Joho the Blogphilosophy Archives - Joho the Blog

April 2, 2018

"If a lion could talk" updated

“If a lion could talk, we could not understand him.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, 1953.

“If an algorithm could talk, we could not understand it.”
— Deep learning, Now.

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February 15, 2018

Here comes a new round of "I think, therefore I am" philosophical Dad jokes

An earlier draft of Descartes’ Meditations has been discovered, which will inevitably lead to a new round of unfunny jokes under the rubric of “Descartes’ First Draft.” I can’t wait :(

The draft is a big discovery. Camilla Shumaker at Research Frontiers reports that Jeremy Hyman, a philosophy instructor at the University of Arkansas, came across a reference to the manuscript and hied off to a municipal library in Toulouse … a gamble, but he apparently felt he had nothing left Toulouse.

And so it begins…

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February 11, 2018

The brain is not a computer and the world is not information

Robert Epstein argues in Aeon against the dominant assumption that the brain is a computer, that it processes information, stores and retrieves memories, etc. That we assume so comes from what I think of as the informationalizing of everything.

The strongest part of his argument is that computers operate on symbolic information, but brains do not. There is no evidence (that I know of, but I’m no expert. On anything) that the brain decomposes visual images into pixels and those pixels into on-offs in a code that represents colors.

In the second half, Epstein tries to prove that the brain isn’t a computer through some simple experiments, such as drawing a dollar bill from memory and while looking at it. Someone committed to the idea that the brain is a computer would probably just conclude that the brain just isn’t a very good computer. But judge for yourself. There’s more to it than I’m presenting here.

Back to Epstein’s first point…

It is of the essence of information that it is independent of its medium: you can encode it into voltage levels of transistors, magnetized dust on tape, or holes in punch cards, and it’s the same information. Therefore, a representation of a brain’s states in another medium should also be conscious. Epstein doesn’t make the following argument, but I will (and I believe I am cribbing it from someone else but I don’t remember who).

Because information is independent of its medium, we could encode it in dust particles swirling clockwise or counter-clockwise; clockwise is an on, and counter is an off. In fact, imagine there’s a dust cloud somewhere in the universe that has 86 billion motes, the number of neurons in the human brain. Imagine the direction of those motes exactly matches the on-offs of your neurons when you first spied the love of your life across the room. Imagine those spins shift but happen to match how your neural states shifted over the next ten seconds of your life. That dust cloud is thus perfectly representing the informational state of your brain as you fell in love. It is therefore experiencing your feelings and thinking your thoughts.

That by itself is absurd. But perhaps you say it is just hard to imagine. Ok, then let’s change it. Same dust cloud. Same spins. But this time we say that clockwise is an off, and the other is an on. Now that dust cloud no longer represents your brain states. It therefore is both experiencing your thoughts and feeling and is not experiencing them at the same time. Aristotle would tell us that that is logically impossible: a thing cannot simultaneously be something and its opposite.

Anyway…

Toward the end of the article, Epstein gets to a crucial point that I was very glad to see him bring up: Thinking is not a brain activity, but the activity of a body engaged in the world. (He cites Anthony Chemero’s Radical Embodied Cognitive Science (2009) which I have not read. I’d trace it back further to Andy Clark, David Chalmers, Eleanor Rosch, Heidegger…). Reducing it to a brain function, and further stripping the brain of its materiality to focus on its “processing” of “information” is reductive without being clarifying.

I came into this debate many years ago already made skeptical of the most recent claims about the causes of consciousness by having some awareness of the series of failed metaphors we have used over the past couple of thousands of years. Epstein puts this well, citing another book I have not read (and another book I’ve consequently just ordered):

In his book In Our Own Image (2015), the artificial intelligence expert George Zarkadakis describes six different metaphors people have employed over the past 2,000 years to try to explain human intelligence.

In the earliest one, eventually preserved in the Bible, humans were formed from clay or dirt, which an intelligent god then infused with its spirit. That spirit ‘explained’ our intelligence – grammatically, at least.

