Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Will robots earn a living in the future?

Over at Reason magazine, there’s an article contemplating the possibility of autonomous technology. This isn’t technology that is conscious (though plenty of people are contemplating that) but software and robots that exist as entities that can support themselves economically. The article muses on a self-driving car that operates as a cab and uses its income to pay for gas and repairs. Or investment software that buys and sells stocks; some invest-bots might make millions, some would go broke, but they would be out there.

The author states…

This little [invest-]bot can be made with technology that we have available today, and yet it is totally incompatible with our legal system. After all, it is a program that makes and spends money and acts in the world, but isn’t owned by a human or a corporation. It essentially owns itself and its capital. The law doesn’t contemplate such a thing.

It’s a fascinating idea—computer programs that are independent, money-making units. But if they are too successful, will the humans begin to eye them jealously? Will men seethe in anger when they discover millionaire robots taking their wives out for a night on the town? Are the seeds of the coming human/robot war being sowed as we speak?

Filner’s deep dark secrets

I came across this recent L.A. Times article on the sentencing of Bob Filner, the disgraced Mayor of my city, San Diego. (Filner, as you likely know, was dethroned after it was revealed that he sexually harassed numerous women.)

Hello probation. Goodbye dignity.

Monday’s coda to the career implosion of former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner is yet another cautionary tale for powerful men: You could end up like Filner, jobless and disgraced, with your deepest secrets laid out in the cold, precise language of a probation officer’s report.

Obviously my curiosity is piqued. Deepest secrets? What could they be? He had a stash of midget porn? He dressed as a woman? He was the one person who watched the new Seth MacFarlane sitcom “Dads”?

Er, no.

What the probation report also details are very private issues: He recently underwent a root canal and broke a finger on his left hand. He is seeing a doctor for interstitial cystitis and irritable bowel syndrome. He is seeing a psychologist, as well as a psychiatrist. And he takes half a dozen prescription medications, including two (Lexapro and Buspirone) that are often used to treat anxiety and one (Lamictal) that is used as a mood stabilizer.

Wow… a root canal. Way to embarrassing him L.A. Times. And IBS. And cystitis, whatever the fuck that is.

Of course the rest of it is somewhat interesting though hardly qualifies as deep secrets. Filner was on a variety of anti-depressants and seeing shrinks. Just like about 30% of the western world.

But this opens up an interesting question. If Filner is “funny in the head” can he be held accountable for his actions? If something in his neural wiring is off, is “he” responsible for what he did?

Nobody likes these questions of course. With Filner we all get something we want – a public figure we can unabashedly hate. To imply that he might be sick, not evil, takes away our righteous anger.

Nonetheless, I submit that asking these questions would have made for a more interesting article that a rather flaccid reveal of somebody’s dirty laundry.

Who owns what?

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget,” a tome that bemoans (or should I say “a bemoaning tome”) the free economy which has overtaking music, much of writing (you aren’t paying for this blog post, for example) and possibly soon, movies. Last night I dug up some of Lanier’s various TV appearances on you tube. (I did not pay to view them of course.)

Fundamentally Lanier is getting at the question of how we valuate things. Obviously we’ve long used markets to do so, though they have always been affected by external manipulations e.g. tariffs, price setting, caps by government or industry on how much of something can be produced etc.

If we look at music we can note that music used to be worth something—generally about a dollar a song though that’s a flawed estimate— and now it’s worth much less. It’s hard to really say what a song is worth these days. I guess they still sell for 49 cents to 99 cents over at iTunes, but most people can dig up any song they want to hear on piracy sites or youtube or Spotify. I haven’t paid to listen to music for years unless I’m buying a friend’s music (and even then I grumble.)

Have markets decided that music has no value? It’s a bit more complex than that. Markets are dependent on the state to enforce the notion of private property. If I can just take want I want, markets really have purpose (at least to me, the person doing the taking.) The debate in the world of music right now is over what the product is an who owns it. If I buy a song, am I free to make a digital copy of it and send it to my friends? Technically, in the eyes of the law, no, but realistically, yes, insomuch that laws that aren’t enforced are worthless.

I tend to side against the “free information/piracy” types, but I do concede these are hard questions to answer. How can anyone really own what is essentially information on a computer?

And I’ll entertain even more Marxist thoughts. Let’s look at the realm of physical objects. A chair, say. Some guy cuts down a tree and makes a chair which I buy with my money. Did he really “own” that tree? Maybe it was on his land but how did he get that land? Did an ancestor of his take it from Indians who themselves had no real sense of ownership (since they were hunter-gatherer types who just wandered around)? At some point the earth had no intelligent creatures on it – who owned everything then?

On some level these are silly questions, but I think you get my point. The very premise of ownership of anything is somewhat shaky.

Anyway, Lanier is trippy to watch so I will include a video here.

