Monday, February 28, 2011

Death to Papa Smurf

Papa Smurf will soon be no more
This past Saturday I got to dress up as a Lithuanian gangster. Or the President of Latvia. Not quite sure.

I attended our college's educational foundation art auction.  I was allowed to attend as I donated a piece. Here it is:

"Informal Relations" copyright 2004 by John Kurman

There were about 20-30 pieces donated by students, faculty, and artists. I'm told that a good deal is get 50 cents on the dollar of the asking price is not too shabby. Mine was valued at $300 and sold for $160. Nto to put a sour note on it, but that works out, by my calculations, labor and materials to about $4.69/hour for the piece, had I received the monies. Brilliant fucking career move, Johnny.

Ah, but I did have a fun time at the auction. All of my children (my student aides) were there as volunteer art handlers/docents/auction spotters.

Here are some pictures:
Me and my student aide Vicki 
Mark, Caitlyn, Me
Art Handler Gang Signs!
Me, Sculptor Mike Brown
Urszula, about to suit up to handle the art

Caitlyn gets a reward for good behavior

3/1/11 Addendum to e abbott. Yes, the beard is disappearing...
Death to Papa Smurf

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

2050CE: A Fable

It is generally thought that in 1801CE the English scientist Thomas Young first performed the Double Slit experiment. In your universe, maybe...

Young set up this elegantly simple demonstration of allowing a light to pass through either one hole, or two holes that were side by side. In doing so, he attempted to see whether light was a particle, a corpuscular thing as Newton surmised, or if light was a wave traveling through some marvelous aether. The answer was both, but not at the same time. Still stranger was, the choice could be, or was, or will be made after the light had passed through the hole(s).

Richard Feynman was able to describe this, and many other fascinating things, by invoking something called the Feynman path integral. This bit of mathematical legerdemain is also referred as the "sum over histories" method, although I refer to it as the "sum over futures" method. And you should to, if you know what is good for you.

What has this to do with the year 2050CE?

Granted, that was a long time ago, but bear with me.

There are, it turns out, certain pivotal years, which, as the great physicist Mark Everett once stated, are "uchronal, they remain constant throughout all transreal states". Which is to say, certain important events occur regardless of the universe they occur in. Or more specifically, the parachronic sample space contains a very large but finite amount of alternatives, which is just as well, as having to divide everything by infinity just produces nonsense.

Mark's father, Hugh Everett (Many Worlds Interpretation) suspected as much, but could never quite get the math down. Fortunately for this correspondent (and you as well, gentle reader) living in the best of all possible worlds means the Mark postponed his lucrative rock n' roll career and finished his father's great work.

Which means we know that the years 10,380 BCE, 6,212 BCE, 512BCE, 38CE, 512CE, 1848CE, 2050CE,... just to name a few, remain temporally invariant. Interesting, that. And still not quite explained.

But I digress. Year 2050CE. In the vast majority of scenarios, Earth is not a world anymore. It is a welfare planet.

Population pegged out at 9 billion, with perhaps ten million haves, the rest a brutally suppressed permanent have-nots. Every square inch of arable land devoted to agriculture. No more wilderness. No more wild animals. China, India, Brazil, parts of North America: vast desert. Africa, a war grave. The Arctic permanently ice free. It is a miracle almost all nukes have been accounted for and stashed in Canada, which enjoys its hegemonic superpower status. After the collapse, the forward thinking United States military (who would have thought? as in who would have thought the KGB would be the enlightened element with the former Soviet Union?) turned most of their stuff over to Canada, the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal decade. Killer robots. Helper robots.

No jobs, or no skilled jobs at any rate, as the robots and computers do all that brainy stuff. Few unskilled jobs, save for environmental remediation. On the mystery front, the remains of President Palin finally located in the Cheyenne Mountain complex. The cut marks on her bones indicating she was one of the last to be eaten. Rank hath its privileges.

Within the celebrity network, Paris Hilton, Jr. is scheduled for her fifth litter (sired off of Ashton Kutcher GM SEED), to be donated to the Oil Trust for liquifaction. Oil is currently $1,250,000 a barrel (except that price is in yuan). A Vlad Teppes clone is to be resurrected for a year on Death Match. And the world's largest TV will be moved to its new home in Novo Beijing. The last known modified white tiger man hunted down, shot, and stuffed  within Bharat Forever (formerly known as Alaska).

So sad. But, hey, seeing as (thanks to Dr. Mark Everett) our wormhole technologies allows us to live in the Best of all possible worlds, I'm not so sad after all.

