Friday, June 26, 2015

When Robot Cars Meet

It was going to happen sooner or later. Two autonomous vehicles would find themselves on the same road at the same time. Paul Lienert documented the encounter is a story for Reuters. What made it interesting was that the two cars came from different research laboratories. One was from Google, and the other was from Delphi Automotive. The Director of Delphi's Silicon Valley laboratory, John Absmeier, was in the latter vehicle.

Liner described the encounter as follows:
As the Delphi vehicle prepared to change lanes, a Google self-driving prototype - a Lexus RX400h crossover fitted with similar hardware and software - cut off the Audi, forcing it to abort the lane change, Absmeier said. 
The Delphi car "took appropriate action," according to Absmeier.
I like the way Absmeier was not very specific about what he meant by "appropriate." However, I have now made a decision for myself. The only automated car I'm going to get in is one that has a Dalek at the wheel!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Rage Against the Technology

Those who get high on the Kool-Aid of disruptive technologies are usually too stoned to realize that, if not properly managed, disruption can result in an eruption of violence. This is what happened when 2800 Parisian taxi drivers went on strike to protest against UberPop. As one can read in Hugo Leenhardt's report for ABC News, things got really ugly; and, as is usually the case in war, the ugliness infected both sides. So, while Uber cars were vandalized, it appears that one Uber driver decided to deal with a cabbie blocking his way by running over the guy. What makes things all the more depressing is that the French government had already declared UberPop to be illegal, banned due to unfair competitive practices. As a result Paris has discovered something that any American city with a plethora of bike riders aggressively competing with motorists on city streets has known all along: A practice is only illegal if legality is sustained through enforcement. Clearly, such enforcement did not not take place "with all deliberate speed" in Paris. This led to the usual problem with vigilante justice: offended parties taking the law into their own hands, usually with violent results.

It is unclear that there is a way out of this mess. The fact is that technology evangelists have managed to disrupt the world of governance while pursuing an agenda that seems to have involved disrupting the world of work. The primary consequence is that all of us are living in a world in which goods are more likely to be defective and services are less likely to be reliable. It is hard to imagine our arriving at a closer approximation to the apocalyptic world that E. M. Forster envisaged in "The Machine Stops." Unfortunately, one of the services that has been disrupted beyond recognition is education. Thus, while in Forster's world people just got more tolerant of an increasing number of flaws, we now seem to be creating a new generation too stupid to realize that those flaws even exist.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Does Europe Remember Greenspan?

I see that both the French and German stock exchanges are doing very well this morning. As I write this, both are up more than 3.75%. This is obviously connected to the fact that the lead story on BBC World Service News was that a viable solution to the problem of Greek debt may actually be in sight. Mind you, the problem has not yet be solved; but stock markets live in the fictions of the future, rather than in the immediate present. This makes them prime targets for what Alan Greenspan once called "irrational exuberance." Those of us more interested in common sense, rather than good manners, might prefer to call it "grabbing at straws."

Recently Columbia University Press published a book entitled What Does Europe Want? The Union and Its Discontents. It is basically a "dialog through essays" between Slavoj Žižek can Srećko Horvat. However, of particularly interest if the Foreword written by Alexis Tsipras, listed only as "Greek politician, president of SYRIZA," since, at the time he wrote it, the idea of an election in Greece was not yet in sight, let alone a rise in public support for Tsipras' political party.

These are all voices that realize that "economic recovery" is a concept that may well serve the ultra-rich but is condemning just about everyone else to poverty even greater than what was suffered before the collapse of the last decade. One might go so far as to say that even talk about the wealth gap has been devalued. Nevertheless, there was one rather unconventional sign of hope in a less-publicized story that the BBC ran over the weekend. They managed to find a specialist in population dynamics that was bold enough to suggest that the extinction of the human species is not only possible but likely to occur sooner than anyone had dared consider. Considered as a system, the earth may take care of itself better than any mere humans can; and, if humans try to interfere with the earth, then they may well be outwitted by some simple mathematical principles!

Friday, June 19, 2015

Clash of the Idiots

Gary Wills had a great post on NYRblog yesterday. The title was "Holy Ignorance," which he appropriated from Olivier Roy, a French anthropologist who specialized in studying belief systems. The basic argument is that fundamentalists are immune to argument based on reason. They see the use of logic to justify any with which they disagree as a test of the strength of their faith, which makes them hold to their beliefs with even greater strength. Wills wrote this in an analysis of the Pope’s decision to write an encyclical on climate change and its connection to selfishness. Almost immediately five Catholic Republicans who are part of the rush to candidacy in the next Presidential election denounced the Pope for knowing nothing about science, regardless of the fact that they knew even less (even collectively)! Clearly, Wills saw all five of them as evidence of “holy ignorance!”

What is interesting, however, is that a parallel line of argument can be developed about Muslim fundamentalists. This, in turn, may tell us something about what makes IS tick. While they are not necessarily grounded in Islam, their goal is to subvert all Western forms of government in their territory and replace it with a caliphate. This actually turns out to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand they are determined to reinstate a pre-Enlightment approach to governance based on little more than raw power. However, at the same time they know they can appeal to Muslim values to win others to their cause. Ironically, they do all this through some of the most sophisticated Internet advertising (yes, that is ultimately what it is) yet to be designed.

Perhaps the Pope should pay more attention to the book of Revelations. The prediction of the great war of Gog in the land of Magog could well involve Christian Fundamentalists in battle with Muslim Fundamentalists (hence the inspiration for my own choice of title for this post)! That is quite a change from the early nineteenth-denture hasidim, who thought Napoleon was Gog (worth remembering on this anniversary of Waterloo)!

