The MIT Media Lab controversy and getting back to ‘radical courage’, with Media Lab student Arwa Mboya – gpgmail


People win prestigious prizes in tech all the time, but there is something different about The Bold Prize. Unless you’ve been living under a literal or proverbial rock, you’ve probably heard something about the late Jeffrey Epstein, a notorious child molester and human trafficker who also happened to be a billionaire philanthropist and managed to become a ubiquitous figure in certain elite science and tech circles.

And if you’re involved in tech, the rock you’ve been living under would have had to be fully insulated from the internet to avoid reading about Epstein’s connections with MIT’s Media Lab, a leading destination for the world’s most brilliant technological minds, also known as “the future factory.” 

This past week, conversations around the Media Lab were hotter than the fuel rods at Fukushima, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow, perhaps the most feared and famous investigative journalist in America today, blasted out what for some were new revelations that Bill Gates, among others, had given millions of dollars to the Media Lab at Jeffrey (no fucking relation, thank you very much!) Epstein’s behest. Hours after Farrow’s piece was published, Joi Ito, the legendary but now embattled Media Lab director, resigned.

But well before before Farrow weighed in or Ito stepped away, students, faculty, and other leaders at MIT and far beyond were already on full alert about this story, thanks in large part to Arwa Michelle Mboya, a graduate student at the Media Lab, from Kenya by way of college at Yale, where she studied economics and filmmaking and learned to create virtual reality. Mboya, 25, was among the first public voices (arguably the very first) to forcefully and thoughtfully call on Ito to step down from his position.

Imagine: you’re heading into the second year of your first graduate degree, and you find yourself taking on a man who, when Barack Obama took over Wired magazine for an issue as guest editor, was one of just a couple of people the then sitting President of the United States asked to personally interview. And imagine that man was the director of your graduate program, and the reason you decided to study in it in the first place.

Imagine the pressure involved, the courage required. And imagine, soon thereafter, being completely vindicated and celebrated for your actions. 

Arwa Mboya. Image via MIT Media Lab

That is precisely the journey that Arwa Mboya has been on these past few weeks, including when human rights technologist Sabrina Hersi Issa decided to crowd-fund the Bold Prize to honor Mboya’s courage, which has now brought in over $10,000 to support her ongoing work (full disclosure: I am among the over 120 contributors to the prize).

Mboya’s advocacy was never about Joi Ito personally. If you get to know her through the interview below, in fact, you’ll see she doesn’t wish him ill.

As she wrote in MIT’s The Tech nine days before Farrow’s essay and ten before Ito’s resignation, “This is not an MIT issue, and this is not a Joi Ito issue. This is an international issue where a global network of powerful individuals have used their influence to secure their privilege at the expense of women’s bodies and lives. The MIT Media Lab was nicknamed “The Future Factory” on CBS’s 60 Minutes. We are supposed to reflect the future, not just of technology but of society. When I call for Ito’s resignation, I’m fighting for the future of women.”

From the moment I read it, I thought this was a beautiful and truly bold statement by a student leader who is an inspiring example of the extraordinary caliber of student that the Media Lab draws.

But in getting to know her a bit since reading it, I’ve learned that her message is also about even more. It’s about the fact that the women and men who called for a new direction in light of Jeffrey Epstein’s abuses and other leaders’ complicity did so in pursuit of their own inspiring dreams for a better world.

Arwa, as you’ll see below, spoke out at MIT because of her passion to use tech to inspire radical imagination among potentially millions of African youth. As she discusses both the Media Lab and her broader vision, I believe she’s already beginning to provide that inspiration. 

Greg Epstein: You have had a few of the most dramatic weeks of any student I’ve met in 15 years as a chaplain at two universities. How are you doing right now?

Arwa Mboya: I’m actually pretty good. I’m not saying that for the sake of saying. I have a great support network. I’m in a lab where everyone is amazing. I’m very tired, I’ll say that. I’ve been traveling a lot and dealing with this while still trying to focus on writing a thesis. If anything, it’s more like overwhelmed and exhausted as opposed to not doing well in and of itself.

Epstein: Looking at your writing — you’ve got a great Medium blog that you started long before MIT and maintained while you’ve been here — it struck me that in speaking your mind and heart about this Media Lab issue, you’ve done exactly what you set out to do when you came here. You set out to be brave, to live life, as the Helen Keller quote on your website says, as either a great adventure or nothing. 

Also, when you came to the Media Lab, you were the best-case scenario for anyone who works on publicizing this place. You spoke and wrote about the Lab as your absolute dream. When you were in Africa, or Australia, or at Yale, how did you come to see this as the best place in the world for you to express the creative and civic dreams that you had?

Mboya: That’s a good question — what drew me here? The Media Lab is amazing. I read Whiplash, which is Joi Ito’s book about the nine principles of the Media Lab, and it really resonated with me. It was a place for misfits. It was a place for people who are curious and who just want to explore and experiment and mix different fields, which is exactly what I’ve been doing before.

From high school, I was very narrow in my focus; at Yale I did Econ and film, so that had a little more edge. After I graduated I insisted on not taking a more conventional path many students from Yale take, so [I] moved back to Kenya and worked on many different projects, got into adventure sports, got into travel more.

Epstein: Your website is full of pictures of you flipping over, skydiving, gymnastics — things that require both strength and courage. 

Mboya: I’d always been an athlete, loved the outdoors.

I remember being in Vietnam; I’d never done a backflip. I was like, “Okay, I’m going to learn how to do this.” But it’s really scary jumping backwards; the fear. Is, you can’t see where you’re going. I remember telling myself, ” Okay, just jump over the fear. Just shut it off and do it. Your body will follow.” I did and I was like, “Oh, that was easy.” It’s not complicated. Most people could do it if they just said, “Okay, I’ll jump.”

