Saturday, May 23, 2015

Is Technology Innovation Oblivious to Crime?

Here in San Francisco the latest police blotter item involves a woman who managed to steal at least 76 Zipcars over the course of a six weeks. Zipcar was relatively early among those technology-driven innovations that would rid us of all the discomforts associated with car rental, particularly when short-term usage was all that was involved. It is hard from the only innovation to go south in equally innovative ways. Consider all the criminal activity (including assault, stalking, and theft) that has emerged from the "sharing economy" philosophy of drivers being compensated for sharing space in their cars. Of course ugly consequences are not unique to the present decade (he said, with vivid memory of the first time spam circulated on Usenet).

I recently attended a San Francisco Opera press conference at which I was able to prompt some comments about operas based on historical events out of director Francesca Zambello. I found the experience enlightening enough to write an article about it on my national site. Not one to mince words, Zambello unleashed a beautiful take-away quote:
History teaches us lessons; we just don’t always listen.
I am not saying that the technology sector is more deaf to history than any other major segment of our economic structure. Only a few years have elapsed; but my guess is that those obsessed with seeking out innovation in finance have long forgotten This Time Is Different, by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. I suspect it all comes down to the fact that a cool new idea will always trump any lesson from history, particularly when the lesson brings bad news. It is more profitable to believe that you are making a change for the better, rather that providing human nature with new opportunities to make things worse.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Advances [sic] in Communication

According to Professor Vyv Evans at Bangor University, the development of emoji as a language has now surpassed the past rate of Egyptian hieroglyphics, making it the "fastest growing language," at least in the United Kingdom. This preference for iconic abbreviations may actually be a logical advance over strings of letters (WTF), which tend to be necessary in order to work within the limits of Twitter messaging. Still today's BBC newsbeat report that an "I feel sick" icon is being developed in which the core smiley face may now be not only sad but also spewing green vomit should give us all pause. Could it be that our fixation over efficiency has now advanced to such a state that efficiency is necessary even in the communication of snark? Have we really lost the ability of language to be so colorful as to be interesting while insulting at the same time?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Bobby Jindal's "Parlor Games"

Last night the Republicans held their Lincoln Day dinner in Des Moines. Chris Good was there covering the story for ABC News. Apparently he decided to confront Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal with the same question that managed to get Florida Governor Jeb Bush to fumble: Knowing what we now know, was the decision to go to war in Iraq a good idea? Jindal dodged the question, dismissing the consideration of such hypotheses as "parlor games." In doing so, he may have earned himself poster-child status in representing our prevailing culture that seems to lives by the motto "Ignorant of history and proud of it."

Put another way, Jindal appears to assign little value to a critical question:
How did we get where we are?
Whether "where we are" is particularly good or really bad (which seems to be the case at present); we need to deal with the present with some frame of reference other than "shit happens." If Jindal's were an isolated voice that could be ignored when cooler heads prevail, then his reinforcement of our willful ignorance of history could be dismissed as a statistical outlier. Unfortunately, he is more likely right there in the center of a statistical norm; and, if, as a culture, we dismiss as a "parlor game" the need to reflect on how we got ourselves into our present mess, then it is likely that the next mess will come soon and with even greater impact.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

I'll Believe It When I See It

According to a report filed by Lyanne Melendez for ABC7 News, the city is finally going to face up to the traffic congestion problem. During rush hours violations such as double parking, delivery trucks, cars blocking intersections, and construction projects will be tickets and subjected to three-digit fines. Do I believe it? I am more inclined to believe commuter Pearline Hawkins, who told Melendez that they do not have enough people to do the necessary ticketing. The city claims we should give their new plan some time. Time for what? Do they have the budget to hire enough officers to give out tickets for all the violations that take place on a single day?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Keeping the Faith No Longer

The BBC News Web site just posted an article based on a rather interesting finding:
Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans identified as Christian in 2014 - down from 78% in 2007.
Statistically, that amounts to a pretty significant drop; and it will be interesting to see what sorts of hypotheses are launched to explain the shift. We have a long history of viewing our country as a secular one dedicated to the separation of church and state. However, in this new century fundamentalist Christianity seems to be playing a greater role in politics. Thus, it may be that those who previously embraced Christianity are put off by extremist fringes, possibly even seeing little difference between them and Jewish or Muslim extremists. In other words, where the fellowship of Christianity once provided a "quiet place" where an individual could take stock of his/her values within a sympathetic community, that "place" has now become unduly "noisy," meaning that, as a "social world" it is not that different from Facebook or Twitter. I have been living comfortably with my own atheism for over 40 years, so I am probably not the best source of hypotheses. Still, I have to wonder if this is yet another case of "voting against," rather than "voting for," in which case it may be a sign of an increasing loss of any value system, secular or sacred.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Marvel Keeps Their Narrative Threads Up To Date

