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7 deadly reads

Sitdown Sunday: The AI machine being used to target people in Gaza

Settle down in a comfy chair with some of the week’s best longreads.

IT’S A DAY of rest, and you may be in the mood for a quiet corner and a comfy chair.

We’ve hand-picked some of the week’s best reads for you to savour.

1. The AI machine being used to kill Gazans

Imagine an artificial intelligence programme that generates targets for assassination with little human oversight and an error rate of 10%, that is used to kill thousands of people. 

Such a programme exists, and it is being used by the Israeli army in Gaza. Yuval Abraham reports on ‘Lavender’ as part of a joint investigation by Tel Aviv magazine +972 and Hebrew-language news site Local Call.

(+972 Magazine, approx 36 mins reading time)

Formally, the Lavender system is designed to mark all suspected operatives in the military wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), including low-ranking ones, as potential bombing targets. The sources told +972 and Local Call that, during the first weeks of the war, the army almost completely relied on Lavender, which clocked as many as 37,000 Palestinians as suspected militants — and their homes — for possible air strikes.

During the early stages of the war, the army gave sweeping approval for officers to adopt Lavender’s kill lists, with no requirement to thoroughly check why the machine made those choices or to examine the raw intelligence data on which they were based. One source stated that human personnel often served only as a “rubber stamp” for the machine’s decisions, adding that, normally, they would personally devote only about “20 seconds” to each target before authorizing a bombing — just to make sure the Lavender-marked target is male. This was despite knowing that the system makes what are regarded as “errors” in approximately 10 percent of cases, and is known to occasionally mark individuals who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.

2. Gaslighting

onbluebackgroundtornpaperwithhandwritingiwasjust Shutterstock / Ariya J Shutterstock / Ariya J / Ariya J

It’s a term many of us probably weren’t familiar with not too long ago, but now everyone is familiar with gaslighting because of just how often it is used in our culture. But where did the term originate, and is it being overused by society? Leslie Jamison looks into it.

(The New Yorker, approx 28 mins reading time)

The popularity of the term testifies to a widespread hunger to name a certain kind of harm. But what are the implications of diagnosing it everywhere? When I put out a call on X (formerly known as Twitter) for experiences of gaslighting, I immediately received a flood of responses, Leah’s among them. The stories offered proof of the term’s broad resonance, but they also suggested the ways in which it has effectively become an umbrella that shelters a wide variety of experiences under the same name. Webster’s dictionary defines the term as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one’s emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.”

3. Near-death experiences

A fascinating read about what happens to our brains when we die. 

(The Guardian, approx 21 mins reading time)

In the moments after Patient One was taken off oxygen, there was a surge of activity in her dying brain. Areas that had been nearly silent while she was on life support suddenly thrummed with high-frequency electrical signals called gamma waves. In particular, the parts of the brain that scientists consider a “hot zone” for consciousness became dramatically alive. In one section, the signals remained detectable for more than six minutes. In another, they were 11 to 12 times higher than they had been before Patient One’s ventilator was removed.

“As she died, Patient One’s brain was functioning in a kind of hyperdrive,” Borjigin told me. For about two minutes after her oxygen was cut off, there was an intense synchronisation of her brain waves, a state associated with many cognitive functions, including heightened attention and memory. The synchronisation dampened for about 18 seconds, then intensified again for more than four minutes. It faded for a minute, then came back for a third time.

4. Cruising

miami-florida-usa-27-january-2024-rear-view-of-the-biggest-cruise-ship-in-the-world-icon-of-the-seas-operated-by-royal-caribbean-international Royal Caribbean International's Icon of the Seas cruise ship. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

An absurd, witty essay by Gary Shteyngart about what’s it like to spend a week on the biggest cruise ship in the world.

(The Atlantic, approx 41 mins reading time)

The ship’s passage away from Ron DeSantis’s Florida provides no frisson, no sense of developing “sea legs,” as the ship is too large to register the presence of waves unless a mighty wind adds significant chop. It is time for me to register the presence of the 5,000 passengers around me, even if they refuse to register mine. My fellow travelers have prepared for this trip with personally decorated T-shirts celebrating the importance of this voyage. The simplest ones say icon inaugural ’24 on the back and the family name on the front. Others attest to an over-the-top love of cruise ships: warning! may start talking about cruising.