It really stuck with me. A lot of decisions I’ve [since] made, that I’m scared of, I think, “Okay, just jump, and your body will follow.” The Media Lab was like that as well.

I really wanted to go there, I just didn’t think there was a place for me. It was like, I’m not techie enough, I’m not anything enough. Applying was, ’just jump,’ you never know what will happen.

image 4

Image from Arwa Mboya

Epstein: Back when you were applying, you wrote about experiencing what applicants to elite schools often call “imposter syndrome.” This is where I want to be, but will they want me?

Mboya: Exactly.




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How the Valley can get philanthropy right with former Hewlett Foundation president Paul Brest – gpgmail


Paul Brest didn’t set out to transform philanthropy. A constitutional law scholar who clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and is credited with coining the term “originalism,” Brest spent twelve years as dean of Stanford Law School.

But when he was named president of the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, one of the country’s largest large non-profit funders, Brest applied the rigor of a legal scholar not just to his own institution’s practices but to those of the philanthropy field at large. He hired experts to study the practice of philanthropy and helped to launch Stanford’s Center for Philanthropy and Civil Society, where he still teaches.

Now, Brest has turned his attention to advising Silicon Valley’s next generation of donors.

From Stanford to the Hewlett Foundation

Photo by David Madison / Getty Images

Scott Bade: Your background is in constitutional law. How did you make the shift from being dean at Stanford to running the Hewlett Foundation as president?

Paul Brest: I came into the Hewlett Foundation largely by accident. I really didn’t know anything about philanthropy, but I had been teaching courses on problem-solving and decision making. I think I got the job because a number of people on the board knew me, both from Stanford Law School, but also from playing chamber music with Walter and Esther Hewlett.

Bade: When was this?

Brest: I started there in 2000. Bill Hewlett died the year after I came. Walter Hewlett, Bill’s son, was chair of the board during the entire time I was president. But it’s not a family foundation.

Bade: What were your initial impressions of the foundation and the broader philanthropic space?

Brest: Not having come from the non-profit sector, it took me a year or so to really understand what it [meant] to use our assets in each area in a strategic way.  The [Hewlett] Foundation had very good values in terms of the areas it was supporting — the environment, education, population, women’s reproductive rights. It had good philanthropic practices, but it was not very strategically focused. It turned out that not very many foundations were strategic.

Paul’s framework for thinking about philanthropy

Paul informal photo

Photo provided by Paul Brest

Bade: What do you mean by ‘strategic’?

Brest: What I mean [by] strategic is having clear goals and having an evidence-based, evidence-informed strategy for achieving them. Big foundations tend to be conglomerates with different programs trying to achieve different goals.

[Being strategic means] monitoring progress as you work towards those goals. Then evaluating in advance whether the strategy is going to be plausible and then whether you’re actually achieving the outcomes you’re trying to achieve so that you can make course corrections if you’re not achieving.

[For example,] the likelihood that the roughly billionaire dollars or more that have been spent or committed to climate advocacy are going to have any effect is quite low. The place where metrics comes in is just having kind of an expected return mindset where yes, the chances of success are low, but we know that the importance of success — or putting it differently, the effects of failure — are going to be catastrophic.

What a strategic mindset does here is say: it’s worth taking huge bets even where the margins of error of the likelihood of success are very hard to measure when the results are huge.

I don’t want to say the [Hewlett] Foundation was anti-strategic, or totally unstrategic, but it really had not developed a [this kind of] systematic framework for doing those things.

Bade: You’re known in the philanthropic community for putting an emphasis on defining, achieving, measuring impact. Have those sort of technocratic practices made philanthropy better?

Brest: I think you have to start by asking, what would it mean for philanthropy to be good? From my point of view, philanthropy is good when I like the goals it chooses. Then, given a good goal, when it is effective in achieving that goal. Strategy really has nothing to say about what the goals are, but only how effective it is.

My guess is that 90 plus percent of philanthropy is intended to achieve goals that most of us think are good goals. There are occasions when you have direct conflicts of goals as you do with say the anti-abortion and the choice movements, or gun control and the NRA. Those are important arguments.

But most philanthropy is trying to improve education or improve the lives of the poor. My view is that philanthropy is good when it is effective in achieving those goals, and trying to do no harm in the process.

Current debates on philanthropy


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Hubble spots liquid water on a ‘super-Earth’ 110 light-years away – gpgmail


Water is not uncommon to find in our galaxy in ice or gaseous form, but liquid water is quite rare — and liquid and gaseous water on an Earth-like exoplanet? That’s never been observed… until now. Astronomers spotted this celestial unicorn, called K2-18 b, using the venerable Hubble space telescope.

K2-18 b is a “super-Earth,” a planet with a mass and size approximately like our own. Not only that, it exists in its solar system’s “habitable zone,” meaning a range of temperatures where liquid water can continuously exist. It’s about 110 light-years away in the constellation Leo.

Of course there are many super-Earths, and many planets in habitable zones, and many planets with water — but they’re never one and the same. This is the first time we’ve found the trifecta.

Researchers used past Hubble data to examine the spectral signature of light shining from K2-18 b’s sun through its atmosphere. They found evidence of both liquid and gaseous water, suggesting a water cycle like our own: evaporation, condensation, and all that.

To be clear, this is not an indication of little green men or anything like that; K2-18 b’s red dwarf sun is absolutely bombarding it with radiation. “It is highly unlikely that this world is habitable in any way that we understand based on life as we know it,” the Space Telescope Science Institute’s Hannah Wakeford told Nature.

