask for human help. Specifically, we show, asking for human help can help alleviate algorithmic bias in some settings.
How sure is the algorithm?
Artificial intelligence systems are being used in criminal sentencing, facial-based personality profiling, resume screening, health care enrollment and other difficult tasks where people’s lives and well-being are at stake. U.S. government agencies are beginning to ramp up their exploration and use of AI systems, in response to a recent executive order from President Donald Trump.
It’s important to remember, though, that AI can cement misconceptions in how a task is addressed, or magnify existing inequalities. This can happen even when no one told the algorithm explicitly to treat anyone differently.
For instance, many companies have algorithms that try to determine features about a person by their face – say to guess their gender. The systems developed by U.S. companies tend to do significantly better at categorizing white men than they do women and darker-skinned people; they do worst at dark-skinned women. Systems developed in China, however, tend to do worse on white faces.
The difference is not because one group has faces that are easier to classify than others. Rather, both algorithms are typically trained on a large collection of data that’s not as diverse as the overall human population. If the data set is dominated by a particular type of face – white men in the U.S., and Chinese faces in China – then the algorithm will probably do better at analyzing those faces than others.
No matter how the difference arises, the result is that algorithms can be biased by being more accurate on one group than on another.
Keeping a human eye on AI
For high-stakes situations, the algorithm’s confidence in its own result – its estimation of how likely it is that the system came up with the right answer – is just as important as the result itself. The people who receive the output from algorithms need to know how seriously to take the results, rather than assuming that it’s correct because it involved a computer.
Only recently have researchers begun to develop ways to identify, much less attempt to fix, inequalities in algorithms and data. Algorithms can be programmed to recognize their own shortcomings – and follow that recognition with a request for a person to assist with the task.
Many types of AI algorithms already calculate an internal confidence level – a prediction of how well it did at analyzing a particular piece of input. In facial analysis, many AI algorithms have lower confidence on darker faces and female faces than for white male faces. It’s unclear how much this has been taken into account by law enforcement for high-stakes uses of these algorithms.
The goal is for the AI itself to locate the areas where it is not reaching the same accuracy for different groups. On these inputs, the AI can defer its decision to a human moderator. This technique is especially well-suited for context-heavy tasks like content moderation.
Human content moderators cannot keep up with the flood of images being posted on social media sites. But AI content moderation is famous for failing to take into account the context behind a post – misidentifying discussions of sexual orientation as explicit content, or identifying the Declaration of Independence as hate speech. This can end up inaccurately censoring one demographic or political group over another.
To get the best of both worlds, our research suggests scoring all content in an automated fashion, using the same AI methods already common today. Then our approach uses newly proposed techniques to automatically locate potential inequalities in the accuracy of the algorithm on different protected groups of people, and to hand over the decisions about certain individuals to a human. As a result, the algorithm can be completely unbiased about those people on which it actually decides. And humans decide on those individuals where algorithmic decision would have inevitably created bias.
This approach does not eliminate bias: It just “concentrates” the potential for bias on a smaller set of decisions, which are then handled by people, using human common sense. The AI can still perform the bulk of the decision-making work.
This is a demonstration of a situation where an AI algorithm working together with a human can reap the benefits and efficiency of the AI’s good decisions, without being locked into its bad ones. Humans will then have more time to work on the fuzzy, difficult decisions that are critical to ensuring fairness and equity.
Llewellyn King: The Airplane of the Future Is Electric and It’s Taking Off Now
By Llewellyn King
The case for electric airplanes is overwhelming.
The problems of today’s aircraft are well-known: noise and pollution. Homeowners may hate the noise, but pollution is the bigger issue.
While jet aircraft account only for a small part of the greenhouse gas releases worldwide, it is where they release them that makes them especially damaging. Nasty at sea level; at 30,000 feet and above, they are potent contributors to the greenhouse problem.
The answer is to begin to electrify aviation.
The need has not escaped the big air frame makers. Boeing in the United States and Airbus in Europe both have electric airplane programs. Tech giants Uber, Google and Amazon all want to develop electric vehicles to use as ride-sharing cars, pilotless air taxis and delivery drones.
A raft of small companies worldwide is working on new electric airplanes, usually just two-seaters. Some are flying, but batteries limit their airborne endurance to one to two hours.
Already, there is an experimental, pilotless air taxi system in Abu Dhabi. Frankfurt airport is about to announce a system as is Singapore.