The invention of hydraulic engineering in the 3rd century BCE led to the popularity of a hydraulic model of human intelligence, the idea that the flow of different fluids in the body – the ‘humours’ – accounted for both our physical and mental functioning. The hydraulic metaphor persisted for more than 1,600 years, handicapping medical practice all the while.

By the 1500s, automata powered by springs and gears had been devised, eventually inspiring leading thinkers such as René Descartes to assert that humans are complex machines. In the 1600s, the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes suggested that thinking arose from small mechanical motions in the brain. By the 1700s, discoveries about electricity and chemistry led to new theories of human intelligence – again, largely metaphorical in nature. In the mid-1800s, inspired by recent advances in communications, the German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz compared the brain to a telegraph.

Maybe this time our tech-based metaphor has happened to get it right. But history says we should assume not. We should be very alert to the disanologies, which Epstein helps us with.

Getting this right, or at least not getting it wrong, matters. The most pressing problem with the informationalizing of thought is not that it applies a metaphor, or even that the metaphor is inapt. Rather it’s that this metaphor leads us to a seriously diminished understanding of what it means to be a living, caring creature.

I think.

 

Hat tip to @JenniferSertl for pointing out the Aeon article.

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December 5, 2017

[liveblog] Conclusion of Workshop on Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making

I’ve been at a two-day workshop sponsored by the Michigan State Uiversity and the National Science Foundation: “Workshop on Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making.” After multiple rounds of rotating through workgroups iterating on five different questions, each group presented its findings — questions, insights, areas of future research.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Seriously, I cannot capture all of this.

Conduct of Data Science

What are the problems?

  • Who defines and how do we ensure good practice in data science and machine learning?

Why is the topic important? Because algorithms are important. And they have important real-world effects on people’s lives.

Why is the problem difficult?

  • Wrong incentives.

  • It can be difficult to generalize practices.

  • Best practices may be good for one goal but not another, e.g., efficiency but not social good. Also: Lack of shared concepts and vocabulary.

How to mitigate the problems?

  • Change incentives

  • Increase communication via vocabularies, translations

  • Education through MOOCS, meetups, professional organizations

  • Enable and encourage resource sharing: an open source lesson about bias, code sharing, data set sharing

Accountability group

The problem: How to integratively assess the impact of an algorithmic system on the public good? “Integrative” = the impact may be positive and negative and affect systems in complex ways. The impacts may be distributed differently across a population, so you have to think about disparities. These impacts may well change over time

We aim to encourage work that is:

  • Aspirationally casual: measuring outcomes causally but not always through randomized control trials.

  • The goal is not to shut down algorithms to to make positive contributions that generat solutions.

This is a difficult problem because:

  • Lack of variation in accountability, enforcements, and interventions.

  • It’s unclear what outcomes should be measure and how. This is context-dependent

  • It’s unclear which interventions are the highest priority

Why progress is possible: There’s a lot of good activity in this space. And it’s early in the topic so there’s an ability to significantly influence the field.

What are the barriers for success?

  • Incomplete understanding of contexts. So, think it in terms of socio-cultural approaches, and make it interdisciplinary.

  • The topic lies between disciplines. So, develop a common language.

  • High-level triangulation is difficult. Examine the issues at multiple scales, multiple levels of abstraction. Where you assess accountability may vary depending on what level/aspect you’re looking at.

Handling Uncertainty

The problem: How might we holistically treat and attribute uncertainty through data analysis and decisions systems. Uncertainty exists everywhere in these systems, so we need to consider how it moves through a system. This runs from choosing data sources to presenting results to decision-makers and people impacted by these results, and beyond that its incorporation into risk analysis and contingency planning. It’s always good to know where the uncertainty is coming from so you can address it.

Why difficult:

  • Uncertainty arises from many places

  • Recognizing and addressing uncertainties is a cyclical process

  • End users are bad at evaluating uncertain info and incorporating uncertainty in their thinking.

