Amazon is trying to make Alexa simpler and more intuitive for users through the use of a new large language model (LLM). During its annual hardware event Wednesday, Amazon demoed the generative-AI-powered Alexa that users can soon preview on Echo devices. But in all its talk of new features and a generative-AI-fueled future, Amazon barely acknowledged the longstanding elephant in the room: privacy.
Amazon's devices event featured a new Echo Show 8, updated Ring devices, and new Fire TV sticks. But most interesting was a look at how the company is trying to navigate generative AI hype and the uncertainty around the future of voice assistants. Amazon said users will be able to start previewing Alexa's new features via any Echo device, including the original, in a few weeks.
Alexa's added features are enabled by a new LLM that Amazon says was fine-tuned for voice conversations and that uses algorithms for body language and intonation recognition. The company was clear that Alexa will focus on generative AI going forward. But the new features are in their early stages, Amazon noted, so bumps, bugs, and errors are expected at first.
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Washington watchdogs investigated the life of the average enlisted soldier in the U.S. military and uncovered barracks filled with sewage, broken AC systems, mold, broken windows, and crime.
In a report titled “Poor Living Conditions Undermine Quality of Life and Readiness,” the Government Accountability Office—a non-partisan group of investigators who report to Congress—detailed the squalid living conditions of the U.S. military. The report is shocking and filled with pictures of broken windows, busted A.C. units, black mold, and raw sewage. Interviews with military rank and file and officers detailed the poor conditions. In one tragic instance, military members were tasked with cleaning up a room after a troop died by suicide.DoD and GAO photos.
The report is full of pictures and grim details. The GAO visited 10 different military installations in varied climates across the continental United States that were occupied by every branch of the military. It visited bases in California, Colorado, Texas, and D.C., and conducted 12 sets of interviews with groups of troops living in the barracks in addition to reviewing the Pentagon’s own records about the facilities.
The problems were numerous and frequently grotesque. “At one installation, we noticed a bad odor throughout the barracks. Installation officials told us the smell was methane gas leaking out of aging plumbing with sewage pipes that routinely crack and require replacement,” the report said. “These officials acknowledged that exposure to methane gas is a health risk.”GAO photos.
Another installation the GAO visited in 2022 had recently closed its barracks due to an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease, a kind of pneumonia. “Officials told us that only barracks housing health care patients, and thus subject to Joint Commission health standards, undergo water testing that would reveal legionella,” the report said. “They also said they do not test other barracks to ensure similar levels of water quality and safety because they are not required to do so.”
In some barracks, sewage repeatedly overflowed into the bathrooms and had to be constantly fought back by the troops. “Barracks managers at multiple installations told us they have had to organize working days for service members to repaint external or internal walls, replace ceiling tiles, or clean up significant sewage overflow,” the report said.
Mold was rampant in five of the installations they GAO visited. “Service members in all 12 discussion groups told us they considered mold to be a problem in barracks,” the report said. “Another service member told us about experiencing respiratory issues attributed to the presence of mold in their barracks. After three visits to the emergency room, the service member was moved to a different barracks without mold and the medical issues were resolved.”
In some of the buildings, the fire suppression systems didn’t work. Photographs of the barracks showed a rusted box meant to house a fire extinguisher standing empty. “Fire system in building 323 is completely non-operational until further notice,” a note on the wall of another barracks said. “Please call 911 for any fire related emergencies.”GAO photos.
The report notes that security was a constant issue, putting troops in danger. Windows and locks were found to be broken and never replaced, and security cameras and lights didn’t work. “First sergeants at one installation told us an ex-spouse broke in and physically assaulted a service member in the barracks and that poorly lit hallways, blind spots in hallways and corridors, and lack of security cameras made barracks difficult to monitor,” the report said.GAO photos.
At one facility, the military was constantly chasing squatters out of the barracks. Investigators literally stumbled into a room with one of the squatters during their tour, who was a former member of the military who’d been discharged but had continued to live in the barracks.GAO photo.