On “You Are Not a Gadget”

I’ve just started reading a book that I’ve mentioned being interested in: Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget.” The book is something of a condemnation of aspects of modern Internet culture, made all the more damning by the fact that Lanier is technologist who played a role the development of the web. Many of the “pro-Internet” views he takes on belong to good friends of his.

One argument he makes is that eccentricity—the expression of unique behaviors and ideas—is being removed from modern culture. Part of this is because of the mob-like nature of Internet comments sections. As I have noticed, in many Internet forums a consensus view often develops among the participants. Those who express opinions different from this view are either mocked or ignored (as I have been until I gave up on opinion forums.) People tow the party line and are not exposed to ideas that may challenge their views. And, as has been well commented on, people gravitate towards blogs and sites that correspond to their world view, further isolating their thought processes.

(Related to this: I once argued that the fluid communication the web enables makes one realize just how hard it is to be unique.)

Lanier also sees individuality taking a hit on social networking sites like Facebook. In the mid 90s people defined themselves on the web via home pages, many of which were housed on now deceased hosting site geocities. I remember these pages and you probably do too. They were often amateurish in design and usually had god-awful background tiles that made text unreadable. But they had personality. It was hard to confuse one person’s home page for another’s. The same is not true with Facebook—most people’s pages look basically the same. (Yes, you get your own header but that’s not much.)

Now the fact that everyone’s Facebook pages look similar is hardly the greatest calamity facing society. But I get Lanier’s point. It’s one more chip away from the idea of individuality, of personality. The Internet is not encouraging individuation, but a borg-like assimilation into a mono culture. I predict this will cause the death of all humanity within 20 years.

Why C.E.O.s are like a bottle of wine

I’m a great fan of situations where people try to make the world a better place only to find their efforts backfire. It really gives me a chortle!

The new New Yorker (October 21st, 2013) has a piece on its “Financial Page” which stands as a good example. As we all know, there’s been a rising disparity in the amount of money corporations pay their average worker compared with what they pay their C.E.O.. Modern C.E.O.s earn about 270 times what the average worker earns! As a result, the S.E.C. has put in place various laws making this disparity public. The idea being that company boards would respond to public outcry and shame over the pay rates.

However, things haven’t worked out as planned. These transparency laws illuminate not only to the public what C.E.O.’s are making, they also illuminate to the boards of companies what their competitors’ C.E.O.s are making, thus generating a bidding war! There are several reasons for this, but this one gets at the psychology behind it all.

…Elson said, “If you pay below average, it makes it look as if you’d hired a below-average C.E.O. and what board wants that?”

We tend to be uneasy about bargaining in situations where the stakes are very high; do you want the guy doing your neurosurgery, or running your company, to be offering discounts? Better, in the event that something goes wrong, to be able to tell yourself you spent all you could. And overspending is always easier when you’re spending someone else’s money.

In essence, board members are thinking, “This guy probably isn’t worth 100 million a year… but what if I’m wrong?”

This reminds me of a study which argued that people enjoy more expensive wine because it’s more expensive.

…researchers at Stanford and Caltech have demonstrated that people’s brains experience more pleasure when they think they are drinking a $45 wine instead of a $5 bottle – even when it’s the same stuff.

Are we overdiagnosed by doctors?

A recurring theme on this blog is my contention that medical care in this country (and probably a large part of the first world) is a joke. As I argued here, Doctors are incentivized to offer or order care that may not be actually needed.

Recently I stumbled across an op-ed piece (written by a Dartmoth professor who has a book out entitled “Overdiagnosed.”) It adds some interesting information to this whole debate. In describing the analysis of one doctor who examined how medical care is dispensed, the article states…

Jack went on to document similarly wildly variable medical practices in the other New England states. But it wasn’t until he compared two of the nation’s most prominent medical communities — Boston and New Haven, Conn. — that the major medical journals took notice. In the late 1980s, both the Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine published the findings that Boston residents were hospitalized 60% more often than their counterparts in New Haven. Oh, by the way, the rate of death — and the age of death — in the two cities were the same.

So, two populations were getting quite disparate amounts of medical care but were in the same state of health. Observations such as this led the development of medical care epidemiology, the science of studying the effects of medicine.

Medical care epidemiology examines the effect of exposure to medical care: how differential exposure across time and place relates to population health outcomes. It acknowledges that medical care can produce both benefits and harms, and that conventional concerns about underservice should be balanced by concerns about overdiagnosis and overtreatment. Think of it as surveillance for a different type of outbreak: outbreaks of diagnosis and treatment.

Should we allow computer politicians?

I’ve talked a bit about computers and robots replacing humans in various vocations. It struck me today that we should consider creating computer politicians. After all, could they do any worse than humans?

What would a computer politician be? Obviously it would have to be some sort of collection of artificial intelligence modules. Ideally it would have a knowledge base of existing laws, history, geography, world politics, etc.

