Dispatches from the Empire


Introducing Apple’s On-Device and Server Foundation Models

Sam Altman Was Bending the World to His Will Long Before OpenAI

A followup to my recent post about Mr. Altman.

Star Wars Mos Eisley Cantina

Awesome.

Why Your Wi-Fi Router Doubles as an Apple AirTag

Researchers from the University of Maryland say they relied on publicly available data from Apple to track the location of billions of devices globally — including non-Apple devices like Starlink systems — and found they could use this data to monitor the destruction of Gaza, as well as the movements and in many cases identities of Russian and Ukrainian troops.

At issue is the way that Apple collects and publicly shares information about the precise location of all Wi-Fi access points seen by its devices. Apple collects this location data to give Apple devices a crowdsourced, low-power alternative to constantly requesting global positioning system (GPS) coordinates.

Before OpenAI, Sam Altman was fired from Y Combinator by his mentor

Though a revered tactician and chooser of promising start-ups, Altman had developed a reputation for favoring personal priorities over official duties and for an absenteeism that rankled his peers and some of the start-ups he was supposed to nurture, said two of the people, as well as an additional person, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly describe private deliberations. The largest of those priorities was his intense focus on growing OpenAI, which he saw as his life’s mission, one person said.

A separate concern, unrelated to his initial firing, was that Altman personally invested in start-ups he discovered through the incubator using a fund he created with his brother Jack — a kind of double-dipping for personal enrichment that was practiced by other founders and later limited by the organization.

“It was the school of loose management that is all about prioritizing what’s in it for me,” said one of the people.

I only now learned about this from Helen Toner's newly-released interview about Altman's firing from OpenAI in November. From The Verge

Toner says that one reason the board stopped trusting Altman was his failure to tell the board that he owned the OpenAI Startup Fund; another was how he gave inaccurate info about the company’s safety processes “on multiple occasions.” Additionally, Toner says she was personally targeted by the CEO after she published a research paper that angered him. “Sam started lying to other board members in order to try and push me off the board,” she says.

After two executives spoke directly to the board about their own experiences with Altman, describing a toxic atmosphere at OpenAI, accusing him of “psychological abuse,” and providing evidence of Altman “lying and being manipulative in different situations,” the board finally made its move.

Perhaps not the guy we want in charge of safety at one of the largest AI companies, given that the employees in charge of safety have been leaving in droves. From Vox

If you’ve been following the saga on social media, you might think OpenAI secretly made a huge technological breakthrough. The meme “What did Ilya see?” speculates that Sutskever, the former chief scientist, left because he saw something horrifying, like an AI system that could destroy humanity. 

But the real answer may have less to do with pessimism about technology and more to do with pessimism about humans — and one human in particular: Altman. According to sources familiar with the company, safety-minded employees have lost faith in him. 

“It’s a process of trust collapsing bit by bit, like dominoes falling one by one,” a person with inside knowledge of the company told me, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

Not many employees are willing to speak about this publicly. That’s partly because OpenAI is known for getting its workers to sign offboarding agreements with non-disparagement provisions upon leaving. If you refuse to sign one, you give up your equity in the company, which means you potentially lose out on millions of dollars.

Just what we want: an artificial intelligence company motivated by profit that creates something truly dangerous and disruptive, run by a guy like Altman.

Here are two fun excerpts from his Wikipedia page

He is an apocalypse preparer. Altman said in 2016: "I have guns, gold, potassium iodide, antibiotics, batteries, water, gas masks from the Israel Defense Forces, and a big patch of land in Big Sur I can fly to."

and 

In 2021, Altman's sister Annie wrote on Twitter accusing Sam of "sexual, physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse".

 

To wake up early—earlier the dogs and cats—and sip my morning coffee. To sit quietly with friends, unafraid of the silence. Plenty of warm showers and hot springs. A few old Star Wars toys laying around—cheap pieces of plastic that bring me joy. Spirited conversation, sometimes political.

A home in a quiet town, away from the noise of the culture. A place to retreat to retreat to when everything else becomes too much — the din of relations, the screeches of polity, the frantic need to make money.

A table, preferably in the garage, upon which to make models. Trains, ships, planes... little things to glue and paint while deep in thought. A garden with wild sprinklers.

Books, but not too many. Too many can erode my focus.

A home near the mountains, visible from my window. The promise of an adventure, of a journey into the great interior. Capable hiking boots — the kind that can take me anywhere. A mechanic or two as kind and thoughtful and thorough as those I now have.

Companionship, but not too much of it. Too much can erode my focus.