“In three of 12 discussion groups, service members said they were concerned about the risk of sexual assault for those living in barracks,” the report said. This finding reflects the U.S. military’s well-documented sexual assault problem. According to the Pentagon’s own records, about one-third of all reported incidents of sexual assault happened in on-base housing.
The poor living conditions contributed to an air of despair in the barracks, the report said, contributing to substance abuse and even suicidal ideation.
“A service member said it was depressing to come home to a dark box after work,” the report said. “Service members in three of 12 discussion groups told us barracks conditions contributed to substance abuse. For example, service members in one discussion group said that a barracks resident was recently hospitalized due to a drug overdose. They added that they believe poor living conditions can contribute to increased suicide rates for barracks residents. Overall, service members or first sergeants at three installations brought up concerns about suicide ideation.”
“Officials at one installation told us service members are responsible for cleaning biological waste that may remain in a barracks room after a suicide,” the report said.DoD and GAO photos.
It’s not that the Pentagon doesn’t have enough cash to pay for housing—its 2024 budget is $831.781. The problem is that it has no idea where the money goes, or how it’s spent. Washington has tried to audit the DoD for years and has failed every time. The military housing problem is another example of the Pentagon not understanding how it spends money.
“DoD requested about $15 billion for overall facility sustainment for fiscal year 2024 but could not identify how much of this total would be spent toward barracks,” the report said. “In addition, DoD did not know how much it spent on housing allowances for service members who would normally be required to live in barracks, but did not because of insufficient space or poor living conditions.”
The GAO report also revealed that the Pentagon doesn’t have any mechanism by which to reliably figure out what’s going on in the barracks. “DoD does not track information on the condition of barracks or facilitate collaboration on initiatives to improve barracks,” the report said.
The Pentagon is having a hard time recruiting and keeping soldiers. The U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Army are all facing recruiting shortfalls. It’s an all-volunteer force, and many young Americans find the prospect of joining the military a tough sell right now. It’s a safe bet that dirty, dangerous, and squalid living conditions aren’t helping.
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Cities around the U.S. are facing a staggering new normal when it comes to stolen cars.
Chicago used to have about 850 cars stolen per month. Now, it consistently has more than 2,000, an average of 86 cars stolen every single day. Denver rarely had more than 800 stolen cars in a month before 2021. Now it usually has more than 1,000. Atlanta usually had less than 250 per month before 2022. This year, it has doubled.
The thefts are centered around two car brands: Kia and Hyundai. The companies sold more than nine million cars over the course of a decade without basic anti-theft technology that makes them trivially simple to steal.
So far, publicly available data on the Kia and Hyundai thefts has been limited and spotty. To better understand the scale and impact of the Kia and Hyundai thefts, Motherboard asked the police departments for the 100 most populous cities in the U.S. for car theft data and filed public records requests with the cities that either declined to provide it or didn’t respond. So far, Motherboard has received complete data from 10 cities, with additional data from several others. This story also includes data from lawsuits filed by 17 cities against Kia and Hyundai regarding the theft wave. This story will be updated as we receive more data from open records requests.
From 2011 to 2021, Kia and Hyundai manufactured many of their cars, including almost all of their lower-end models, without engine immobilizers, a basic anti-theft device that costs about $100 to manufacture into a car and prevents them from being hot-wired. Anti-theft devices are required by law in Canada, but not in the U.S. The rest of the car industry widely adopted immobilizers, and Kia and Hyundai use them in Canada and Europe. But in the U.S, just 26 percent of Kias and Hyundais had immobilizers as late as 2015. In total, some nine million vehicles in the U.S. are vulnerable.
This fact, combined with the emergence of a subculture dubbed the Kia Boys or Kia Boyz that turned stealing the cars into sport, has resulted in a stolen car crime wave unlike anything the U.S. has seen in generations. Stolen car rates are not up by 10 percent, or 20 percent, or even 50 percent. In many cities, they are up hundreds of percentage points, Motherboard has found. Rates of stolen Kias and Hyundais in particular are up thousands of percentage points.
And, so far, according to data obtained by Motherboard via public records requests, efforts by both the manufacturers and police to slow the wave appear to be largely ineffective.