BTW, next week, Tuesday evening, from 7pm on, I plan to be making an appearance in Sam's Pub, 1200 W Lankhmar Street, Spiral City, Alterra, NGC6264. If you happen to be within a few million light years of me, stop by for a beer and a chat!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Political Affiliations

I call myself a liberal because it pisses off certain brittle-minded tiny-limbed meatslappers who persist in trying to make liberal a disparaging word. If calling myself a progressive, or a socialist, or even a communist causes them to have a debilitating stroke from a fit of apoplectic rage, I'd call myself that.

But, of course, I'm a moderate.

In fact, I rather detest the idea of cataloguing something as complex as a human being onto a one-dimensional mapping such as "Left-Right". And look where that came from, out of the French Revolution, not exactly the best thing to use as an an example for anything.

For that matter, those silly magazine quiz political tests which lump you onto a two-dimensional surface (economic and social axes) are equally a waste of time. No one is that consistent, or that cartoonish (with perhaps the exemption of people who enjoy simplistic worldviews and the people who love them - on the next Jerry Springer). Those silly things want to lump you down with some really creepy people with bad personal hygiene. I certainly would not put up with it. When you think about it, a pigeon hole is a nasty, cramped, shit covered little hole.

And, an expansion of political identity into higher dimensions would seem to be the way to go, but the problem is, once again, people are rarely that consistent. They change over time (indeed the universe itself changes over time, so one wonders how even maintaining the status quo is somehow not just a complete infantile fantasy). There do seem to be some common sense ideas on higher dimensional axes to investigate. You've perhaps a Progress vs. Tradition axis. An Individualism vs. Altruism axis. And Anarchy vs Control axis. An Equality vs. Merit axis. Perhaps even a Competition vs. Cooperation axis.

I doubt all but a very few unfortunates could be boxed down onto a segment of this political hyperspace.

So, I'll just call myself a liberal, and fuck you if you don't like it.

Now, then, let's consider who those who are not liberals have got in the stable for the 2012 Presidential Elections.

CPAC provided no help. The terminally bugfuck crazy Michelle Bachmann? Actually, I kind of enjoy seeing her to see how what is clearly the mad cow disease she has contracted is spreading. Last I saw she had acquired a hazy film of insane chimpanzee glaze in her eyes. It's only a matter of time before she starts clubbing small children that are within reach of her.

Ron Paul? Rand Paul? Maybe if Congress passes a law making inhaling household cleaners and automotive products mandatory. (Catch us all up to speed with them).

Donald Trump? He's just a hairy little faex. He's completely feculent. Pizza mogul Herman Cain? Well, #1, Godfather's Pizza sucks a fat soggy turd.  And #2, Herman Cain is an asshole.

Let me repeat that for the search engine spiders.

Herman Cain is an asshole.

NO, come one, seriously! CPAC!!!!??? CPAC was for chronic masturbators. CPAC was, is Political Bukkake Theater. (You've heard of Political Kabuki Theater? Welcome to  a whole 'nother show!)  Fuck CPAC.

Here's the real list:

Mitt Romney: Boring. Has been. What have you done for me lately? He may be the one the Republicans get stuck with, but he's got the whole vacillation problem going on. Not to mention a woodenness that make Al Gore look like a genuinely warm human being. Plus, he's got the branding issue with his chosen faith. He'd have done only slightly worse becoming a Scientologist. Or a Randian.

Mitch Daniels: Looks too much like Dan Quayle, who basically made it so that even if you are a Hoosier with a 3,000 IQ, you're, well, from Indiana. I know. As a Hoosier, I'm just glad people have bad memories. Plus, Daniels doesn't reckon the amount of luck involved in his state's budget surplus, which, oops, ain't there anymore, now that Obama's stimulus money is gone.  Daniels didn't exactly display any amazing fucking brilliant business acumen when he sold the Indiana Tollroad to Spaniard businessmen for a pittance. Plus, he's the smart conservative's (yes, they do exist) choice, which means the kiss of death from the Party of Fuck You.

Haley Barbour: Boss Hogg!!! He's got the KKK vote locked up solid. If they can run him with a orangutan that waves a loaded pistol and gives everyone the finger, he's got the vote of everyone south of I-70, ... probably, but, is that enough? I don't think so. Not lessen' he can rid the Real America of all those darkies in the urban hoods... which, oh, was that over the top? Hmm.

Herman Cain is an asshole!

Newt Gingrich: You know, I kind of admire the rancid old assfuck the same way I admire Mao. He just doesn't get it. It's monumentally stupendous how he doesn't get it. But he does try. Using the same tactics of fear and divisiveness that Mao used, well at least he tries. But he'll never be a monster. Besides, he screwed himself up the ass in 1996. And besides, have you seen him lately? The guy looks like a used condom. And by that I mean he looks like a wrinkled up latex wrapper partially filled with dead sperm. Pretty much sums up Newt.