Still others are artisanally designed and celebrate lifetimes spent married while cruising (on ships, of course). A couple possibly in their 90s are wearing shirts whose backs feature a drawing of a cruise liner, two flamingos with ostensibly male and female characteristics, and the legend “husband and wife Cruising Partners for life we may not have it All Together but together we have it all.” (The words not in all caps have been written in cursive.) A real journalist or a more intrepid conversationalist would have gone up to the couple and asked them to explain the longevity of their marriage vis-à-vis their love of cruising. But instead I head to my mall suite, take off my meatball T-shirt, and allow the first tears of the cruise to roll down my cheeks slowly enough that I briefly fall asleep amid the moisture and salt.

5. P4x 

Meet the hacker who took down North Korea’s internet.

(WIRED, approx 16 mins reading time)

Instead of prosecuting him, however, Caceres was surprised to find, in the wake of his North Korean cyberattacks, the US government was more interested in recruiting him. Caceres would spend much of the next year on a strange journey into the secretive world of America’s state-sponsored hacking agencies. Adopted informally by a Pentagon contractor, he was invited to present his techniques to high-level US defense and intelligence officials. He carried out a long-term hacking project designed to impress his new audience, hitting real foreign targets. And he pitched Department of Defense officials on a mode of US government-sanctioned cyberattacks that, like his solo North Korean takedown, would be far leaner, faster, and arguably more effective than Washington’s slow and risk-averse model of cyberwar.

6. Scoop

release-date-april-5-2024-title-scoop-studio-voltage-tv-director-philip-martin-plot-how-the-bbc-obtained-the-bombshell-interview-with-prince-andrew-about-his-friendship-with-convicted-sex-of Rufus Sewell as Prince Andrew in 'Scoop'. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

A new film about how that car crash Prince Andrew interview came to be has arrived on Netflix. Rufus Sewell, who plays the disgraced royal, talks about how he recreated 

(Vanity Fair, approx 6 mins reading time)

Though Sewell felt it important to watch flattering footage of Prince Andrew too, the actor viewed the cringeworthy Newsnight interview obsessively—counting the milliseconds of each pause, matching verbal slips, and memorizing all of those ridiculous lines Andrew gave. (On his decision to stay at Epstein’s home: “I admit fully that my judgment was probably colored by my tendency to be too honorable, but that’s just the way it is.”) They’re the kind of lines that, “depending how you view them, are either exasperating or painful to watch. Or sometimes, in a dreadful way, kind of funny,” the actor says.

Sewell also watched versions of the Newsnight interview he found on YouTube where FBI and CIA body-language experts analyze the royal’s mannerisms. They noted how Andrew’s legs were crossed, how he used his hands to self-soothe, and how his heartbeat could be read. They also pointed out “when he was telling the truth, which was surprisingly often,” says Sewell. “That’s not to say, as a general statement, he was telling the truth. People will employ the truth for various reasons—and sometimes it’s to mislead.”

…AND A CLASSIC FROM THE ARCHIVES…

chess-pieces-on-a-board-with-the-resignation-of-the-king-image-shot-2023-exact-date-unknown Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

On 4 September 2022, 19-year-old Hans Niemann defeated Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian chess grandmaster and then the greatest player in the world, in a prestigious tournament. Then Carlsen accused him of cheating. 

(The New York Times, approx 25 mins reading time)

An uproar ensued. Beneath it, facts that complicated the narrative were easy to miss. A week and a half before Mr. Carlsen lost in St. Louis, Chess.com made public an $82 million offer for his online chess training company, Play Magnus, a takeover that will essentially turn him into Chess.com’s most valuable asset. And as more grandmasters studied the epochal game, a consensus formed. Mr. Niemann appeared to simply outplay Mr. Carlsen, with moves that appeared perfectly human. Someone was wronged in St. Louis on Sept. 4. But who? “Here’s the caveat: I really don’t like Hans at all, and I’ve not liked him for a long time,” said Ben Finegold, a grandmaster who has taught Mr. Niemann. “But obviously the truth is more important than whether you like someone.”

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