Too bad — but that wasn’t what scientists were hoping to find. The discovery of an Earth-like planet with an Earth-like water cycle in the habitable zone is amazing, especially considering the relatively small number of exoplanets that have been examined this way. The galaxy is full of them, after all, so finding one with these qualities suggests there are plenty more where K2-18 b came from.

This discovery is an interesting one in another fashion: It was done, like lots of others are these days, by performing after-the-fact analysis on publicly available data (from 2016 and 2017), and the analysis used open-source algorithms. Essentially both the data and the methods were out there in the open — though naturally it takes serious scientific effort to actually put them together.

Two papers were published on K2-18 b, one from the University of Montreal and one from University College London. The former appeared on preprint site Arxiv yesterday, and the other was published in the journal Nature Astronomy today.


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Brexit means clear your cookies for democracy – gpgmail


Brexit looks set to further sink the already battered reputation of tracking cookies after a Buzzfeed report yesterday revealed what appears to be a plan by the UK’s minority government to use official government websites to harvest personal data on UK citizens for targeting purposes.

According to leaked government documents obtained by the news site, the prime minister has instructed government departments to share website usage data that’s collected via gov.uk websites with ministers on a cabinet committee tasked with preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

It’s not clear how linking up citizens use of essential government portals could further ‘no deal’ prep.

Rather the suspicion is it’s a massive, consent-less voter data grab by party political forces preparing for an inevitable general election in which the current Tory PM plans to campaign on a pro-Brexit message.

The instruction to pool gov.uk usage data as a “top priority” is also being justified internally in instructions to civil servants as necessary to accelerate plans for a digital revolution in public services — an odd ASAP to be claiming at a time of national, Brexit-induced crisis when there are plenty more pressing priorities (given the October 31 EU exit date looming).

A government spokesperson nonetheless told Buzzfeed the data is being collected to improve service delivery. They also claimed it’s “anonymized” data.

“Individual government departments currently collect anonymised user data when people use gov.uk. The Government Digital Service is working on a project to bring this anonymous data together to make sure people can access all the services they need as easily as possible,” the spokesperson said, further claiming: “No personal data is collected at any point during the process, and all activity is fully compliant with our legal and ethical obligations.”

However privacy experts quickly pointed out the nonsense of trying to pretend that joined up user data given a shared identifier is in any way anonymous.

 

For those struggling to keep up with the blistering pace of UK political developments engendered by Brexit, this is a government led by a new (and unelected) prime minister, Boris ‘Brexit: Do or Die’ Johnson, and his special advisor, digital guru Dominic Cummings, of election law-breaking Vote Leave campaign fame.

Back in 2015 and 2016, Cummings, then the director of the official Vote Leave campaign, masterminded a plan to win the EU referendum by using social media data to profile voters — blitzing them with millions of targeted ads in final days of the Brexit campaign.

Vote Leave was later found to have channelled money to Cambridge Analytica-linked Canadian data firm Aggregate IQ to target pro-Brexit ads via Facebook’s platform. Many of which were subsequently revealed to have used blatantly xenophobic messaging to push racist anti-EU messaging when Facebook finally handed over the ad data.

Setting aside the use of xenophobic dark ads to whip up racist sentiment to sell Brexit to voters, and ongoing questions about exactly how Vote Leave acquired data on UK voters for targeting them with political ads (including ethical questions about the use of a football quiz touting a £50M prize run on social media as a mass voter data-harvesting exercise), last year the UK’s Electoral Commission found Vote Leave had breached campaign spending limits through undeclared joint working with another pro-Brexit campaign — via which almost half a million pounds was illegally channeled into Facebook ads.

The Vote Leave campaign was fined £61k by the Electoral Commission, and referred to the police. (An investigation is possibly ongoing.)

Cummings, the ‘huge brain’ behind Vote Leave’s digital strategy, did not suffer a dent in his career as a consequence of all this — on the contrary, he was appointed by Johnson as senior advisor this summer, after Johnson won the Conservative leader contest and so became the third UK PM since the 2016 vote for Brexit.

With Cummings at his side, it’s been full steam ahead for Johnson on social media ads and data grabs, as we reported last month — paving the way for a hoped for general election campaign, fuelled by ‘no holds barred’ data science. Democratic ethics? Not in this digitally disruptive administration!

The Johnson-Cummings pact ignores entirely the loud misgivings sounded by the UK’s information commissioner — which a year ago warned that political microtargeting risks undermining trust in democracy. The ICO called then for an ethical pause. Instead Johnson stuck up a proverbial finger by installing Cummings in No.10.

The UK’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport parliamentary committee, which tried and failed to get Cummings to testify before it last year as part of a wide-ranging enquiry into online disinformation (a snub for which Cummings was later found in contempt of parliament), also urged the government to update election law as a priority last summer — saying it was essential to act to defend democracy against data-fuelled misinformation and disinformation. A call that was met with cold water.

This means the same old laws that failed to prevent ethically dubious voter data-harvesting during the EU referendum campaign, and failed to prevent social media ad platforms and online payment platforms (hi, Paypal!) from being the conduit for illegal foreign donations into UK campaigns, are now apparently incapable of responding to another voter data heist trick, this time cooked up at the heart of government on the umbrella pretext of ‘preparing for Brexit’.