Who's left? Pawlenty, Santorum, Huckabee? Boring. Oatmeal.

PALIN? Wow. Pretty sad. Not much interest. Maybe, if Wisconsin governor Wanker, I mean Walker, continues to fuck up Wisconsin's finances (the way he did Milwaukee County's when he was commissioner), and gets all hard ass with the middle class, he just might be a conservative hero and lock it all in!

But in the meantime, I have a suggestion. More interest in the primaries can be generated if you set it up as a series of Death Cage matches, but for real. You know, Thunderdome, but for real. And orangutans with automatic weapons!  And cannibalism!

Herman Cain is an asshole!

(2/25/11 Note to readers. Above essay was modified for stylistic purposes, just in case you noticed).

Friday, February 18, 2011

Machines of Loving Grace

I'm ashamed to say I've not read much in the way of poetry or great classics. One of the few books of poetry I read was "The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster" by Richard Brautigan. There is a poem in there which I reproduce with attribution.

 All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace

I'd like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.
I like to think
   (right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.
I like to think
   (it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

copyright 1968 by Richard Brautigan      

From a craft standpoint, it's not really that good of a poem. From a visionary standpoint, I'd say Brautigan rivaled Stanislaw Lem in clairvoyance. (If you are unaware of Lem, go to the library and check out The Cyberiad for starters). I'm not entirely sure that Brautigan coined the term "machines of loving grace". I would not be at all surprised if it goes back to Mark Twain. I seem to recall a dystopian SF short story by that title (or perhaps it just employed the phrase). The story was about how people had become completely dependent upon machines, to the point where they were just fat blobs waited upon hand and foot by mechanical creatures - coddled and swaddled so much that they had no exposure to any form of Nature or even their fellow human beings. Thus unable to breed, or breed successfully, or thrive, humanity is pampered out of existence.

In retrospect, the story was arrogantly flawed. There is no doubt that we as a species would allow ourselves to be pampered thus, but the idea that so much energy and resources would be devoted to these overgrown infants defies any realistic expectations. At the very least, the Universe would come up with a way to bollox the whole operation - resulting in either our demise as a species, or at least a very sobering return to a more challenging way of life.

But thoughts of our relationship with technology have bugged me of late. No, I'm not thinking of the Jeopardy! games with IBM's Watson. That is, big-picture-wise, hardly the news item the media wishes to inflate it into. We are years, decades away from an artificial intelligence, perhaps even never (though I am loathe to say that, seeing as predictions of impossibilities are almost always wrong).

No, I'm thinking more along the lines of how we always, always overestimate the impacts of our technology. Case(s) in point: Alfred Nobel believed that his explosives would deter men from making war. Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, declared that his invention would "make war impossible". Jules Verne stated that with the submarine, war would become impossible. Orville Wright: "The aeroplane...will have a tendency to make war impossible". Marconi: "the coming of the wireless era... will make war impossible". 

Do I really need to go on? Pretty sad, actually. You'd think, after so many utterly failed predictions, that someone would catch on, and not say something silly like that. And yet, it's not only the theater of war where we are so comedically wrong-headed. David Nye, historian of technology, points out "Each new form of communication, from the telegraph and telephone to radio, film, television, and the internet, has been heralded as the guarantor of free speech and the unfettered movement of ideas".

Yeah, well. The techno-cheerleaders didn't count much on human behavior. Given the deluge of crap that came out of radio, TV, and film, one has to wonder how much of the promise of enlightenment and edification will occur through the internet. How many lies have been propagated over radio, TV, film,  the Internet? How much dis- and misinformation will be out there forever and ever and ever? Did any of the cheerleaders see google versus China coming, profit preferential search engines, censored search results, the Egyptian shutdown of the internet, or the vapid tweetings from the likes of that fucking shrill shriek Sarah Palin, or being wholly dependent upon Facebook for any kind of social interactions, or similar troglodytic usages...?

Chimps waving loaded guns, for the most part. That seems, on the face of it, to be where the 21st century is heading.

And so, like all abrogations of responsibility, I've got to wonder just how much we are relying on technology to save us from ourselves, when the fact of the matter is, technology is ourselves.

Was Pogo right? "We have met the enemy, and they is us"? 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Life, Liberty, the Pursuit of Happiness, but no mention of Property

Conservatives will often misrepresent the intentions of the Founding Fathers with regards to property. They do so by presenting a little bit of revisionist history through finding quotes that they can take out of context, or by simply fabricating a 18th century intentions and mannerisms through the prism of modern times.

Generally, such people will present themselves as wholly reasonable. They will call themselves critical thinkers. (One has only to look at the laughable name of the Libertarian magazine "Reason" to recognize expropriation - aping an aspiration is not the same as being it).