  • Many existing solutions are too computationally expensive to run on large data sets

Progress is possible:

  • We have sampling-based solutions that provide a framework.

  • Some app communities are recognizing that ignoring uncertainty is reducing the quality of their work

How to evaluate and recognize success?

  • A/B testing can show that decision making is better after incorporating uncertainty into analysis

  • Statistical/mathematical analysis

Barriers to success

  • Cognition: Train users.

  • It may be difficult to break this problem into small pieces and solve them individually

  • Gaps in theory: many of the problems cannot currently be solved algorithmically.

The presentation ends with a note: “In some cases, uncertainty is a useful tool.” E.g., it can make the system harder to game.

Adversaries, workarounds, and feedback loops

Adversarial examples: add a perturbation to a sample and it disrupts the classification. An adversary tries to find those perturbations to wreck your model. Sometimes this is used not to hack the system so much as to prevent the system from, for example, recognizing your face during a protest.

Feedback loops: A recidivism prediction system says you’re likely to commit further crimes, which sends you to prison, which increases the likelihood that you’ll commit further crimes.

What is the problem: How should a trustworthy algorithm account for adversaries, workarounds, and feedback loops?

Who are the stakeholders?

System designers, users, non-users, and perhaps adversaries.

Why is this a difficult problem?

  • It’s hard to define the boundaries of the system

  • From whose vantage point do we define adversarial behavior, workarounds, and feedback loops.

Unsolved problems

  • How do we reason about the incentives users and non-users have when interacting with systems in unintended ways.

  • How do we think about oversight and revision in algorithms with respect to feedback mechanisms

  • How do we monitor changes, assess anomalies, and implement safeguards?

  • How do we account for stakeholders while preserving rights?

How to recognize progress?

  • Mathematical model of how people use the system

  • Define goals

  • Find stable metrics and monitor them closely

  • Proximal metrics. Causality?

  • Establish methodologies and see them used

  • See a taxonomy of adversarial behavior used in practice

Likely approaches

  • Security methodology to anticipating and unintended behaviors and adversarial interactions’. Monitor and measure

  • Record and taxonomize adversarial behavior in different domains

  • Test . Try to break things.

Barriers

  • Hard to anticipate unanticipated behavior

  • Hard to define the problem in particular cases.

  • Goodhardt’s Law

  • Systems are born brittle

  • What constitutes adversarial behavior vs. a workaround is subjective.

  • Dynamic problem

Algorithms and trust

How do you define and operationalize trust.

The problem: What are the processes through which different stakeholders come to trust an algorithm?

Multiple processes lead to trust.

  • Procedural vs. substantive trust: are you looking at the weights of the algorithms (e.g.), or what were the steps to get you there?

  • Social vs personal: did you see the algorithm at work, or are you relying on peers?

These pathways are not necessarily predictive of each other.

Stakeholders build truth through multiple lenses and priorities

  • the builders of the algorithms

  • the people who are affected

  • those who oversee the outcomes

Mini case study: a child services agency that does not want to be identified. [All of the following is 100% subject to my injection of errors.]

  • The agency uses a predictive algorithm. The stakeholders range from the children needing a family, to NYers as a whole. The agency knew what into the model. “We didn’t buy our algorithm from a black-box vendor.” They trusted the algorithm because they staffed a technical team who had credentials and had experience with ethics…and who they trusted intuitively as good people. Few of these are the quantitative metrics that devs spend their time on. Note that FAT (fairness, accountability, transparency) metrics were not what led to trust.

Temporality:

  • Processes that build trust happen over time.

  • Trust can change or maybe be repaired over time. “

  • The timescales to build social trust are outside the scope of traditional experiments,” although you can perhaps find natural experiments.

Barriers:

  • Assumption of reducibility or transfer from subcomponents

  • Access to internal stakeholders for interviews and process understanding

  • Some elements are very long term

 


 

What’s next for this workshop

We generated a lot of scribbles, post-it notes, flip charts, Slack conversations, slide decks, etc. They’re going to put together a whitepaper that goes through the major issues, organizing them, and tries to capture the complexity while helping to make sense of it.