The repurposing of government departments under Johnson-Cummings for pro-Brexit propaganda messaging also looks decidedly whiffy…

Asked about the legality of the data pooling gov.uk plan as reported by Buzzfeed, an ICO spokesperson told us: “People should be able to make informed choices about the way their data is used. That’s why organisations have to ensure that they process personal information fairly, legally and transparently. When that doesn’t happen, the ICO can take action.”

Can — but hasn’t yet.

It’s also not clear what action the ICO could end up taking to purge UK voter data that’s already been (or is in the process of being) sucked out of the Internet to be repurposed for party political purposes — including, judging by the Vote Leave playbook, for microtargeted ads that promote a no holds barred ‘no deal’ Brexit agenda.

One thing is clear: Any action would need to be swiftly enacted and robustly enforced if it were to have a meaningful chance of defending democracy from ethics-free data-targeting.

Sadly, the ICO has yet to show an appetite for swift and robust action where political parties are concerned.

Likely because a report it put out last fall essentially called out all UK political parties for misusing people’s data. It followed up saying it would audit the political parties starting early this year — but has yet to publish its findings.

Concerned opposition MPs are left tweeting into the regulatory abyss — decrying the ‘coup’ and forlornly pressing for action… Though if the political boot were on the other foot it might well be a different story.

Among the cookies used on gov.uk sites are Google Analytics cookies which store information on how visitors got to the site; the pages visited and length of time spent on them; and items clicked on. Which could certainly enable rich profiles to be attached to single visitors IDs.

Visitors to gov.uk properties can switch off Google Analytics measurement cookies, as well as denying gov.uk communications and marketing cookies, and cookies that store preferences — with only “strictly necessary” cookies (which remember form progress and serve notifications) lacking a user toggle.

What should concerned UK citizens to do to defend democracy against the data science folks we’re told are being thrown at the Johnson-Cummings GSD data pooling project? Practice good privacy hygiene.

Clear your cookies. Indeed, switch off gov.uk cookies. Deny access wherever and whenever possible.

It’s probably also a good idea to use a fresh browser session each time you need to visit a government website and close the session (with cookies set to clear) immediately you’re done.

When the laws have so spectacularly failed to keep up with the data processors, limiting how your information is gathered online is the only way to be sure. Though as we’ve written before it’s not easy.

Privacy is personal and unfortunately, with the laws lagging, the personal is now trivially cheap and easy to weaponize for political dark arts that treat democracy as a game of PR, debasing the entire system in the process.




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Trump administration is readying tighter regulations on e-cigarettes, including ban on flavorings – gpgmail


The Department of Health and Human Services and the Food and Drug Administration are readying tough new requirements on e-cigarettes — including a potential ban on flavorings for vaping products.

The FDA compliance policy would mean that all non-tobacco flavored e-cigarettes would have to be cleared by the FDA before they could be sold. The regulations could effectively remove flavored e-cigarette products from the market until they go through the testing required for FDA approval.

In August 2016, e-cigarette companies were required to file premarket tobacco product applications with the FDA over a two-year period. Those companies whose products have not received FDA approval are now considered to be marketed illegally, according to the HHS statement.

“The Trump Administration is making it clear that we intend to clear the market of flavored e-cigarettes to reverse the deeply concerning epidemic of youth e-cigarette use that is impacting children, families, schools and communities,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in a statement. “We will not stand idly by as these products become an on-ramp to combustible cigarettes or nicotine addiction for a generation of youth.”

Over the past year, the e-cigarette industry has faced a steady stream of criticism related to the health effects of vaping and the ways in which companies marketed their products to minors.

A new version of the National Youth Tobacco Survey shows the continued rise in rates of youth e-cigarette use, especially through non-tobacco flavors, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. More than 25% of high school students were e-cigarette users in 2019, and the bulk of those kids cited fruit and mint flavors as their pods of choice.

Earlier in September, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning against vaping as several deadly instances of lung-related illnesses cropped up among vape users (although no solid link between the lung condition and vaping has been identified). As we reported at the time:

The first death was reported in late August in Indiana, but other suspected cases have turned fatal in Illinois, Minnesota, California and Oregon — as reported by The Washington Post, though the CDC said three are confirmed and one is under investigation. The number of reported cases has skyrocketed, though this is likely a consequence of better information coming from state health authorities and hospitals, rather than a sudden epidemic.

The FDA is now working on a compliance policy that will be announced in the coming weeks to address the flavored e-cigarette issue.”Once finalized, this compliance policy will serve as a powerful tool that the FDA can use to combat the troubling trend of youth e-cigarette use. We must act swiftly against flavored e-cigarette products that are especially attractive to children. Moreover, if we see a migration to tobacco-flavored products by kids, we will take additional steps to address youth use of these products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless, MD, in a statement.”Earlier this week, the FDA sent a warning letter to the leading e-cigarette company, Juul Labs. With a reported 70% of the U.S. e-cigarette market and more than $14 billion in financing, Juul is the largest private company operating in the vaping space.

The government’s mobilization efforts come just one day after former New York City mayor and billionaire philanthropist Mike Bloomberg announced a $160 million effort to combat youth vaping.

Blomberg actually called out the federal government in the announcement, saying:

The federal government has the responsibility to protect children from harm, but it has failed – so the rest of us are taking action. I look forward to partnering with advocates in cities and states across the country on legislative actions that protect our kids’ health. The decline in youth smoking is one of the great health victories of this century, and we can’t allow tobacco companies to reverse that progress.


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Despite Brexit, UK startups can compete with Silicon Valley to win tech talent – gpgmail


Brexit has taken over discourse in the UK and beyond. In the UK alone, it is mentioned over 500 million times a day, in 92 million conversations — and for good reason. While the UK has yet to leave the EU, the impact of Brexit has already rippled through industries all over the world. The UK’s technology sector is no exception. While innovation endures in the midst of Brexit, data reveals that innovative companies are losing the ability to attract people from all over the world and are suffering from a substantial talent leak. 