But, for the most part, these types of Constitutional fundamentalists, these strict constructionists fail to see that there rhetorical ploy is nothing more than that logical fallacy known as a Red Herring. (In other words, there assertion actually has nothing to do with anything that can be found in the Constitution). There are usually more than one logical fallacies mixed up together, but this one will suffice.

Why do I say this? Because, quite simply the society and the people who lived in those times are completely alien to us now. Not "alien" in the sense of foreign, but "alien" in the science fiction sense of almost incomprehensible. For conservatives (Tea Partiers, etc.) to assume that they can speak for that generation of men which included the Founding Fathers is completely fucking stupid.

They lived with a mindset that was wholly medieval. They lived (and this is before the concept of "class" existed) in a hierarchical arrangement that went from God to King to Noble to Gentleman to Yeoman Farmers and Merchants to Serf to Slave. Each role was legitimate, completely natural, and eternally sanctioned and divinely approved. One had better know one's place and be prepared to suffer the consequences of attempting to exercise equality.

Yes, yes, they made noise about liberty and freedom, but those liberties and freedoms were caste specific and stratified. A slave had a certain amount of freedom which, within the confines of his category, were his to enjoy, but only thus. (A woman, no freedoms at all). And the Founding Fathers were intent upon only the slightest modifications as to personal liberties for those under them. Their vision - and it can be found in quotes taken wholly in context and understood properly only in context - was a republic run by a well-educated, well-informed, enlightened, idle, landed gentry through disinterested (and therefore incorruptible and transcendent) representation. No rabble running things for them! No dirty fingernailed, illiterate, ill-mannered filthy mob mucking things up in the halls of government. Mind your place and your tone, my man, and be thankful we exist to govern! No universal suffrage! Gentlemen only in the governing ranks, if you please! (As to one of the foremost proponents of universal suffrage, one who helped to dismantle of the early aristocracy, one has to look, not to Jefferson, but to a compatriot of his, an unpleasant man called Abraham Bishop).

Here, perhaps is a classic example of what a gentleman is, one whose appendages are wholly useless to him. The future president John Adams, on traveling to England, was asked to man the bailing pumps aboard his sailing ship, a duty to which every passenger was bound. John Adams refused. He would rather drown than perform undignified, ungentlemanly manual labor. (It was only later, through appropriate face saving narratives that our other great historical figures were seen to somehow perform labor, thus George Washington could be seen to be a hard worker, riding his horse from sunup to sundown, managing his interests through his slaves).

Universal suffrage, the ability form the common man to represent himself in government, was still some thirty to forty years in the future at the time of the signing of the Constitution. In fact, such is the complaints and grumbling of our Founding Fathers about the failure of the Revolution, that once universal suffrage had come to pass, "any common jackass could run for office".

What is unrecognized about the Revolution, perhaps the most radical and fundamental change to come about, was the transformations Americans made in their understanding of property. We went from a medieval to a modern worldview. (In fact, it can be argued that the classic "propertarianism", your standard modern bonehead Libertarian view, is nothing more than an attempt to return to feudalism - in that the social contracts regarding property take precedence over all other contracts).

In classical pre-universal-suffrage thought, property, landed property required no representation or protection. It was wholly proprietary, part of a gentleman's identity and the source of his authority. It was not a commodity, not something to be acquired through labor, nor bought nor sold upon the market. And being so, free of the caprices of the market, a gentleman was unassailably free from special interest (the incorruptibility mentioned above), and the thus perfectly suited to govern. (This philosophical position, unassailable through logical analysis, quickly fell apart under empirical - more worldly - conditions).

If property were a mere material possession, why then any jackass had an equal right to acquire it, and it (the right to property) would become, as the 1820 convention notes of the New York Republicans put it, "only one of many incidental rights of the person who possessed it", but still "insignificant and trifling" compared to "other essential rights". This, then is why there is no mention of property in any of the so-called "hallowed" texts of the conservative fundamentalists - neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the Constitution.

This no doubt, if it were ever truly comprehended by today's conservatives, if it could make it through the thick gelatinous wall of ignorance constructed around their fossilized skulls, would probably drive them into an apoplectic fit. But then, the Founding Fathers would look down on these moderns pipsqueaks anyway: peasants, proletarians, dirty filthy laborers daring to live above their station.

Monday, February 14, 2011


as in rhymes with small peckery.

I don't know should I cut that rancid asshole media creature some slack? I mean, he's just too easy to make fun of. I don't care about him anyway. I will suggest the following definition for "glennbeckery" though.