There are weak or no incentives to set appropriate levels of trust

Key takeways:

  • Trust is irreducible to FAT metrics alone

  • Trust is built over time and should be defined in terms of the temporal process

  • Isolating the algorithm as an instantiation misses the socio-technical factors in trust.

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December 4, 2017

Workshop: Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making

I’m at a two-day inter-disciplinary workshop on “Trustworthy Algorithmic Decision-Making” put on by the National Science Foundation and Michigan State University. The 2-page whitepapers
from the participants are online. (Here’s mine.) I may do some live-blogging of the workshops.

Goals:

– Key problems and critical qustionos?

– What to tell pol;icy-makers and others about the impact of these systems?

– Product approaches?

– What ideas, people, training, infrastructure are needed for these approaches?

Excellent diversity of backgrounds: CS, policy, law, library science, a philosopher, more. Good diversity in gender and race. As the least qualified person here, I’m greatly looking forward to the conversations.

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August 8, 2017

Messy meaning

Steve Thomas [twitter: @stevelibrarian] of the Circulating Ideas podcast interviews me about the messiness of meaning, library innovation, and educating against fake news.

You can listen to it here.

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July 18, 2017

America's default philosophy

John McCumber — a grad school colleague with whom I have alas not kept up — has posted at Aeon an insightful historical argument that America’s default philosophy came about because of a need to justify censoring American communist professorss (resulting in a naive scientism) and a need to have a positive alternative to Marxism (resulting in the adoption of rational choice theory).

That compressed summary does not do justice to the article’s grounding in the political events of the 1950s nor to how well-written and readable it is.

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May 18, 2017

Indistinguishable from prejudice

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke famously.

It is also the case that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from prejudice.

Especially if that technology is machine learning. ML creates algorithms to categorize stuff based upon data sets that we feed it. Say “These million messages are spam, and these million are not,” and ML will take a stab at figuring out what are the distinguishing characteristics of spam and not spam, perhaps assigning particular words particular weights as indicators, or finding relationships between particular IP addresses, times of day, lenghts of messages, etc.

Now complicate the data and the request, run this through an artificial neural network, and you have Deep Learning that will come up with models that may be beyond human understanding. Ask DL why it made a particular move in a game of Go or why it recommended increasing police patrols on the corner of Elm and Maple, and it may not be able to give an answer that human brains can comprehend.

We know from experience that machine learning can re-express human biases built into the data we feed it. Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of Math Destruction contains plenty of evidence of this. We know it can happen not only inadvertently but subtly. With Deep Learning, we can be left entirely uncertain about whether and how this is happening. We can certainly adjust DL so that it gives fairer results when we can tell that it’s going astray, as when it only recommends white men for jobs or produces a freshman class with 1% African Americans. But when the results aren’t that measurable, we can be using results based on bias and not know it. For example, is anyone running the metrics on how many books by people of color Amazon recommends? And if we use DL to evaluate complex tax law changes, can we tell if it’s based on data that reflects racial prejudices?[1]

So this is not to say that we shouldn’t use machine learning or deep learning. That would remove hugely powerful tools. And of course we should and will do everything we can to keep our own prejudices from seeping into our machines’ algorithms. But it does mean that when we are dealing with literally inexplicable results, we may well not be able to tell if those results are based on biases.

In short: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from prejudice.[2]

[1] We may not care, if the result is a law that achieves the social goals we want, including equal and fair treatment of tax players regardless of race.

[2] Please note that that does not mean that advanced technology is prejudiced. We just may not be able to tell.

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May 15, 2017

[liveblog][AI] AI and education lightning talks

Sara Watson, a BKC affiliate and a technology critic, is moderating a discussion at the Berkman Klein/Media Lab AI Advance.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Karthik Dinakar at the Media Lab points out what we see in the night sky is in fact distorted by the way gravity bends light, which Einstein called a “gravity lens.” Same for AI: The distortion is often in the data itself. Karthik works on how to help researchers recognize that distortion. He gives an example of how to capture both cardiologist and patient lenses to better to diagnose women’s heart disease.