Equipped with only a screwdriver and a USB cord and watching one or two tutorials, pretty much anyone can steal a Kia or Hyundai without an immobilizer. In several lawsuits filed by U.S. cities against Kia and Hyundai, plaintiffs allege the thefts are mostly done by teenagers, some too young to legally drive, for joyriding, crashing, vandalizing, or in some cases to then commit other crimes.
Has your Kia or Hyundai been stolen multiple times? DId you have trouble recovering it? Anything else we should know? Email Aaron Gordon at email@example.com.
The scale of the Kia and Hyundai theft problem is astounding. In Chicago, during the “old normal” days prior to the summer of 2022, six to eight percent of all stolen cars were Kias or Hyundais, according to data obtained by Motherboard. This was in line with how many Kias and Hyundais were on Chicago’s roads, according to the lawsuit Chicago filed against Kia and Hyundai. Then, in June 2022, the percentage of stolen cars that were Kias and Hyundais edged up to 11 percent. In July, it more than doubled to 25 percent. By November, it had almost doubled again, to 48 percent. Through August 2023, the most recent month for which Motherboard has data, 35 percent of the 19,448 stolen cars in Chicago have been Kias or Hyundais.
The trend of Kias and Hyundais becoming a large proportion of a city’s stolen vehicle fleet is almost universal. In Denver, Kias and Hyundais went from about seven percent of all stolen vehicles in 2020 to an average of 26 percent the two years afterwards. Only 57 Kias and Hyundais were stolen in Denver in July 2020. Two years later, 464 were stolen, a 714 percent increase.
In Atlanta, a whopping 64 percent of the stolen cars in May 2023 were Kias and Hyundais, up from just six percent a year earlier.
According to a lawsuit filed by the city of Columbus, attempted annual Hyundai and Kia thefts increased 21,400 percent (from four to 860) in just one year. Actual thefts increased 494 percent. A public records request with Columbus for more detailed data has not yet been fulfilled.
Even Chicago’s surge can’t compare to what happened in Milwaukee, which is largely cited as the epicenter of the trend. According to a lawsuit filed by the city, Kia-Hyundai thefts increased 2,500 percent in June 2021 versus a year prior. In September of that year, more than 5,100 Kia-Hyundais were stolen, more than two-thirds of all stolen cars in the city. Through mid-2023, Kia-Hyundais still made up 52 percent of all car thefts, although the overall number of stolen cars has declined about 30 percent from its peak.
Still, there are important differences in how the theft trend is—and isn’t—spreading. Some cities are getting hit harder than others for reasons that aren’t clear. For example, San Diego has had only a modest increase in Kia and Hyundai thefts, relatively speaking, amounting to a couple dozen additional stolen cars a month. The same is true of Fort Worth, Texas and Bakersfield, California. Tulsa wasn’t able to provide Motherboard with any data because their systems are still recovering from a hack that prevents them from tabulating such data, according to Lieutenant Chase Calhoun of the auto theft unit, but he said their most stolen vehicles remain Ford F-150 and Chevy Silverado pickups.
Perhaps the most interesting outlier from the dataset so far is Denver, which saw an early, sustained, and relatively gradual increase in Kia-Hyundai thefts throughout 2020, 2021, and 2022. This is in contrast to most other cities that saw sharp spikes within a period of a few months more indicative of an online fad.
When Motherboard asked if they had any theories why this was, a spokesperson for the Denver Police Department said, “Anecdotally, we do believe social media videos contributed to the increase in Hyundai and Kia thefts in Denver, but it’s difficult to know the extent of that influence on these crime trends. We also believe the social media videos encouraged young people who wouldn’t otherwise try to steal a car, to do just that.”
If this is true, it would be a problematic development for cities. Some criminologists believe auto theft is what they call a “keystone crime,” which encourages and facilitates other crimes. Local news reports in pretty much every affected city refer to crashes, robberies, and deaths involving stolen Kias and Hyundais. In a court filing, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said that last year, “thefts of Hyundai and Kia vehicles were tied to at least 5 homicides, 13 shootings, 36 robberies, and 265 motor vehicle collisions” and nine people died in reckless driving crashes involving the vehicles, all of which was in Minneapolis alone.