When Music and Sports Collide

As a rule, I have decided not to give too much thought to Vanessa-Mae as a violinist. There are enough other violinists that really interest me that I do not have to worry about a lack of memory cycles for her. As a result, I have not paid too much attention to her trying to make a second career about of being an Olympic-class skier, even if her activities in that domain have been controversial. Nevertheless, given the state of so many athletes these days, I find it hard to avoid speculating about whether Vanessa-Mae has found some performance-enhancing drug for her violin technique.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Kentucky Fried Rat

The ABC7 site just ran a story about a Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) customer that had a rat included in her order. Back when I was teacher at the University of Pennsylvania (we're talking about 40 years ago), stories like that would surface about the KFC closest to the campus. The main difference between then and now is that now those stories tend to be reinforced with photographs and/or videos, which does a lot for their credibility. Nevertheless, when we think that this is a problem that has been around for 40 years, we have to wonder why KFC has never done anything particularly effective about it. Is it like the Pinto gas tank, where some bean-counter decided that fixing the problem cost more than compensating for it when it arises? Could it be that the rats are more intelligent than most of the KFC staff?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

An Unfortunate Acronym

Does the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which Al Jazeera describes as the "Philippine largest Muslim rebel group," realize that its acronym is also used for a phrase that devout Muslim's are likely to find profoundly offensive?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

When a Change for the Better Makes Things Worse

Today's Al Jazeera English Web site has an article by Dinouk Colombage about the formation of an orchestra of Sinhalese and Tamil children recently formed in Sri Lanka. Since the participating children are poor, the Venezuelan "El Sistema" was cited as a precedent. However, the title of the article was "Can music lead to social harmony in Sri Lanka?," suggesting that trying to ease tensions between Sinhalese and Tamil cultures was also a major issue. In that respect a more appropriate precedent might be Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which was formed to provide an opportunity for musicians of both Arab and Israeli backgrounds to come together for the sake of making music. (It should be noted for the record that this ensemble is based in Seville, rather than anywhere in the Middle East.)

I have great admiration for Barenboim's project. However, it is somewhat interesting to think about what has happened on a global scale since its formation in 1999. Over the course of about fifteen years, the world has experienced a radical increase in acts of inter-cultural violence; and there is no sign of the trend reversing. (I have made it a point not to single out any particular cultures in making that observation.) This has led be to entertain the conjecture that social harmony is bad for politics. This conjecture may be approached from the opposite direction by taking Max Weber as a point of departure: Politics is all about legitimizing the exercise of power. Thus, it is only natural that it is driven by opposing blocs, each of which seeks to hold more power than the others. As a result, we can find social harmony in an orchestra because making music involves getting beyond the idea that life is all about having more power than those around you. The problem is that both the members of the orchestra and those in the audience have to go back to the real world after the concert has concluded; and we now live in a real world in which "social harmony" is treated as an impediment to political maneuvering rather than as asset for society as a whole.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Follow the Money to the Man Cave

CNET News reporter Max Taves provided an interesting summary of venture capital investments that were concluded over the past week. I treat this as highly recommended reading matter. I further recommend that every reader review the entire list to look for any sort of common trends. My personal interpretation is that the current generation of venture capitalists is being drawn to self-indulgence in a big way. This is not just a shift from products that do useful things to services that allow the idle rich to be more idle. Rather, it seems to be a calculated response to analytical results suggesting that the fastest way to quick profit is through the exploitation of infantilism. Mind you, this amounts to a corollary of the principle that any form of consumerism involves the exploitation of the potential for infantile behavior. So it should be no surprise that, if you want to follow a venture capitalist's money, the path will probably lead you to the man cave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Even Iceland Can't Get it Right All the Time

This morning the BBC News Web site announced that Iceland has made arrangement for a rave to be held inside their second largest glacier, Langjokull. Participation will be limited to 70. Even with that limitation, however, it is hard to imagine that the amount of heat generated by this event will only contribute to melting the glacier faster than current climate conditions have already created. Did anyone stop to think about this being more destructive than it would be "cool" (both metaphorically and literally)?

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Thankful for Ligeti Fans

I must confess that I have been pleasantly surprised to have Google Analytics inform me of just how popular my report for my national site on on the interactive Web site for the piano music of György Ligeti was. It has been some time since I had an opportunity to write a review about technology, rather than the music being delivered by that technology. In this case I felt that I was covering a relevant part of the story that had been neglected by The New York Times, even though the Times had relegated it to a post on their ArtsBeat blog. In cases like these, the delivery technology matters as much as the content. Perhaps it matters even more. If the technology is poor, the content may as well be a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. Apparently, I managed to attract the attention of a healthy chuck of readers who agree!

Monday, June 1, 2015

On Following the Money to Iraq

Here is a sentence from an Al Jazeera report worth considering:
Iraqi security forces lost 2,300 Humvee armoured vehicles when the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group overran the northern city of Mosul, according to the country's prime minister.
Bearing in mind that it is not particularly easy to "follow the money" in wartime (particularly when it is not your war, or at least not supposed to be), it is worth pondering just who should be taking the financial hit for the expense behind all that fancy hardware. My guess is that the Iraqi government did not pay for the stuff, meaning that it was given to them, presumably by the Department of Defense, rather than the corporation that actually builds the vehicles. In that case this is the sort of thing that amounts to a bad investment. Does that mean that DoD will be able to write it off as a tax loss? (The thought that the DoD is immune from paying taxes is as chilling as it is realistic.) In my own private fantasy world, the bill would be sent to George W. Bush, since he basically created the predisposing conditions behind the loss of the hardware. For better or worse, those, I know that my fantasy world is not a "reality world!"