Enter Andre Borschberg: a Swiss innovator, pilot, entrepreneur and passionate environmentalist. He may know more about electric propulsion than anyone else and is a great believer in the electric future of flying.
Borschberg, along with Swiss balloonist Bertrand Piccard, built and flew the solar-powered electric airplane, Solar Impulse 2, around the world, landing triumphantly in Abu Dhabi on July 26, 2016.
Flying the first aircraft they built, Solar Impulse 1, Borschberg eclipsed all records for endurance by staying aloft alone for 117 hours. He holds 14 world flying records.
Borschberg and Piccard created the Solar Impulse Foundation that is seeking to identify and assist 1,000 technologies that help the environment. Those listed so far range from a plastic recycling system to self-contained toilets to village-scale desalination plants.
“They have to be able to make a profit,” Borschberg told me in a telephone interview. He believes the dynamics of the free market must be put in play to solve the growing global environmental crisis.
In his latest undertaking, Borschberg has spun off a company, H55, to develop systems for electric aircraft and to help electric aircraft manufacturers with H55 know-how. The company has developed a single-seat, acrobatic aircraft with an hour’s endurance. They hope to make a two-seater that can stay aloft longer.
In February, Silicon Valley venture-capital firm Nanodimension signed on for a first round of financing. H55 has turned onto the runway and is beginning to accelerate.
Borschberg is a pilot for all seasons. He learned to fly in the Swiss Air Force and is rated in fighter jets and helicopters. For fun he does aerobatics, as does Piccard.
Borschberg graduated with a degree in engineering and aerodynamics from the Federal University of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and with a management degree from the MIT Sloan School of Management.
It is not only the environmental aspects of electric flight that charm Borschberg, but also the incredible efficiency. He says electric-powered airplanes are 60 percent more efficient than those with fossil-fueled engines and can be very precisely tuned because of the immediate availability of torque when the current is flowing.
That same efficiency with appropriate software, extends to the control of the aircraft. “A simple electric drone, which you can buy in any store, is more stable in wind turbulence than a helicopter,” Borschberg says. These properties will make vertical takeoffs and landings a reality for many new aircraft, he says.
The airplane of the future will be at an airport near you soon — and it may not need to use the runway.
John Gillespie Magee’s poem “High Flight,” loved by aviators, begins, “Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth/And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.”
A new generation of engineers from Boeing to Borschberg to backyard tinkerers wants to slip the surly bonds of petroleum.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.
Ex-Trump campaign boss Manafort to be sentenced in tax fraud
By MATTHEW BARAKAT
Thursday, March 7
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — When former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort is sentenced for tax and bank fraud, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III will likely issue the same lecture he gives to drug dealers and bank robbers.
“You write the pages to your own life story,” Ellis routinely tells defendants before pronouncing sentence. He also tells those who appear before him that “life is a series of choices and living with the consequences of those choices.”
Manafort’s choices leave the 69-year-old with the very real possibility he will spend the rest of his life in prison.
Under federal sentencing guidelines, Manafort could receive a 20-year sentence Thursday, though most observers expect he will receive less than that.
Last year, a jury in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, convicted Manafort on eight felonies related to tax and bank fraud charges for hiding foreign income from his work in Ukraine from the IRS and later inflating his income on bank loan applications. Prosecutors have said the work in Ukraine was on behalf of politicians who were closely aligned with Russia, though Manafort has insisted his work helped those politicians distance themselves from Russia and align with the West.
After his conviction, Manafort pleaded guilty to separate charges in the District of Columbia related to illegal lobbying. He faces up to five years in prison on each of two counts to which he pleaded guilty. In the District case, prosecutors say Manafort has failed to live up to the terms of his plea bargain by providing false information to investigators in interviews.
In the Virginia case, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys have recommended a specific term to the judge in their sentencing memoranda. Manafort’s lawyers have sought a sentence significantly below the guidelines, based on a number of factors.
First, they say Manafort has suffered serious health problems since he has been incarcerated, mostly in solitary confinement, at the Alexandria jail where he awaits sentence. They say he has developed gout and suffers debilitating foot pain as a result, and that he is experiencing feelings of claustrophobia and isolation.
Prosecutors say the claims of health issues have not withstood scrutiny and even if they did, poor health is not a reason to escape consequences of criminal conduct.