The attempt to present, in an incompetent and clumsily fraudulent authoritative manner or protocol, misleading information that will influence the weak, the timid, and the feeble-minded by means of fear and intimidation.

As opposed to the other definition I found out in the interwebs, which is "mega-assholery". Succinct, I'll give it that.

(But, you know, I think of the term more along the lines of his fake history perfesser persona. Jeez, if Obama had only known that all he needed to teach congressional law at UC was a blackboard and glasses, he could have saved himself all that effort and real scholarship. He could, have, you know, just faked it on TV. And then you've got Glenn's choice of faith. But, you know, if you want to present your bona fides as a true bugfuck crazy collapsitarian, best to pick a faith with a major branding problem).

I received in the mail a form letter that appeared to very official and federally tax related. I don't think a copyright infringement is involved here (I'm sure the corporate entity that sent it had their legal department check it out). But it appears to be something that I should be worried about.

Now, keep in mind, I've had a bullshit detector installed in my brain since I was twelve. And it has been set on maximum sensitivity. So much so, that actual facts often set the klaxons blaring and red lights to flash.

But this letter was so blatantly clumsy, I switched off my bullshit detector before it even had much of a chance to register it.

I'd post a picture of it, but it's more fun to describe it. So, you've got the standard US government IRS looks about it. The graphic format, the fold strip openings at the side, the fake form id  "FORM 11598". And then, warnings that never appear on official documents but look official appearing not once but twice: "WARNING: There is a $2,000 fine or 5 yrs imprisonment or both for any person obstructing or interfering with the delivery of this letter - US MAIL SEC.1708" It applies to all letters, but hey.

There is a little disclaimer to indicate it is not from the government so that they don't get in trouble, but disguised to look like more big guv't scary: "Business Mail - Penalty for Tampering".

And then on the back, a really big warning reiterating the Sec 1708 mail tampering shit.

And then when yo open, it, a really nice copy job of a W2 box format using the IRS fonts and with a big 2010 just like in the tax forms. And then, in 8 point type, psst, hey,  "This is not a government document".

And then it is all balloons and dancing bears after that. Arlington Nissan wants to sell me a car. Here's a big money number, $37,941 and zero cents as my available line of credit. With an additional  $15,759 and zero cents for who the fuck knows what. I guess I'm to assume that together the sum is my authorized amount, but that's for my greedy little mind to figure out.

So, they got me all palm sweaty and worried, and then, oh, no Mr. Kurman, it's good news, and we really don't give a shit about your credit history. We are pants-shittingly generous with monies that you will eventually owe us!

And now, a word from Goldbug!

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Chinese Room

This past Wednesday, I watched a NOVA episode about the upcoming Jeopardy! show series involving Watson, the supercomputer contestant. (And do I contradict myself after writing a snobby semi-tirade against popular science media presentation, and then watching NOVA? Eh, so what.)

(Three Jeopardy! episodes involving Watson as a contestant are scheduled for Feb. 14-16th, 2011).

The usual questions are of course, how can Watson play Jeopardy! Well, watch the NOVA episode. I'd rather talk about the Chinese Room.

I used to visit and occasionally contribute to a internet forum which had a participant who, had there not already been one, should have been the patron saint of lost causes. If there was a silly position to take on a subject, this guy would be a staunch proponent. If memory serves, he was an advocate for astrology, Ayn Rand and Objectivism, libertarianism, Zionism,  his own variation of Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenesis, and all sorts of other strange things. He wasn't a complete loon, but...

And I seem to recall that he had a peculiar argumentative style not unlike the cowardly and slippery method of  Socrates, in that he would never actually assert anything, but rather answer questions with questions. (I say cowardly because Socrates never actually took a stand on anything). In any case, he actually did make the assertion that computers would never be intelligent like people because a guy named John Searle provided an ironclad proof that computers could mimic human behavior but never understand it. This argument is called The Chinese Room.

John Searle in the Chinese Room 
You can either read the link, or, well, here's the short version. A kind of Rube Goldberg computer or an automaton is set up in an empty room (a black box, if you will) wherein a Chinese person can hold a conversation with it. There is a library of data and a rule book that allows any sentence or question in the Chinese language to be processed and answered. So a Chinese person can talk to the Chinese Room, and after a sufficient conversation, become convinced that he is talking to another Chinese person within the room. In other words, the computer's behavior is indistinguishable from a person's and the computer passes what is called a Turing Test, and so must be considered an intelligent being.

But here is Searle's catch. The library and rule book are not in Chinese. They could be, since this is a computer, all zeroes and ones. But for the purposes of Searle's argument, they are in English. They are in English so that Searle can take the place of the computer or automaton. He gets the Chinese statement as input, he follows the rules and accesses the data in English, to respond in Chinese as output. Searle fools the Chinese interlocutor that he understands Chinese, when in fact, Searle never understands what he is saying, just like the computer. In short, the computer does not understand.