It is no secret that the UK was already experiencing a talent shortage, even without the added pressure created by today’s political landscape. Technology is developing rapidly and demand for tech workers continues to outpace supply, creating a fiercely competitive hiring landscape.

The shortage of available tech talent has already created a deficit that could cost the UK £141 billion in GDP growth by 2028, stifling innovation. Now, with Brexit threatening the UK’s cosmopolitan tech landscape — and the economy at large — we may soon see international tech talent moving elsewhere; in fact, 60% of London businesses think they’ll lose access to tech talent once the UK leaves the EU.

So, how can UK-based companies proactively attract and retain top tech talent to prevent a Brexit brain drain? UK businesses must ensure that their hiring funnels are a top priority and focus on understanding what matters most to tech talent beyond salary, so that they don’t lose out to US tech hubs. 

Brexit aside, why is San Francisco more appealing than the UK?


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FDA says Juul ‘ignored the law’ and warns it may take action – gpgmail


The Food and Drug Administration has put vaping giant Juul on notice with a pair of letters calling the company out for misleading statements about its products and ongoing targeting of teens. It is demanding written answers to a boatload of pertinent questions and expects Juul to respond within two weeks or risk “even more aggressive action” by regulators.

The specific claims being disputed by the FDA have to do with Juul positioning itself as a smoking cessation product. Now, it may be obvious anecdotally that vaping is a good way to wean yourself off smoking. But unlike nicotine patches and other products, there isn’t a lot of documentation on the complete risk associated with vaping — and with several people dead of vape lung, there would seem to be some worth considering.

“Companies must demonstrate with scientific evidence that their specific product does in fact pose less risk or is less harmful,” said Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless in a news release. “Juul has ignored the law, and very concerningly, has made some of these statements in school to our nation’s youth.”

Juul was reportedly directly targeting social media channels frequented by young people and, “despite commitments JUUL has made to address this epidemic, JUUL products continue to represent a significant proportion of the overall use of ENDS products by children. Some of this youth use appears to have been a direct result of JUUL’s product design and promotional activities and outreach efforts.”

In a recent Congressional hearing about the risk of “electronic nicotine delivery systems,” or ENDS, evidence was presented that a Juul representative told students that the company’s products were “much safer than cigarettes,” “totally safe,” and that the “FDA was about to come out and say it was 99% safer than cigarettes… very soon.”

Representations like these were apparently made far and wide, among students certainly and also among native American communities. They aren’t the kind of statements you can just say — tobacco cessation products are regulated, essentially medical products, and the FDA looks at them closely. Claims have to be documented and evaluated.

Juul seems to have been walking very close to the line in its public statements, and it’s likely that the company very carefully crafted these messages to convince people that its devices are good alternatives to smoking while not making any claims that would expose it to FDA attention. But they appear to have stepped over that line now and again and provoked exactly the kind of scrutiny they’d rather avoid.

“We request that you provide any and all scientific evidence and data, including consumer perception studies, if any, related to whether or not each statement and representation explicitly or implicitly conveys that JUUL products pose less risk, are less harmful, present reduced exposure, or are safer than other tobacco products,” the FDA told Juul.

Furthermore it asked Juul to explain why it uses a 5 percent nicotine concentration in its products, which could increase the likelihood of addiction, and why the company uses nicotine salts, a substance that reduces harshness and allows greater nicotine concentrations.

Likely independent of the ongoing investigation into lung problems seemingly caused by vaping, the FDA also requested “Aerosol particle size analysis of aerosol formed from your device,” “experimental design and data on pK studies from your device, your e-liquid, and combusted cigarettes,” comparisons between free nicotine and nicotine salt delivery, and “How the design and performance of your device and/or e-liquid, including the level, formulation, and delivery specifications of nicotine, affect lung deposition as related to the use and addictive potential of the product.”

In other words, tell us why you designed your product to be extra addictive and attractive to non-smokers, and whether this was in spite of knowing the substances created caused lung damage.

In a statement, Juul said that it was “reviewing the letters and will fully cooperate.”


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International students face immigration hurdles under Trump – gpgmail


This fall, nearly half a million international students will begin or return to STEM degree programs at U.S. colleges and universities. If you’re among them, congratulations — look forward to being wooed by talent-hungry U.S. tech firms when you graduate. But there’s bad news, too: Under current immigration rules, switching from a student visa to an employment visa can be tricky, so it’s important to understand what’s required and how the latest policy upheavals could impact your journey.

In theory, it’s a great time to be a STEM graduate. U.S. STEM jobs are expected to grow by nearly 11% — or about 10.3 million positions — between 2016 and 2026, faster than all U.S. occupations. In practice, however, it can be tough for international students to secure permanent residence in the United States. The H-1B skilled-worker visa system is badly clogged; a federal lawsuit could slam the door on many STEM graduates, and the White House is shaking up both the skilled-worker and student visa systems.

But don’t despair: There’s still a pathway to a future in the United States — you just might face a bumpy ride. Whether you’re starting your studies or preparing to graduate, it’s crucial to understand your options.

Getting an employment-based visa

An employment-based green card requires an executive-level job, a truly extraordinary résumé, or an employer willing to pony up thousands of dollars in fees and labor-certification costs. Because it’s hard to get a green card, most international STEM students aim for an H-1B visa, which lets you work for a specified U.S. employer for up to six years. It’s not a permanent solution, but it can be a useful launchpad for your career.

