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Friday, September 21, 2018

Elections, Brazilian style.

Brazil is in the middle of an election process that, if you believe that's possible, is a bizarre-world version of Trumpland - so maybe the square of bizarre, if you like.

The candidate far ahead on polls, Mr. Bolsonaro, who is more of a Duterte figure than a Trumpian one, is famous for many infamous declarations. Not only the usual racist, homophopic stuff you can easily hear on America, but a more refined art.  Mr. Trump could learn with Mr. Bolsonaro.

For example, where Trump got on defensive mode denying ever assaulting women, Mr. Bolsonaro plays on offense: he once yelled at a congresswoman (he being a congressman himself) something like "I only won't rape you because you are too ugly".

He is famous for his defense of our last dictatorship. Mr. Bolsonaro himself is a former Army captain, nearly expelled for planning to plant a bomb in an Army bathroom while in service in the begin of the 80's, mad because the generals were moving to give power back to civilians. He has been elected and reelected to Congress for the last 27 years, basically counting on the vote of fellow armed force men.

In 2016, he famously gave his vote, on national television, to impeach the previously elected president, Mrs. Roussef, "in honor of Colonel Ustra", one of the most infamous torturers of the dictatorship, with at least 40 deaths plus a few hundreds of people tortured and raped under his eyes (Mrs. Roussef was herself tortured in the period, hence the jab).

His most repeated and emphasized campaign point is, you could easily guess, about guns. In a country where violence is rampant, he promises to solve it all by abolishing human rights and giving free rein for the police to kill. Not only the police, but citizens. He wants Brazilians to arm themselves against the bad guys, so we can all be more like America.  I am not such an anti-gun kind of person - maybe I would like to have one myself - but I sure think incidents like the previous link would be the norm down here, for I know my countrymen pretty well.

More worrying though is not the soon to be elected Captain, with a long record of incompetence: in his 27 years in Congress, he was able to pass exactly 2 projects. Who I truly fear is the General, Mr. Mourão, his fellow Vice-President candidate.

In 2016 Mr. Mourão was the General in charge of Brazil largest and strongest military force, the South Command, when he gave public declarations asking for the Army to revolt. He was not successful, and was demoted of the position to a more bureaucratic one until retirement last year. Since their election campaign started, Mr. Mourão already gave a number of high caliber declarations, the most prominent being that he believed the necessity of self-coup after winning the election could not be discarded, and that he'd like to order the writing of a new Constitution by his appointed "notable experts", without the need of elected people involved. The General, contrary to the Captain, has a long record of achievements.

Being a firm believer of a Big and Strong State his whole life - and that's clear on his voting record and projects - Mr. Bolsonaro has converted recently (six months ago, what a coincidence) to economic liberalism, which has apparently attracted the support of a number of businessmen and financial operators to his side. Not everyone was fooled though, and publications widely read by the international markets look to have seen Mr. Bolsonaro for whom he really is.

There are at least other three candidates with liberal economic programs - Chicago school style - on the race, but none of them were able to provide the masses what they really want: the smell of blood. Social networks - both virtual and real - are clogged by the same kind of divisive rhetorics you can see in America (hey, we import everything) in a dumbed down version (yes, that's possible). If you enter into those magical bubbles, Brazil is turning into Venezuela any minute now if Mr. Bolsonaro doesn't win (though he is the only candidate uttering anti-democratic discourses), the elections are being frauded by the Supreme Court, and the Universities must be closed down to fight Communism. The gay community will destroy families by teaching kids how to be gay, so they urge Brazilians to vote for him to "defend God and family" (the candidate is on his third marriage and famously said he uses his official residential apartment in Brasilia, paid for by the People, only to fuck women).

Quite tellingly, the politicians and businessmen most promptly turning to the new fanaticism are often the ones from old corrupt oligarchies, and crony capitalists who hardly can make their business to get by without a little hand from their friends. Many come from the groups who were in power back in the good old days of dictatorship, and they really long for a better and stronger Pinochet this time around. What we will really get, though, is fury and chaos, for in Brazil the economic elite always fear totalitarism from the Left, while it is always delivered by the Right.

Having a few laughs from you guys before - particularly our readers who are supportive of Mr. Trump - it is now my turn to be the butt of the joke.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Why We're Mostly Immoral

I've posited in the past (and present) that government is inherently immoral. Here is my explanation in response to a facebook post and a comment from someone who supports "social democracy" or "socialism" as the desired political and economic organization for the United States and the world. Note that I put "socialism" in quotes because apparently they don't go by the dictionary definition of socialism where the means of production are owned and/or controlled by the government, but it's unclear exactly what they do mean by socialism.


The following is how I view the political structure of the United States in regards to, say, redistribution. You may completely disagree, but keep in mind that millions of citizens view it like I do.

There are four groups:

A. Voters and their elected representatives
B. Bureaucrats and law enforcement
C. Taxpayers
D. Recipients of the redistribution

In the case of redistribution, the United States is A directing B to take from C and give to D.

The first immoral part is B taking from C. If C is willing or nearly universally willing, this wouldn't be immoral, but that's not how it is in reality. When a substantial part of C is NOT willing, then this step has a lot in common with banditry - C is forced, with ever increasing levels of violence to comply. In political philosophy the government is described by some as a "stationary bandit" for this very reason. Most people consider banditry by non-government entities to be immoral. Since you've noted that our government is just a covenant between private citizens and a ruling entity, group A is basically directing B to be bandits and are accomplices to the banditry. Since banditry is immoral, group A is also immoral. Group D is the recipient of money that has been acquired immorally and that makes them willing participants and also immoral.