Well, so what? You say. And justly so. Isn't this just another one of those stupid philosophical arguments? Doesn't this just show that the Turing Test doesn't cut the mustard? Doesn't this illuminate a point that anyone past the mental age of six can figure out? That appearances are deceiving? That the stuffed animal puppet is really not a real person.

Well, yes and no. It does turn out that the argument is stupid, and it all hinges on Searle's implication that just because he doesn't understand Chinese, therefore the automaton or computer doesn't either. You see, there have many objections to his argument, but the strongest is that, even though the whole process is mechanical and completely syntax driven, that no semantics, no meanings are derived out of the process. In short, the program may not understand, but the Room (automaton or mechanism or what have you, plus program) clearly does. Searle's counterpoint to that is, fine, I will memorize the whole library of data and rule book (which is all in English), and now the Room is completely inside his head. Now he can speak directly to the Chinese interlocutor, process everything in English in his head and understand not one word of Chinese.

But all this does in further illustrate the weakness of his argument. By simulating the Room inside his head, he expect us to believe that he is the Room. In other words, his mental simulations exactly duplicate the physical states of the Chinese Room. But, he is hoisted upon his own petard. His mental simulation is clearly not the same. It is a simulation. Therefore, the fact that he John Searle does not understand Chinese is not the same statement as the Chinese Room doesn't understand Chinese.

Well. okay. So what? Well, the point was that the patron saint of lost causes, invoking Searle, felt that computers could never, ever really be intelligent. Can't  they?

Watson clearly isn't. But Watson isn't just doing what the Chinese Room is doing (which is basically, the way old digital computers and their now primitive 1970s architectures did things). Watson uses an incredibly powerful technique called machine learning. Machine learning is learning by example, by trial and error. This is far more powerful than mere following of rules, because the rules (if any exist) are changeable by more and more examples. Watson can change his behavior just like people (most people).

Does this mean Watson and computers like him (it) might eventually get smart? Why not?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Primitive and Paranoid Savages (part 2)

As a cynical optimist, I recognize that there is never any true progress in the world, no directed progress at any rate. Like the evolution of organisms, there is no goal, and yet, just through a ratcheting process, some things improve without a plan. Some would call this progress, and sometimes ascribe a teleological cause behind it all. I do neither.

I occasionally will visit other websites that purportedly have a superior take on things, a more studied view of events at large, as the denizens are - or advertise themselves to be - intellectually superior to your average lumpkin. One such site is I used to visit there quite frequently, but then I discovered that I wasn't learning anything new there. That the discussions between the "most complex and sophisticated minds" weren't all that interesting. Were, in fact, downright slow and plodding. I'm not sure if that is because those minds were trying to dumb down their thoughts to a wider audience. Or perhaps, specialists talking outside their specialty, were no wiser than the average lumpkin.

Regardless, I found that, at one point or another, I'd already picked up the tidbits of information and scientific popcorn. I'd find an insight they provided one I'd already considered. Or still worse, an insight I'd considered, rejected, and moved on from some statement they had provided perhaps ten or twenty years ago. To this day, I'm pretty much fed up with the Daniel Dennetts, the Richard Dawkinses, the Jarod Laniers, the Jared Diamonds, the Brian Greens, and said,

"Dudes, please. It's the 21st century. Contemporize yourselves already".

Another such site is Crooked Timber. I liked it at first, because the contributors and commenters did a pretty good job of making fun of libertarians. But after awhile, that gets old. And besides, I found that most of the discussions invariably devolved into a cramped wrestling match over minutiae. I'm not quite sure why academic types do that, but they do seem to pick a completely tangential point to obsess over, and miss out on the original bone of contention.

Take the latest doings in Egypt. There was a short essay by John Quiggin, invoking Francis Fukuyama's 1989 "End of History" essay. In it, he (Fukuyama) lamented that - since it seemed that with the fall of Communism, everyone was headed towards becoming a parliamentary democracy of one or another flavor of  liberal capitalist stripe - that history was going to get a lot more boring. (There's a lot more to the  essay than that, but, bear with me here. Don't get all twisted up in sidebars).

Well, we can grant Fukuyama a certain amount of slack here (given that we enjoy a perspective twenty years up the line, and that Fukuyama is a cosseted ivory tower academic) that his analysis is sweetly naive. It would indeed have been such a nice world where an unfettered and unthreatened Russian and Chinese peoples could thrive and grow and be free, but such was not meant to be. Such was not meant to be in the Western republics, for that matter.