Neighbors that talk politics. Neighbors that bring over vegetables. Neighbors that play with my dogs.

Dogs. Many, many dogs.

A tent at the edge of things, from which I can look down and observe. Too close and my sanity frays, but from a tent on the edge of things, I can have space to make sense of it all.

The grace to forgive those I do not understand.

The grace to forgive myself.

Past reads: Toward the Queerest Insurrection by The Mary Nardini Gang 📚

What a bunch of gibberish nonsense.

I used to find this stuff appealing, but now I think it to be tantamount to nihilism.

Cops can force suspect to unlock phone with thumbprint, US court rules

The US Constitution's Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination does not prohibit police officers from forcing a suspect to unlock a phone with a thumbprint scan, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday. The ruling does not apply to all cases in which biometrics are used to unlock an electronic device but is a significant decision in an unsettled area of the law.

More important than ever:

How to quickly disable Face ID and Touch ID on iPhone (and iPad)

Grindr’s Plan to Squeeze Its Users

Grindr plans to boost revenue by monetizing the app more aggressively, putting previously free features behind a paywall, and rolling out new in-app purchases, employees say. The company is currently working on an AI chatbot that can engage in sexually explicit conversations with users, Platformer has learned. According to employees with knowledge of the project, the bot may train in part on private chats with other human users, pending their consent.

I remember the very early days of Grindr. I had one of the only smartphones in my part of the state, and the nearest fellow user was nearly 250 miles away. Chatting with other gay men was fun and refreshing.

Much has changed in the intervening 15 years. Dating (or hookup) apps have become vast wastelands of algorithmic sameness. People on these apps look, act, talk, and behave in eerily similar ways, not unlike how every young person now dresses like an "influencer." (I refuse to use that word without quotation marks.)

These apps gave us corrosion sold as connection. I'm reminded of David Foster Wallace's thoughts on entertainment, about always wondering what's on the other channel, wondering if there's something better to be watching. Shopping around (because that's precisely what these apps are: shopping) is so damn easy.

Contentment is hard when you think there's always something better just around the corner.

Bomb First, Ask Questions Later

That’s precisely when you don’t go to war: when your emotions are in hyper-drive. But if you do go to war in such an emotionally fraught moment, when every reservist and IDF soldier is understandably filled with shock and anger, you have to be extra-extra-careful to lay out and enforce clear rules of warfare. You have to over-emphasize the need for restraint, the vital importance of distinguishing between terrorists and bystanders, if you aren’t going to blunder into self-defeating war crimes — as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan and across the torture sites set up by Bush and Cheney.

Netanyahu’s government, of course, did the opposite.

My post from October 13, 2023:

Israel is in an impossible position. Many Palestinians want Israel wiped off the map because Israel forced them out of their ancestral homeland, land they had lived on for hundreds or thousands of years. Much of this Palestinian anger has become entangled with some truly wretched antisemitism, yes, but I cannot in good faith say that Palestinians hate Jews for the same reasons the Nazis did. Yes, some Palestinians do, and certainly the government of Iran does, but many Palestinians just want to go home, in the same way so many Native Americans want their ancestral homeland back, a cause toward which I am sympathetic. (Though remember, Native Americans can travel freely off the reservations and throughout the United States, whereas almost all Palestinians are forbidden from traveling into Israel — or from leaving Palestine at all. They are confined, unable to leave.)

But if Israel uses the attack of last weekend to slaughter Palestinians indiscriminately, it will (if it hasn’t already, in the eyes of many) lose the moral high ground. It will lose, if it hasn’t already, the goodwill and support of so many people around the world.

House Votes to Extend—and Expand—a Major US Spy Program

Section 702 permits the US government to wiretap communications between Americans and foreigners overseas. Hundreds of millions of calls, texts, and emails are intercepted by government spies each with the “compelled assistance” of US communications providers.

The government may strictly target foreigners believed to possess “foreign intelligence information,” but it also eavesdrops on the conversations of an untold number of Americans each year. (The government claims it is impossible to determine how many Americans get swept up by the program.) The government argues that Americans are not themselves being targeted and thus the wiretaps are legal. Nevertheless, their calls, texts, and emails may be stored by the government for years, and can later be accessed by law enforcement without a judge’s permission.

Rich Americans get second passports, citing risk of instability

Wealthy U.S. families are increasingly applying for second citizenships and national residences as a way to hedge their financial risk, according to a leading law firm.

The wealthy are building these “passport portfolios” — collections of second, and even third or fourth, citizenships — in case they need to flee their home country.

The super-rich make contingency plans when revolution (via warfare or taxation) is nigh.

This is a bellwether.