A computer politician on a regional level would have to represent its voters against the wishes of other regions. For instance, a computer politician would try to get a airplane manufacturing plant built in its region, not one state over.

What if a computer candidate ran against a human candidate? Would the computer candidate be able to tout its strengths over an opponent? Maybe… possibly… a computer candidate could very strongly make the claim that it would be incorruptible, that it would not stray from its mission to serve the needs of its voters (be they on a national or regional level.) Obviously it would be immune to sexual dalliances as well, such as those that recently tanked the careers of Bob Filner and Anthony Weiner. And a computer could show that it is programmed not to lie. All these attributes make a computer candidate quite appealing

Obviously most of this is outside the province of existing artificial intelligence technology. But that might not always be the case.

College is for losers

To the millions familiar with my writing and wit, it’s well known that I did not go to college. Thus, I always take a certain Schadenfreude upon hearing of the hard times befalling college graduates. The L.A. Times has a recent article on the growing trend of college graduates taking jobs that do not require their degrees. It ain’t pretty…

Because college is so expensive, many students are facing a dilemma: If they go to college, they still might not get a job that requires a college degree, and they’ll be on the hook for big student loan payments. But if they don’t go to college, they might be pushed out of entry-level jobs by overqualified college graduates who can’t find other work.

How does this play out at the individual level? Take Mariah Arcuri’s story.

…Mariah Arcuri paid off all her debts before starting her job in a lab, which required a college degree.

She worked as a bartender in New York, earning about $90,000 a year. She paid for her college education, her graduate school and her wedding with savings from tending bar.

But because she wanted to spend time with her husband, Arcuri eventually stopped bartending and got back her nights and weekends. She now works in a lab and makes only about two-thirds of what she did as a bartender, despite her master’s degree in biochemistry.

“I went to grad school to make more money, and then I realized that you don’t make more money,” Arcuri said. “Now I feel like I’m poor.”

We’ve been told for years that the high cost of a college education eventually repays itself. I wonder if that will continue to be the case.

Our defining years

Though it’s long, this Daily Beast article arguing that the Millennial generation is to the left of even the Democratic Party makes sense to me. Its core argument is that Millennials came of age in a decade of unending economic insecurity and, as a result, expect the hand of government to address this.

The article also makes an interesting point I can relate to psychology and brain science. (I’m sure everyone is excited by that.)

For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.

On one hand this is hardly news – it’s well known that a person’s (or generation’s) character is largely defined by the culture of their late teens to mid-twenties. I, for example, will always be defined by and partial to the music of Guns-n-Roses, Nirvana (even if I’m not a fan) and movies like “Die Hard” or “Pulp Fiction.” The article is simply carrying idea this over to politics, making the claim that political events that occur in your teen/twenty-something years have a stronger effect than political events that occur earlier or later. (This makes sense. Whenever I hear people older than me ranting about Reagan I think, “Jesus, get over it!”)

But there’s an interesting question here: Why? Why are our tastes and politics defined by experiences in our teens and twenties? I would argue it’s because that is a period when our brain is primed to most richly experience life. At that point our brains have become sharpened in the sense that we’ve learned much of what we need to become adults, but we still have an active emotional system (the somewhat controversial limbic system.) We are thinking and reasoning better than we ever have, but we are also enjoying the emotional depth of life in ways we will likely lose in coming years. Because of these brain changes, life is exciting and thus the events of those years – personal, cultural, historical and political events – have a pronounced effect on us. As a result, when we get older and jaded and tired, we don’t fully appreciate how the current teen/twentysomething generation is reacting to events.

Full of Filner

As most people know, I live in San Diego. As such, it must seem odd I remained quiet during San Diego’s recent controversy – the charges that our mayor, Bob Filner, was accused of sexually harassing women. Filner has now left office (Slate magazine has a delightfully snarky report on the whole episode.)

Of course, as the Filner episode was running, we had allegations that Anthony Weiner, running for Mayor of New York, was still tweeting pictures of his penis out to women.

Now, both men are Democrats, and Democrats (at least in the minds of other Democrats) are supposed to be above this sort of thing. They’re supposed to respect women and fight for equality etc., etc. How could they do this?

Today, I found myself considering a scenario. Let’s say you’re a certain type of person – a narcissistic sociopath – who is in love with himself and power. You wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that if you espoused certain beliefs with a certain charisma you could rise up the ranks of the Democratic Party and gain the love and power that comes from being a successful politician. (The same could be said of the Republican Party – or the Green/Libertarian/Constitution Party for that matter – just with different views.)

The question voters have to ask then is, “How do you separate the power hungry from the true believers?” To this I have to say, “I have no idea.”

Honestly, I think it’s even murkier than what I’ve argued so far. I suspect Filner does on some level really believe his liberal views, as does Weiner (and Clinton and Edwards and Spitzer and many others that have earned notoriety.) But I think they also saw what espousing certain beliefs could get them, and that held a great attraction to them.