But now Quiggin seems to assume that the same thing (democracy) will happen in the Islamic world. Or at least he suggests that we entertain the notion. We can forgive the opining of the commenters as basically the usual middlebrow blather that occurs among the internet denizens - usually white, upper-middle-class, Anglo-Americans with no real life-and-death struggles under the copious belts - as just so much bloodless intellectual snooze. Night drool on their fluffy pillows.

Because no where at any time are the real roles of the real players mentioned - the security services, the army, the police, the secret police. In Egypt, nothing, and I mean nothing is going to happen one way or the other without the army's say-so. There is confusion linking the tyrant (Mubarak) with the army, and yet history has shown again and again that these two entities are entirely and completely separate.

This is not to belittle the demonstrators and protestors. It is a statement of fact. The pro-democracy forces may or may not be brought to the table, but if they are, it will be at the convenience (or inconvenience, for this the job of protest) of the security forces.

This is not merely a result of brute force in action. Special interests are involved (one has only to take a look at our own American revolution to see how this works). With the advent of the Israeli-Egypt Peace Accords, subsidized by the US of A, the Egyptian army had little to do but go into business and control private enterprise. And go into business they did, and in a big way. (To cut to the point, have a gander at how Russia and China are doing to see the new political model: security forces run businesses, discover the joys of profit and the delights of private enterprise). Now, when you are business, the one thing you do not want is uncertainty. You do not want chaos. The army (and other security industries) want an end to chaos. If it means a form of participatory democracy, then so be it. Just so long as they get to keep the cash. And perhaps this is the way Mubarak will be treated: given a large severance package, a golden parachute for despots, and let business continue.

We have seen something similar (not exactly like it, but similar) unfold within the US of A, with the rise of the MIC, the military/industrial/congressional complex back in 1916. 1916 did I say? Surely I meant 1946 or 1956 or something closer to Eisenhower's speech. Nope. 1916. That is the date when a significant portion of US GDP first went to armaments, and a lot of people in power realised that this was a very, very good thing. Not for the country, for them. (Because, remember, the armaments industry is not in the business of making arms. It is in the business of making money).

We see various populists "revolts" (for example, the current Tea Party) occur, which seem on the surface to be anti-government, pro-democracy and pro-individual, and yet, they only get what does not inconvenience the MIC. Their corporate sponsors, apparently have no objection to cuts in basic science or cultural programs. After all, Americans are being bred for a return to docile servitude, so what does it matter if the US of A withers to nothing? The industry is intact and making money. That is what is important. It is only when an unruly populace inconveniences the business planners that concessions are made. (At least, unless the situation become completely untenable, then, well, you know the drill. Revolution).

This, then, not entirely modeled on the US model, but close, is the new political seascape in the Middle East. So, revolution, just not what anyone wanted or expected. Business as usual.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Primitive and Paranoid Savages

It is said that the U.S.S.R. briefly enjoyed a military parity against the US of A in 1971 - for a golden moment of perhaps 2 weeks.

In order to do this, the Soviet leadership doubled military spending over the course of the 1960s - spending up to perhaps 40% of their GDP, and basically skeletonizing their domestic economy and bankrupting the country. Despite Republican propaganda to the contrary, it was not Ronald Reagan who won the Cold War so much as the Soviets who lost it. (And even then, and to this very day, the cold war "victory" of the United States involved American cities still being targeted by 5,000 or so ex-Soviet nuclear warheads. Some "victory").

Why would any sane leadership do this? No really? Why?

Well, the standard answer is that they were reacting to military expenditures on the part of the the US and NATO. That, and the fact that, being the quasi-religious zealots that they were, they were attempting to export the revolution to the world required that they make sacrifices.

I'm sorry, that doesn't wash. Especially since the Soviet records and interviews are freely available after the downfall, of what the Soviet leadership's motivation and justifications were.

So, there was a mindset similar to that of Israel  which was: Never Again. The Soviets lost 26 million people in World War II. Let me spell that out for you to let that number sink in. Twenty-six million people dead. That is a wounding that lays heavily upon a nation's consciousness and character. We citizens of the United States, having never suffered a serious invasion or loss of life, EVER, cannot even comprehend what it does to the national psyche.

So, there's that. Couple that with a game of technological catch-up against their Western rivals, a lack of incentive - aside from a dubiously inconsistent patriotism - on the part of their citizens, a seriously underfunded and underdeveloped infrastructure spread across the largest nation on Earth, and you have a fairly large incentive to invest in areas that do not provide for, or enrich, your own people.

But the biggest reason by far, bar none, (in retrospect, based upon solid empirical evidence) was the firm conviction that the United States of America would inevitably attack the Soviet Union with a nuclear first strike.

"Impossible!" you might cry. "We Americans are a peace loving people! We would never launch a first strike against the Soviets! That would be insane!"