Videos of these crimes are easy to find on social media. Many of the videos are posted under burner accounts with handles that begin with the city’s area code followed by some version of “Kia Boys”, “Kia Boyz,” “Hyundai Boys,” and so on.
The vast majority of the hundreds of accounts reviewed by Motherboard have less than a hundred followers, and most of their posts have single or low double-digit likes. Most of the videos show people driving cars, often erratically, swerving repeatedly, accelerating quickly, and otherwise joyriding. However, a tutorial from an account with a Fort Worth area code went viral with more than 11,000 likes. And several accounts with Milwaukee and Minneapolis area codes regularly rack up tens of thousands of likes on their posts. Instagram and TikTok did not respond to a Motherboard request for comment prior to the deadline.
At first, the companies tried to sell an aftermarket anti-theft device through their dealer network for $170 plus labor to install. Starting in February, Kia and Hyundai released software updates the companies say provide an “ignition kill” feature that ought to prevent theft, provided free steering wheel locks, and partnered with AAA insurers because many insurance companies stopped selling policies for the affected vehicles.
About two million of the nine million vehicles vulnerable to theft cannot receive the software update. As of July, Carfax reported about five million vehicles still remained vulnerable to theft either because they hadn’t gotten the software update or were not eligible. But there have been reports in Buffalo and Washington, D.C. of vehicles with the software update still being stolen.
However, several cities have experienced a surge in thefts or are maintaining historically high rates of theft well after the software update was released. Louisville hit a new record of stolen Kias and Hyundais (335) in July, 53 percent of all vehicles stolen in the city. San Diego and Sacramento have also experienced record-high Kia and Hyundai thefts in recent months. So have Fort Worth and Atlanta.
When asked why the cars keep being stolen in record numbers despite the software update, a Hyundai spokesperson says the company has upgraded “almost a million vehicles” with the software update and “have not seen any confirmed failures of the software. It is working as designed.” Kia did not respond to a request for comment.
This story will be updated as more data from the more than 100 public records requests Motherboard filed are completed.
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I first saw them on Twitter – images of celebrities overlaid with phrenology-style diagrams supposedly proving the most famous people in the world are all secretly trans.
A close-up picture of Kanye West’s face, a skull superimposed over it; a photo of Arnold Schwartzenegger’s “T-Rex arms”; Margot Robbie’s “squared mandible” and “sloped back forehead” – all proof of a mind-melting secret. Even compared to other deranged ideas lurking in the murkier corners of the internet, this one seemed particularly batshit.
I’d stumbled across transvestigation, also known as elite gender inversion. It’s the conspiracy theory that celebrities are secretly transgender as part of a pact with an evil cabal – and anyone can become a target for the people looking to prove it.
In Facebook groups like Transvestigation Disclosure NOW, members speculate about celebrities who are “inverted”, as they put it, offering up nonsense evidence that they are disguising their trans-ness. And it’s not just the usual targets for conspiracy nuts – Lady Gaga or Michelle Obama, to name a couple – but seemingly anyone. Harry Kane? Trans. Phoebe Waller-Bridge? Inverted. The Rock? You better believe he’s got a biologically female skull.
Skull shape, hip shape and Q angles (a legit scientific term for the shape of the leg) are all commonly pointed to as evidence, echoing the racist pseudoscience of phrenology with extra transphobia to boot. Often, investigations are no more sophisticated than photoshopping lines over celebrity pics. Images showing Henry Cavill’s “girly eyes”, Paul Mescal’s “flamingo foot”, or even Andrew Tate’s apparent lack of bulge are all the proof transvestigators need.
While the novelty value of these weird memes has propelled them to a massive audience through social media, it is worth pointing out that this conspiracy theory is incredibly niche. The biggest transvestigation groups have a few thousand members – tiny by Facebook standards – and the biggest elite gender inversion Twitter account, Son of Man, has 25,000 followers. But despite the small numbers, there is a dedicated community of acolytes who appear to really believe this stuff.