Defense attorneys have also complained that Manafort was unfairly snared by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into whether Russia meddled on Donald Trump’s behalf during the 2016 presidential campaign. They argue that Mueller went beyond the scope of his mandate to investigate Manafort. Even Ellis, at the outset of the case, speculated that prosecutors’ true motive in prosecuting Manafort was to pressure him to provide evidence against Trump.
Prosecutors have disputed that, and in court filings have said Manafort’s business dealings were under investigation even before Mueller was appointed as special counsel.
Defense lawyers have also cited the fact that Manafort has forfeited millions of dollars in cash and property as a result of his convictions, and has also suffered public shame as a result of his high-profile prosecution.
Government lawyers countered that Manafort’s millions were built on a criminal enterprise in which he hid tens of millions of dollars in foreign income and failed to pay more than $6 million in taxes.
“Manafort has failed to accept that he is responsible for the criminal choices that bring him to this Court for sentencing,” prosecutors Uzo Asonye, Andrew Weissmann, Greg Andres and Brandon Van Grack wrote in a sentencing memo Tuesday.
By Steve Klinger
Whatever one might think about Donald Trump’s claim to be a “stable genius,” his rambling and seemingly unfocused rant of a speech to an enthusiastic throng of CPAC attendees on Saturday demonstrated the kind of demagoguery at which he has become adept—and included a chilling shot across the bow of the smoldering political debate dividing this country. What Trump did was raise the ante in a very dangerous way, and in so doing reinforce the concern Michael Cohen expressed last Wednesday in public testimony before Congress, a concern that has been on my mind for a couple of years now but gets very limited attention in the mainstream media or on guardedly progressive cable networks like MSNBC.
Addressing the House Oversight Committee on Feb. 27, Cohen said in a closing statement, “I fear that if he loses the election in 2020, there will never be a peaceful transition of power.” Coming from a longtime Trump “enforcer,” lightly regarded for his political or intellectual gravitas, the warning was both surprising and sobering.
Trump had already raised the stakes last month when he declared a national emergency over border wall funding, ignoring the wishes of Congress and making an unprecedented grab for executive power that many thought threatened the checks and balances written into the Constitution by the founding fathers. But on Saturday his rhetoric seemed to launch a new phase of escalation and make Cohen’s concerns even more ominous.
Speaking about the Mueller investigation and the broadening inquiries in the newly Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, Trump hurled words like “lunatic,” “sick” and “dirty,” and characterized Democrats’ efforts as a no-holds-barred assault on his presidency: “They’re trying to take you out (nonsense), OK?”
Unprecedented, un-presidential, debasing and vulgar are only some of the adjectives that would be appropriate to describe the president’s language. But looked at another way, the invective was unerringly on target—a bull’s-eye, if you will. To an adoring base that has elevated Trump to the status of a cult leader (chosen by God, some say), he accomplished several things at once. Not only did he extend his defiance of politically correct behavior and language, he coined a new rallying cry, to be echoed when Mueller’s report is issued, or when Democrats reveal the findings of their investigations, or the Justice Department’s Southern District of New York builds criminal cases against him.
Trump or his inner circle was involved in collusion with Russia? Nonsense, they’ll shout. Trump obstructed justice, violated campaign finance laws, committed bank fraud, insurance fraud, witness tampering, violations of the emoluments clause? Nonsense, they’ll scream. Impeach the president? Nonsense.
But with Congress gridlocked and successful impeachment unlikely, the 2020 election still seems like the best shot we’ll have at derailing Trump’s authoritarian juggernaut, and that’s where my fear and Cohen’s warning converge: If he wins, it’s all over for democracy in this country, but even if he loses, who among us can really see Trump going quietly? Even in 2016, prepared to lose to Hillary, he was all ready to cry fraud and contest the election. Not only will he almost certainly do so after a loss in 2020, but he is steering his base toward mass violence to protest the “deep state” conspiracy, “voter fraud” from minorities and a diabolical “coup” to drive him from office. Should he get away with the trumped-up border emergency, an allegedly rigged election will surely be his next excuse for a national emergency. If it’s not just a witch-hunt but an assault designed to take out the greatest president ever, a Democratic victory at the polls may be nearly as dangerous as a loss.
This country never fully got over the Civil War (on a cultural level, if not a geographic one) and may be headed for another iteration. With his bull’s-eye, a narcissistic rich kid from Queens may just have fired the first round.
Steve Klinger is a veteran community journalist and college English instructor based in southern New Mexico. Frequently skeptical about the capacity of the written word to inspire activism, he also writes songs, hoping to add the power of music to his topical lyrics.