Well, who said we were sane? If you take a step back and look at Americans as if they were an alien culture, if you look dispassionately at our culture and history, you have to admit that we are a not a nice people. We have engaged in genocide, enslaved whole nations, attacked our neighbors, taken what we want. We have lied, cheated, stolen. Our leaders and followers, both brilliant and brutish, and consistently been ruthless, remorseless. We are a juggernaut that built up a continental empire, and then moved onwards to world domination. We are quick to take offense, slow to forgive. Pathologically insane. Psychotic.  Murderously, diabolically, inexorably atavistic and grasping. A nation that will go ape-shit insane at the slightest provocation, either real or imagined.

The Russians looked at us and said "They are exactly like us. They are brutes. Beasts. Our kind of people. They would do exactly what we would do if we could. In fact, why have they not done it? Obviously they will attack us".

Need I say more?

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011
So, it's my fault. Apologies for that. Here I went and talked about Chicago blizzards and forgot to mention the Jan 1-3 Blizzard of 1999. Law of Attraction and all that bullshit. Mother Nature decided to set things straight.

Actually, despite what you hear in the news, it wasn't all that bad. We closed the college down at 3pm Tuesday. When I drove home visibility was around a quarter of a mile. Not much to do, really. I had had three days to prepare and was well-stocked and ready. So, after dinner, I sensibly started drinking. Not hard drinking, mind you, just to find a comfortable buzz and maintain it. Because the plan was, you see, to get out into that blizzard and experience it firsthand. Which I did. Multiple times.

The snow really didn't start to kick in until about 9pm. Visibility about 100 yards. Still a few idiot drivers out, obviously thinking themselves invulnerable with 4-wheel drives. They would have second thoughts before the night was out. Drifts were starting to build, with winds a steady 40 mph gusting to 60. (O'hare airport, some three miles east of me, would register gusts 70 mph). We had not quite reached the description of "not a fit night out for man nor beast".

The next excursion occured a little after 10:30pm. Walked out into the unplowed street, I kicked the snow and found the pavement buried down at around six inches or so. A heavy, burly wind barreled straight out of the northeast with snow so thick it felt like rain. And then, and then, yes! Thundersnow! The entire sky glowed a brilliant blue, silhouettes of trees stark against it. The thunder came growling down a few seconds later. I let out a series of whoops in response and did a little storm dance. I walked around the neighborhood, everything just slightly unfamiliar, and by the time I came back in, an hour later, my wool cap, jeans, and beard are soaked to the skin. I'm ashamed to say it felt really good to be out in it, but common sense prevailed.

The last excursion occured around midnight. The snow, which seemed heavy before, had multiplied in intensity. Thunder and lightning still played about in the sky, but even this seemed hidden and muffled by the snow. Visibility was down to perhaps 25 yards or so. I tried to find the hole I had kicked in the street, and found only a uniform foot of snow, with perhaps a slight dimple of an impression. I'd had my fill of all this, and went back inside, thankful that my building still had electrical power. The houses south of me did not. I awoke to warmth.

The following day, the sun jumped out early, around noon. The blizzard warning was supposed to expire at 3pm. I lazed around until 1pm, then it's out to dig out the car.The manager of my shitbox apartment complex had made two passes with the plow, enough to create an alpine ski path. There was a perhaps 2 foot high by 4 feet deep wall of snow between my car and the path. Fortunately it was a light fluffy snow, perfect downhill schuss snow instead of heart-attack snow, and so it is easy to remove. I help my neighbor remove the snow from his car, so that I may use his shovel. The Tragedy of the Commons, itself a completely bullshit hypothetical essay, does not exist here. Each helps the other the out, so the vehicles may be moved to the street. Each of us does so knowing that the parking lot will not be plowed otherwise. Snow shovelling thus proved that the concepts of altruism and selfishness are not mutually exclusive. Ayn Rand was obviously a stupid, stupid woman.

With all cars evacuated, I decided to tour the town. The world was bright, blinding bright, but smaller. A little more cramped than two days before. A touch more claustrophobic, as four-lane streets are now two laners, two laners but footpaths, as to either side drifts are piled above eye level. Parking lots hold snow mountains and foot hills, and one wonders why winter play lands are not created with all the snow. Why the flatland of Illinois cannot be creatively festooned with hillslides and zoomflumes of snow and ice. Instead they search desperately to dump the snow.

As I drove around, I saw ravens. BIG ravens. My beloved birds were out. Extreme circumstances forced them to become bold. Though they are supremely adapted for the cold, much more than I, they need to eat, and so searched for what little there was. I am happy to have seen them. They not so much I.

All in all, it was a great time!