Even getting an H-1B isn’t easy, though. There’s a hard cap on H-1Bs: This year, there were more than 200,000 applicants vying for just 85,000 visas. Recipients are selected via lottery, and while you could land an H-1B on your first attempt, many tech workers have to try again — and again, and again — before they finally get lucky.

In the meantime, international students typically start out using the temporary work authorization through their student visa until they transfer to an H-1B. 

Let’s dig into the details of what’s allowed under your student visa: 

If you’re on an F-1 visa

Image via Getty Images / South_agency

The F-1 student visa is one of the main on-ramps to the U.S. tech sector for foreign-born workers. That’s largely thanks to Bush- and Obama-era changes that expanded the Optional Practical Training (OPT) program, which allows F-1 holders to work at American companies after graduating, from 12 to 36 months. 

Graduates with multiple STEM degrees (such as a bachelor’s and master’s degrees) can also chain together their OPT periods, working for up to six years in total before switching to another visa. That’s great news because each year of OPT is another chance to play the H-1B lottery, increasing your odds of winning a visa. 

To use OPT, you’ll need to get a work permit (“Employment Authorization Document,” or EAD) as you near graduation. You’ll also need to file for visa extensions in order to make the most of your OPT entitlement. 

If you’re on a J-1 visa

Similar to the F-1, the J-1 visa is designed for students involved in cultural exchange programs or who receive substantial funding from governments or institutions. 

As a J-1 student, you won’t get OPT but 18 months of Academic Training (AT). Any internships or jobs you take during your studies will count toward your AT allotment, so it’s possible to finish your degree with less than 18 months of work authorization remaining. And while a second 18-month AT period is available for postdoctoral research, there’s no automatic extension for STEM degree holders: Once your 18 months are up, you’ll need to leave the United States.

There’s another catch: Many J-1 visas come with a home residency requirement (HRR), requiring holders to return to their home country for two years before seeking a work-based or family-sponsored U.S. visa — that or apply for an HRR waiver

If you’re on an M-1 visa

The M-1 visa is used by students at technical and vocational schools, not academic programs. As student visas go, it’s very restrictive: You won’t be able to work off-campus and can’t work for more than six months. You also won’t be able to switch to an F-1 visa and won’t find it easy to transition to an H-1B. If you hope to stay in the United States long-term, think carefully about whether an M-1 is right for you.

No job lined up?

If you don’t have a job offer, there are other ways to stay in the United States after finishing your studies. One popular option is to enter a graduate program: Getting a master’s degree could extend your student visa by a year or two, while upgrading to a PhD program could get you several additional years. In fact, an advanced U.S. degree under your belt effectively doubles your chances of getting an H-1B in the same lottery. 

If you can’t find work and don’t want to keep studying, you’ll need existing family ties to a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident (green card holder). If you’re the direct relative of one (for example, a spouse or child), then things are relatively easier: You have a clear path toward a family-based green card, allowing you to live and work permanently in the United States. That’s true even if you’ve become a family member through marriage: You’ll be able to obtain a marriage-based green card more quickly and easily than an H-1B or other employment-based green cards.

If you’re the spouse or child of someone on a temporary visa, such as an H-1B or O-1 visa holder, you can usually obtain a dependent’s visa. Such visas often allow you to study, but you won’t qualify for OPT after graduating. It’s also getting harder for H4 visa holders to obtain work permits, so don’t count on using a dependent’s visa to launch your career in Silicon Valley. In many cases, OPT is still a better springboard to an H-1B or green card.

If the person who claims you as a dependent applies for permanent residence, you may be able to get a green card through “derivative” benefits, meaning their green card eligibility trickles down to you.  

Next step: Mark your calendar

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Image via Getty Images / normaals

Whatever immigration status you currently have or want to get, you’ll need to plan ahead. In some cases, you might need to start planning your next step almost as soon as you begin your studies, in order to make sure you aren’t left without a valid visa.

  • For graduate study: Update your existing student visa before the end of the 60-day grace period (for F-1 visas) or 30-day grace period (for J-1 visas) following the program completion date listed on your Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) record and I-20 or DS-2019 form. 
  • For F-1 OPT: Apply no sooner than 90 days before and no later than 60 days after completing your studies. If your official completion date is June 1, 2020, for instance, you can apply for OPT between March 3 and July 31 of that year.
  • For J-1 AT: Apply shortly before your program ends. Your school will facilitate your AT application and will set its own deadline to process your paperwork before the end of your studies, but your AT must begin no later than 30 days after completing your program.
  • For H-1B visas: Play the annual visa lottery held in early April. You’ll need a job offer lined up well in advance from an employer who’s willing to sponsor you. You can’t begin working until your H-1B is approved, unless you have separate work authorization through OPT, AT, or some other means.
  • For employment-based green cards: The timeline depends on your specific green card category, but you’ll generally wait months or years
  • For green cards through marriage to a U.S. citizen: You’ll typically wait 10–13 months, but you’ll be able to stay in the United States while in the meantime, even if your student visa expires.
  • For green cards through marriage to a permanent resident: You’ll typically wait 29–38 months, but you’ll need another valid visa, such as an unexpired F-1, for the first 11–15 months.
  • For family-based green cards (other than for spouses and children of U.S. citizens): You might face a lengthy wait depending on your relationship to your sponsoring relative and home country

Whatever your plans, remember that immigration rules are constantly changing — and seldom in ways that benefit new immigrants. If you can, file your visa or green card application right away to avoid nasty surprises.

Trouble coming down the line

It’s important not only to understand your current visa but also to recognize that the U.S. immigration system is in flux — and many of the planned changes spell bad news even for immigrants with advanced degrees and vitally needed skills. 