Chris Bavitz is the head of BKC’s Cyberlaw Clinic. To help Law students understand AI and tech, the Clinic encourages interdisciplinarity. They also help students think critically about the roles of the lawyer and the technologist. The clinic prefers early relationships among them, although thinking too hard about law early on can diminish innovation.

He points to two problems that represent two poles. First, IP and AI: running AI against protected data. Second, issues of fairness, rights, etc.

Leah Plunkett, is a professor at Univ. New Hampshire Law School and is a BKC affiliate. Her topic: How can we use AI to teach? She points out that if Tom Sawyer were real and alive today, he’d be arrested for what he does just in the first chapter. Yet we teach the book as a classic. We think we love a little mischief in our lives, but we apparently don’t like it in our kids. We kick them out of schools. E.g., of 49M students in public schools in 20-11, 3.45M were suspended, and 130,000 students were expelled. These disproportionately affect children from marginalized segments.

Get rid of the BS safety justification and the govt ought to be teaching all our children without exception. So, maybe have AI teach them?

Sarah: So, what can we do?

Chris: We’re thinking about how we can educate state attorneys general, for example.

Karthik: We are so far from getting users, experts, and machine learning folks together.

Leah: Some of it comes down to buy-in and translation across vocabularies and normative frameworks. It helps to build trust to make these translations better.

[I missed the QA from this point on.]

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[liveblog] AI Advance opening: Jonathan Zittrain and lightning talks

I’m at a day-long conference/meet-up put on by the Berkman Klein Center‘s and MIT Media Lab‘s “AI for the Common Good” project.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Jonathan Zittrain gives an opening talk. Since we’re meeting at Harvard Law, JZ begins by recalling the origins of what has been called “cyber law,” which has roots here. Back then, the lawyers got to the topic first, and thought that they could just think their way to policy. We are now at another signal moment as we are in a frenzy of building new tech. This time we want instead to involve more groups and think this through. [I am wildly paraphrasing.]

JZ asks: What is it that we intuitively love about human judgment, and are we willing to insist on human judgments that are worse than what a machine would come up with? Suppose for utilitarian reasons we can cede autonomy to our machines — e.g., autonomous cars — shouldn’t we? And what do we do about maintaining local norms? E.g., “You are now entering Texas where your autonomous car will not brake for pedestrians.”

“Should I insist on being misjudged by a human judge because that’s somehow artesinal?” when, ex hypothesis, an AI system might be fairer.

Autonomous systems are not entirely new. They’re bringing to the fore questions that have always been with us. E.g., we grant a sense of discrete intelligence to corporations. E.g., “McDonald’s is upset and may want to sue someone.”

[This is a particularly bad representation of JZ’s talk. Not only is it wildly incomplete, but it misses the through-line and JZ’s wit. Sorry.]

Lightning Talks

Finale Doshi-Velez is particularly interested in interpretable machine learning (ML) models. E.g., suppose you have ten different classifiers that give equally predictive results. Should you provide the most understandable, all of them…?

Why is interpretability so “in vogue”? Suppose non-interpretable AI can do something better? In most cases we don’t know what “better” means. E.g., someone might want to control her glucose level, but perhaps also to control her weight, or other outcomes? Human physicians can still see things that are not coded into the model, and that will be the case for a long time. Also, we want systems that are fair. This means we want interpretable AI systems.

How do we formalize these notions of interpretability? How do we do so for science and beyond? E.g., what is a legal “right to explanation
” mean? She is working with Sam Greshman on how to more formally ground AI interpretability in the cognitive science of explanation.

Vikash Mansinghka leads the eight-person Probabilistic Computing project at MIT. They want to build computing systems that can be our partners, not our replacements. We have assumed that the measure of success of AI is that it beats us at our own game, e.g., AlphaGo, Deep Blue, Watson playing Jeopardy! But games have clearly measurable winners.