Take Sam, whose mother truly thinks that Michelle Obama was born a man. The 27-year-old – who, like others in this piece, is speaking anonymously to protect his family’s privacy – says it started back in 2014, when she began talking about how then-US president Barack Obama planned to imprison people in concentration camps. She now believes Michelle Obama is actually a man called Michelle Robinson, a QAnon-adjacent theory that has, obviously, been debunked.
When his mum started spouting these theories, Sam was horrified. “I remember being kind of taken aback with that and just thinking it was very perverse,” he tells VICE.
For people like Sam’s mother, Michelle Obama is kind of the gateway drug into transvestigation. The current iteration of the conspiracy theory can be traced back to 2014 when comedian Joan Rivers made a joke about Barack Obama being gay and Michelle being trans. Not only did conspiracy theorists not get the joke (which, to be fair, wasn’t funny), but when Rivers died after suffering cardiac arrest a few months later, many thought the Obamas had offed her for outing them.
Even before that, unfounded rumours about celebrities being trans or intersex – usually female, often Black – circulated in conspiracy circles and beyond. Back in 2008, unfounded rumours that Lady Gaga was a hermaphrodite made tabloid headlines, with Serena and Venus Williams another common target. This baseless suspicion is often rooted in racism or sexism and aimed at women who dare to transgress gender norms, but is now also tied to a wider panic over the so-called trans agenda.
“While most conspiracy theories blame powerful groups, some blame ‘scapegoats’ who don't necessarily have a lot of power,” says Karen Douglas, professor of social psychology at the University of Kent. “For example, immigrants are often blamed for attempting to take over and feminists are sometimes accused of having an agenda to oust men from positions of power.”
The latter, she explains, is also linked to the general idea that "gender ideology" is a conspiracy to undermine traditional societal values – something that has become a mainstream right-wing talking point on both sides of the Atlantic. This in turn sows the seeds of the conspiracy theory that trans rights are not about protecting a minority group, but are instead tools to eliminate biological sex and destroy family values. Transvestigation can have a devastating impact on the people close to those who fall into its hateful orbit. Take David, a 22-year-old student from Brazil. Though he was born in the US and raised speaking English, he’s now back in his home country and describes his parents as evangelical Christians “prone to the types of conspiracy theories typically seen in more right wing evangelical circles in the States”.
His mum has always been paranoid about supposedly secretive elites in Hollywood and the music industry. “The details kind of change over time, but the general idea is that: Rich and famous probably equals a devil worshipper,” he tells VICE.
More recently she's taken to calling trans people “inverts” and suggesting that “most people in the music industry are trans”. David, who is gay, has struggled to stay on good terms with his mum given her extreme views. He points to one of his favourite musicians, SOPHIE, the trans hyperpop artist who died in 2021, as an example of how difficult it’s been to maintain a relationship with his mother. “I would talk about her all the time with people and try to value her memory. But around my mum I would try to avoid mentioning she was trans, because I knew how she'd react.”
David no longer lives at home. His mum recently kicked him out after finding out he had received the COVID vaccine. He says he wished he’d left on better terms, but he’s in a much more accepting and comfortable environment now, living with his best friend and one of his brothers who left with him. “The vaccine thing was the breaking point,” David says. “But before that, me and my mum were kind of making an active effort to act like our differences weren't eating away at each other.”
While transvestigation shares similarities with QAnon and other extreme right-wing conspiracies, it is not necessarily part of them. Transvestigators are not always pro-Trump, for example – some of them believe he’s just another “inverted” elite. And transvestigation has a more esoteric, new age spin than its far-right cousins. Central to this is the belief that elites have traded their gender with an evil force in exchange for power, wealth and fame.
Marc Tuters, a research fellow in conspiracy theories at the University of Amsterdam, explains that while new age spiritualism might not be an obvious jumping off point for conspiracy theories like transvestigation, it can be very reactionary – and conspiracy theorists will look to slot any ideas they can fit into their worldview.
“It's kind of like world building,” he says. “These narratives fit into a broader narrative so that it will connect, like a puzzle piece, into another narrative where [beliefs emerge] like the ‘trans agenda’ is also connected to the transhuman agenda.”