The new public charge rule, for instance, will make it harder to get a green card if you’ve used public benefits and allows the U.S. government to deny your application if they suspect you’ll fall on hard times in the future. For STEM grads with solid job offers, that might not seem like a major concern, but the new rule will apply even to those on temporary visas, including H-1Bs, who wish to extend or change their immigration status. At the least, it’s a sign of how much harder the immigration process is getting.

The Trump administration is also targeting students with a new “unlawful presence” rule that imposes tough punishments for minor violations of student visa terms. Fortunately, the rule is tied up in court, but if it goes through, it could lead to lengthy bans on future work visas if you overstay on your student visa, work in ways that aren’t authorized, or otherwise fail to play by the rules.

Such changes underscore the importance of doing your own due diligence and not simply relying on your college or employer to steer you right. Figuring out your immigration options can feel overwhelming — but as the many thousands of foreign-born STEM graduates who’ve successfully built careers in the United States can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.

Get your pressing immigration questions answered

Have a question about the complex and shifting immigration process? Boundless can help. Please send your immigration-related questions to our resident immigration expert, Anjana Prasad, at ask.anjana@boundless.com. We will consider your question for a future column on the Boundless blog.


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After Epstein, it’s time for the Valley to find a moral view on capital – gpgmail


Is capital moral or amoral?

In the predominant view held in Silicon Valley today, capital is amoral — cash is cash, and regardless of where it comes from, once it leaves the hand of its investor or donor, it no longer has that individual’s taint. That money might have previously been spent on acquiring access to underage girls, or murder, or espionage, but now it is being spent on something productive, something useful. Isn’t that ultimately a net win for society?

That culture of fundraising is under an exacting microscope this week after the MIT Technology Review reported that Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the famed MIT Media Lab, would have continued to take convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein’s donations to the research center.

[… He] said he had recommended that [Joichi Ito, the lab’s current director] take Epstein’s money. “If you wind back the clock,” he added, “I would still say, ‘Take it.’” And he repeated, more emphatically, “‘Take it.’”

The comments, made during a meeting of the lab’s staff, shocked many of the participants, with some angrily replying in the heat of the moment. As the Review noted, “Kate Darling, a research scientist at the MIT Media Lab, shouted, ‘Nicholas, shut up!’ Negroponte responded that he would not shut up and that he had founded the Lab, to which Darling said, ‘We’ve been cleaning up your messes for the past eight years.’”

Epstein funded projects widely in the tech world through the Edge Foundation and other initiatives, and his acquaintances read like a who’s-who of tech luminaries.

Yet, this week’s controversy over fundraising is hardly novel. Just last year, SoftBank’s Vision Fund was dealing with the fallout in its own fundraising after Saudi Arabia — the fund’s largest limited partner with a $45 billion commitment to the $93 billion fund — murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in its consulate in Istanbul.

These two singular cases also connect to the larger story about the U.S. government’s active shutdown of Chinese venture capital dollars flowing into the Valley for fear of foreign intelligence espionage. Through the modernization of legal tools like CFIUS, to the Pentagon’s creation of a Trusted Capital Marketplace, to reversals of acquisitions like the unwinding of Chinese company Kunlun’s purchase of gay dating app Grindr, the government has repeatedly been telling entrepreneurs: it matters where your capital comes from.

Indeed, that’s the very quandary that Silicon Valley is facing these days. Its amoral view of capital is increasingly clashing with the reality that it matters a whole heck of a lot where that capital comes from. And it is about time that founders and investors take responsibility for cleaning up a capital base that has become more and more squalid over time.

Why can’t capital just be immoral? Well, Epstein’s web of donations provided him with a philanthropic sheen that eased access to the highest echelons of society while he committed his crimes. Saudi Arabia is the largest investor in Silicon Valley not only because it drives a return and diversifies its oil-dependent economy, but also because it can Valley-wash the horrific rights abuses and atrocities it commits against all of its citizens, including women, LGBT people, and immigrants.

(But hey, women can drive now, just in time for autonomous vehicles.)

This amoral versus moral view of capital is just the classic debate in philosophy between utilitarianism versus deontological duties, but Silicon Valley has almost exclusively chosen the former rather than the latter. My bank asks me more questions about my $50 deposits than many founders ask about where that $500 million check comes from.

That’s perhaps understandable in context. Founders — as with non-profit leaders — fundraise around-the-clock. When a check finally arrives, they don’t bother to ask a bunch of due diligence questions. They just want that money to hit the bank and get back to building what they were intending to the entire time.

It’s a mode of operating that continues to the present day. I was chatting with a founder this week, and during demo day last week, he got an emailed check for $50,000 from an investor in the audience. It was amazing, he said with exclamation points to me, and it sounded like he just added the check to the pile he had accumulated. Who is this person? Do we know where his capital comes from? Is there going to be some scandal that shocks the startup in a couple of years? Yet the excitement was palpable — the round was closed, and it was the easiest $50,000 ever fundraised.

Those diligence questions probably didn’t need to be asked a decade or two in the Valley, back when a few dozen firms mostly raised from blue-chip university and non-profit endowments as well as state pension funds.