His lab is working on augmented intelligence that gives partial solutions, guidelines and hints that help us solve problems that neither system could solve on their own. The need for these systems are most obvious in large-scale human interest projects, e.g., epidemiology, economics, etc. E.g., should a successful nutrition program in SE Asia be tested in Africa too? There are many variables (including cost). BayesDB, developed by his lab, is “augmented intelligence for public interest data science.”

Traditional computer science, computing systems are built up from circuits to algorithms. Engineers can trade off performance for interpretability. Probabilisitic systems have some of the same considerations. [Sorry, I didn’t get that last point. My fault!]

John Palfrey is a former Exec. Dir. of BKC, chair of the Knight Foundation (a funder of this project) and many other things. Where can we, BKC and the Media Lab, be most effective as a research organization? First, we’ve had the most success when we merge theory and practice. And building things. And communicating. Second, we have not yet defined the research question sufficiently. “We’re close to something that clearly relates to AI, ethics and government” but we don’t yet have the well-defined research questions.

The Knight Foundation thinks this area is a big deal. AI could be a tool for the public good, but it also might not be. “We’re queasy” about it, as well as excited.

Nadya Peek is at the Media Lab and has been researching “macines that make machines.” She points to the first computer-controlled machine (“Teaching Power Tools to Run Themselves“) where the aim was precision. People controlled these CCMs: programmers, CAD/CAM folks, etc. That’s still the case but it looks different. Now the old jobs are being done by far fewer people. But the spaces between doesn’t always work so well. E.g., Apple can define an automatiable workflow for milling components, but if you’re student doing a one-off project, it can be very difficult to get all the integrations right. The student doesn’t much care about a repeatable workflow.

Who has access to an Apple-like infrastructure? How can we make precision-based one-offs easier to create? (She teaches a course at MIT called “How to create a machine that can create almost anything.”)

Nathan Mathias, MIT grad student with a newly-minted Ph.D. (congrats, Nathan!), and BKC community member, is facilitating the discussion. He asks how we conceptualize the range of questions that these talks have raised. And, what are the tools we need to create? What are the social processes behind that? How can we communicate what we want to machines and understand what they “think” they’re doing? Who can do what, where that raises questions about literacy, policy, and legal issues? Finally, how can we get to the questions we need to ask, how to answer them, and how to organize people, institutions, and automated systems? Scholarly inquiry, organizing people socially and politically, creating policies, etc.? How do we get there? How can we build AI systems that are “generative” in JZ’s sense: systems that we can all contribute to on relatively equal terms and share them with others.

Nathan: Vikash, what do you do when people disagree?

Vikash: When you include the sources, you can provide probabilistic responses.

Finale: When a system can’t provide a single answer, it ought to provide multiple answers. We need humans to give systems clear values. AI things are not moral, ethical things. That’s us.

Vikash: We’ve made great strides in systems that can deal with what may or may not be true, but not in terms of preference.

Nathan: An audience member wants to know what we have to do to prevent AI from repeating human bias.

Nadya: We need to include the people affected in the conversations about these systems. There are assumptions about the independence of values that just aren’t true.

Nathan: How can people not close to these systems be heard?

JP: Ethan Zuckerman, can you respond?

Ethan: One of my colleagues, Joy Buolamwini, is working on what she calls the Algorithmic Justice League, looking at computer vision algorithms that don’t work on people of color. In part this is because the tests use to train cv systems are 70% white male faces. So she’s generating new sets of facial data that we can retest on. Overall, it’d be good to use test data that represents the real world, and to make sure a representation of humanity is working on these systems. So here’s my question: We find co-design works well: bringing in the affected populations to talk with the system designers?

[Damn, I missed Yochai Benkler‘s comment.]

Finale: We should also enable people to interrogate AI when the results seem questionable or unfair. We need to be thinking about the proccesses for resolving such questions.

Nadya: It’s never “people” in general who are affected. It’s always particular people with agendas, from places and institutions, etc.

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