This is borne out by David’s mum, who is a devout evangelical Christian. He says she believes that trans acceptance is the first step in what she describes as a "transhumanist agenda" that will eventually turn us all into genetically modified mutants. Sam, too, describes his mum as a spiritualist whose own faith is central to her conspiratorial beliefs.
And the result of this paranoid delusion and nastiness? Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has turned inwards. In 2022, one of the main figureheads of the movement – Inanna Snow, a chess-playing vegan and new age hippie – was booted out of the transvestigation groups she used to manage, herself accused of being trans.
Some of the groups now carry messages distancing themselves from her, while her own social media feeds are lined with pictures attempting to prove that she is in fact a real woman and it’s her accusers who are trans.
Transvestigation is online transphobia played out to its absurd endpoint. It’s rooted in fear and paranoia over the supposed trans agenda and gender ideology – who is allowed to be a woman and who is not – stoked by right-wing politicians and their media allies.
But the conspiratorial thinking behind transvestigation fuels real world hatred, too. From the harassment of drag shows by neo-Nazis, to assaults on trans people in bathrooms and shootings in LGBTQ+ venues, transphobia has existential consequences for those in its sights.
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Democrat Representatives Ilhan Omar and Bonnie Watson Coleman have introduced a bill to establish a national Office for Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls within the Department of Justice.
The Brittany Clardy Missing and Murdered Black Women and Girls Act, named after an 18-year-old Minneapolis woman who went missing in 2013 and was later found dead, models a similar bill passed in Minnesota earlier this year.
While Black girls and women make up only 15 percent of the female population in the U.S., they made up nearly 34 percent of women reported missing, according to a 2020 study by the National Crime Information Center.
“My message with this bill is to provide hope,” Rep. Omar told VICE News before announcing the bill at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 52nd Annual Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C. Wednesday night. “For it to serve as a beacon of hope to know that the stories of [the victims’] loved ones is going to create legislation that would make it so that other families and survivors don’t have to go through the same things they went through.”
Clardy’s sister, Lakeisha Lee, headed a task force that pushed to open the Minnesota office. “All the hard work I’ve done and the sacrifices that I’ve made for my family and connecting with other families was worth it,” Lee told VICE News. “This [bill] will be truly giving me a new start, our family and also other families and communities all over. This is just the blueprint. It’s time that Black women and girls are seen and heard and valued throughout that process.”
Clardy was missing for two weeks before her body was found in the trunk of her car. Lee and her family said police did not respond urgently when they reported her missing–a familiar sentiment among families of Black girls who disappear. Nationally, cases involving Black girls and women stay open four times longer than other cases, according to the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination as cited in the Clardy Act.From left to right: From Left: Lakeisha Lee, Tiffany Roberson, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, Rep. Ilhan Omar
The proposed federal office calls for research that involves local community engagement, incorporating focus groups and interviews with Black women and girls with lived experience. It also includes a focus on data collection efforts to build a tracking and reporting infrastructure for missing cases.
The bill mentions the need to acknowledge that the already established efforts to find missing persons don’t go far enough to address what is happening to Black women specifically. “The existing federal resources dedicated to combating violence against women and girls is not enough to address this problem and additional resources must be targeted directly to protecting, supporting and providing justice to Black women and girls in the United States,” it says.
If passed, the office would be headed by a director appointed by the Attorney General who would be tasked with establishing a national advisory commission and coordinating with state and local agencies to collect data on cases nationwide like the rate at which they are solved and the time the cases stay open compared to similar cases in other demographics. The act also calls for the need to collect data on Amber alerts and missing reports that are classified as runaways, a nod to a common outcry from families who say police often dismiss their loved ones’ disappearances as runaway cases, which do not get the same resources and attention.
The Clardy Act also incorporates a grant program for community organizers to provide services and training for police, attorneys and judges, and funding for survivor support efforts.
“Our communities are facing a crisis and we can't wait any longer for action,” Omar said. “Black women deserve to walk freely without the threat of harm.”
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