Today though, there are all kinds of sources of capital, with little clarity about where the capital is coming from. Take, for instance, Carlos Ghosn, who once headed Nissan Motors and is currently on trial in Japan for a variety of financial crimes. He has been accused of embezzling millions of dollars for a VC fund run by his son by running a kickback scheme through a Nissan distributor in Lebanon. As the Wall Street Journal reported a little more than a week ago:

In March 2015, the Ghosns set up in Delaware an investment vehicle called Shogun Investments, which Mr. Ghosn described as a fund that would invest in Silicon Valley startups. Mr. Ghosn was majority owner while his son, Anthony, held a stake, according to people familiar with the matter. The younger Mr. Ghosn, who was about to graduate from Stanford University, was working at the time as chief of staff for Silicon Valley venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, providing the elder Mr. Ghosn a close-up view of the tech investment world. The lofty returns had stunned him, according to one of the people.

That fund would go on to fund some of the most well-known unicorns in the world:

“Following our phone conversation, I ordered a transfer of $3 million,” Carlos Ghosn wrote in a December 2017 email to his son, who was 22 years old at the time.

Of that amount, $2 million was for an investment in Grab, a Southeast Asian competitor to Uber Technologies Inc., Mr. Ghosn wrote, adding that he was sending “$1 million for the company of your friend that you think will do very well.” It wasn’t clear which company Mr. Ghosn was referring to.

I would love a world in which founders asked all the right due diligence questions. I would love for them to inquire about limited partners, about how wealth was created, and how it has been invested. But I am also aware that in what can be a desperate search for funds, those questions may well never get asked in the first place.

If you want to stop the capital laundering taking place every day in the Valley, you have to create active, real-time antidotes. That means stopping it at every point of contact, every single opportunity where it can infect the ecosystem.

And so, we need better systems as a community and as an ecosystem to cleanse ourselves of this dirty money. We need “know-your-capital” processes that are standardized, robust, and accurate so that every check can be verified before it hits the bank. We need tools to verify that a startup or non-profit has actually followed those KYC processes, so that employees don’t suddenly show up at work and realize they are making money for a bunch of murderers. It’s “trust but verify.”

Systematization and process are key to execution, but that doesn’t disclaim the responsibility for the Valley’s leaders to take a moral stance here. Utilitarianism only takes you so far — it does matter that you take capital from a bad actor. Negroponte is wrong to say that he would still take Epstein’s money, regardless of what that capital might have funded at the MIT Media Lab.

Taking responsibility for your capital is part of being a leader of an organization today. Hopefully, the next generation of founders will take a look at Epstein, and Khashoggi, and China, and Ghosn, and the Sacklers, and a whole host of other case studies and learn from them and change their fundraising practices. A moral view on capital isn’t a cost of doing business — it’s simply the right thing to do.


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Teaching ethics in computer science the right way with Georgia Tech’s Charles Isbell – gpgmail


The new fall semester is upon us, and at elite private colleges and universities, it’s hard to find a trendier major than Computer Science. It’s also becoming more common for such institutions to prioritize integrating ethics into their CS studies, so students don’t just learn about how to build software, but whether or not they should build it in the first place. Of course, this begs questions about how much the ethics lessons such prestigious schools are teaching are actually making a positive impression on students.

But at a time when demand for qualified computer scientists is skyrocketing around the world and far exceeds supply, another kind of question might be even more important: Can computer science be transformed from a field largely led by elites into a profession that empowers vastly more working people, and one that trains them in a way that promotes ethics and an awareness of their impact on the world around them?

Enter Charles Isbell of Georgia Tech, a humble and unassuming star of inclusive and ethical computer science. Isbell, a longtime CS professor at Georgia Tech, enters this fall as the new Dean and John P. Imlay Chair of Georgia Tech’s rapidly expanding College of Computing.

Isbell’s role is especially given Georgia Tech’s approximately 9,000 online graduate students in Computer Science. This astronomical number of students in the CS field is the result of a philosophical decision made at the university to create an online CS master’s degree treated as completely equal to on-campus training.

Another counterintuitive philosophical decision made at Georgia Tech — for which Isbell proudly evangelized while speaking at conferences like the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Next, where I met him in June — is to admit every student who has the potential to earn a degree, rather than making any attempt at “exclusivity” by rejecting worthy candidates. In the coming years all of this may lead, Isbell projected at EmTech Next, to a situation in which up to one in eight of all people in the US who hold a graduate degree in CS will have earned it at Georgia Tech.

isbell 1

Isbell speaks to Gideon Lichfield, Editor-in-chief of the MIT Technology Review, at its EmTech Next conference in June. Image via MIT Technology Review.

“What they’ve done is pretty remarkable,” said Casey Fiesler, a 3x recent graduate of Georgia Tech and a founding faculty member and CS professor at the University of Colorado’s College of Media, Communication, and Information.

And it’s promising that Fiesler, who has become known in the tech ethics field for her comparative study of curricula and teaching approaches, told me, “ethics can be integrated into online [CS] courses just as easily as it can be into face to face courses.”

Still, it is as daunting as it is impressive to think about how one public school like Georgia Tech might be able to successfully and ethically educate such an enormous percentage of the students in arguably the most influential academic field in the world today. So I was glad to be able to speak to Isbell, an expert on statistical machine learning and artificial intelligence, for this gpgmail series on the ethics of technology.

Our conversation below covers the difference between equality and equity; cultural issues around women in American CS, and what it would look like for ethics to be so integrated into the discussion of computing that students and practitioners wouldn’t even think of it as ethics.

Greg Epstein: Around 1/8 of Computer Science graduate degrees will be delivered by your school in the coming years; you’re thinking inclusively about providing a relatively huge number of opportunities for people who would not otherwise get the opportunity to become computer scientists. How have you achieved that?

Charles Isbell: There’s an old joke about organizations: don’t tell me what your values are, show me your budget and then I’ll tell you what your values are. Because you spend money on the things that you care about.


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