My schedule has been busy lately, so I have only recently begun to catch up on the last few weeks of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. episodes. However, it did not take me long to appreciate how Marvel had managed to work Ultron into this show's narrative. I have noticed that the storytellers within this enterprise seem to like to talk about "the Marvel universe." However, what makes the approach to storytelling particularly fascinating is that this construct is more like a vast social network than a universe, which connotes little more than a vast space of objects. With the latest round of "civil war" plans, that social network is likely to get far more interesting, particularly if one tries to represent it with connectors that are not as simplistic as acquaintance links. Perhaps Marvel fans will eventually recognize that there is much more to a social network than "friending!"

Thursday, May 7, 2015


When it comes to an arrogant display of military might, there is some justification in taking pleasure when things go wrong, as long as no one gets hurt. No one got hurt during a rehearsal for the parade in Red Square marking the anniversary of the Second World War. However, as Patrick Reevell reported for ABC News, there were probably an abundance of red faces (not with connotations of former Soviet might). One of the stars of the show was supposed to be the new Armata T-14, which apparently has been recognized by both Western and Russian experts as the most advanced tank in the world. Unfortunately, the damned thing stalled during the rehearsal run, right in front of the Kremlin to boot. Reevell's article includes a hyperlink to a YouTube of a failed attempt to tow the tank out of the way of the parade. (Has anyone ever successfully towed any tank?) Eventually, the tank started up again with the same sort of arbitrariness with which it had halted. It would not surprise me if the authorities are now convening to decide which heads will be rolling (hopefully, only metaphorically) as a result of this episode.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Company We Keep

A Better Balance is a legal advocacy group that promotes workplace fairness for families. They seem to have timed their latest report, "Investing in Our Families: The Case for Paid Family Leave in New York and the Nation," to come out in time for Mother's Day. Susanna Kim reported for ABC News that the United States is only one of three countries that does not have a statute for paid maternity leave. The other two are Papua New Guinea and Suriname. I suspect that the reason this comparison was stressed is that the United States is the only one of those three countries that would be called "economically developed." That being the case, whatever Republican conservatives may try to tell us, the United States is the only country that places economic development above family values, which is probably just a neutral way of saying that the United States is the only country that thinks in terms of keeping wealth, rather than applying it to the overall well-being of its population.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Looking at Intelligence through the Other End of the Telescope

I see that Peter Day, Global Business Correspondent for BBC News, has now entered the artificial intelligence fray with a "think piece" (those are scare quotes) about if and when machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence. While I have enjoyed many of Day's broadcasts, I was dismayed to see that he is the latest to "understand" the Turing Test through hearsay, rather than through what Turing actually wrote. I am also waiting for someone in this argument to suggest that one way in which computers will be more intelligent than humans is that, through their dependences on computers, humans will get progressively more stupid. So computers just need to sit and wait!

Monday, May 4, 2015

What Price Exercising Free Speech for the Sake of Giving Offense?

If the American Freedom Defense Initiative wanted the world to pay attention to them, they certainly got their wish. By arranging an event that would focus heavily on an exhibit of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, this organization may have established one of the most extreme cases of exercising free speech solely for the purpose of giving offense. However, while the speech may have been free, the exercise came with a price. According to an ABC News report by Emily Shapiro, that price amounted to $10,000. This is the amount of money that the organization paid out of its own budget for security. According to Shapiro's report:
Security included security officers, uniformed officers, SWAT, FBI and ATF, Joe Harn of the Garland Police Department said at a news conference.
Now, I am not a constitutional scholar and/or expert; but I have tended to assume that the right to free speech does not include the right to incite violence. Thus, the question arises as to whether or not the American Freedom Defense Initiative expected violence and expected it because they knew that the images they were exhibiting would incite it. If that were, indeed, the case, why were federal, state, and local authorities taking fee-for-services to allow such provocative behavior?

Sunday, May 3, 2015

An Amusing Parallel

According to Google Analytics, my recent article about the new recording of Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in three Haydn symphonies has received exactly the same amount of attention accorded to my article about Pierre Boulez conducting the music of Second Viennese School composers.