Lastly, you'll probably be quick to point out that group C is immoral because they don't volunteer their money to group D or willingly and happily give it to group B to do what they like with it. I agree with that assessment as well. We therefore agree that at least part of group C is immoral. Note that most people consider banditry even against immoral people to be immoral so that doesn't absolve any of the other groups.

Therefore, since we all belong to one or more of these groups, we are all immoral and so is the government.

Again, I know you don't agree with that and find it "laughable." Nonetheless, that is how millions of people view it to some degree so if and when you lose another election, you'll know what us laughable deplorables are thinking and why we vote against people like you and Hillary. You think we're immoral and you're right. We think you're immoral and we're right, in our unshakably strong opinion.

Also again, we believe government to be a necessary immoral evil. Yes, we're all immoral, but there's no choice but to be so. The human animal is simply a nasty, evil, immoral creature and no matter how we organize ourselves, we will still be that. We can be somewhat more moral by limiting the banditry, but we can only limit it so far and maintain a working civilization.

The last point is that when people make the argument that X is immoral, the answer is yes, but so what? Those sorts of arguments hold no water for me since we're all immoral.


I suppose some of group C might be "moral" if they willingly and happily pay their taxes and would do so without enforcement AND they're not part of group B or D AND they vote against candidates that agree with the forcible extraction of taxes from group C. However, I think those folks are basically suicidal because without said forceable extraction of taxes, I doubt civilization would survive for long and without civilization, the vast majority of us are dead in short order.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

You Are Here (Update)

In 2005, I posted about a new PowerPC processor we were starting to use in some of our robots. At processing capability of around 200 billion floating point operations per second (200 GigaFLOPS), it was big news at the time as it put the potential intelligence of our robots into the range of "mouse" instead of lizard as shown by the blue dot in the graph below.

I was thinking about this graph recently with the announcement of NVidia's new Xavier system on a chip computer. With processing capability of 30,000,000,000,000 (30 trillion) operations per second at a price of $1,299, this can be represented by the magenta square labeled "You Are Here" on the above graph. We will have this new processor incorporated into a new product prototype this October, so just like the PowerPC of yesteryear, this is something that's real and used by actual developers as opposed to some theoretical gadget.

It shows the potential intelligence of this device to be somewhere between monkey and human. What does that mean? First, while it's not known how much of the brain works, the functionality of parts of the brain are known really well, for example, the first part of the visual cortex. It's then straightforward to estimate how many computations are required for that functionality. The weight of that portion of the brain is known and it is assumed (this is the leap of faith) that the rest of the brain's processing happens with approximately the same efficiency. Divide the weight of the organism's brain by the weight of that part of the visual cortex, multiply by the number of operations required for that part of the visual cortex, and voila!, the total number of operations per second required for the entire brain of a given organism can be estimated.

A reasonable reaction is, "yeah, sure, whatever, but without the appropriate software, how will this computer be intelligent at all, much less at a monkey or human level?" And that was my first reaction as well, but I've since concluded it was misguided. Just like nobody has to know how a human brain works for it to work just fine, nobody has to know how a neural net within a computer works in order for it to work just fine, and, in fact, that's exactly what's happening, and at a very rapid rate. A number of research groups are trying different structures and computation approaches and are steadily improving the functionality and accuracy of the neural nets without really understanding how they work! It's basically a trial-and-error evolutionary approach.

With this new Xavier processor, using already known neural nets, it will be able to recognize objects in an image with a high degree of accuracy and tell you which pixel belongs to which object 100 times per second. Is that intelligence? Well, when a person does it, we think that's a form of intelligence and since nobody can tell you how the neural net works, I don't think we can say whether or not it's intelligent. If it is intelligent, it's certainly an alien intelligence, but looking at it operate, it looks to me as if it's intelligent.

For me personally, if something seems intelligent, then it is intelligent.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Photoblogging

Okay, you could be easily forgiven for wondering what the heck you are looking at.

Early this morning, as in 0300 early, we were en route from Paris to Helsinki, just south of Stockholm at 39,000 feet. At exactly the same time as I was mentally formulating the question, my First Officer asked "Do you know what you are looking at?"

"Yeah, Noctilucent clouds."

Noctilucent clouds, or night shining clouds, are tenuous cloud-like phenomena in the upper atmosphere of Earth. They consist of ice crystals and are only visible during astronomical twilight. Noctilucent roughly means "night shining" in Latin. They are most often observed during the summer months from latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the Equator. They are visible only during local summer months and when the Sun is below the observer's horizon, but while the clouds are still in sunlight. Recent studies suggests that increased atmospheric methane emissions produce additional water vapor once the methane molecules reach the mesosphere - creating, or reinforcing existing noctilucent clouds.

They are the highest clouds in Earth's atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 km (47 to 53 mi). They are too faint to be seen in daylight, and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon while the lower layers of the atmosphere are in Earth's shadow

In an absolute sense they are rare, and the very restricted observation conditions make seeing them far rarer still; this was a first for me. (As an aside, it doesn't hurt my Captain credibility when the FO asks a question he expects to be a stumper, and I just happened to have the correct answer right there. The big question is how it is that I was able to, within three-quarters of a second, use tenuous visual information to retrieve a term I had read at least a half dozen years prior. Humans do this all the time; it is extremely difficult to imagine AI ever managing it.)

Unfortunately, the camera in my now ancient iPhone 5S doesn't really do the scene justice -- there were patterns and structure that disappear in the noise.

Also worth noting is that this picture clearly shows a very sharp boundary between between the Troposphere and the Stratosphere, and, in so doing, also reveals the Earth's curvature.

More of the noctilucent clouds, with Stockholm in the foreground.

You have no idea how much I had to pay that damn seagull to bomb my photo.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Photobombed by a Seagull

Here I was, just trying to take a nice sunset picture for your enjoyment and I see I was photobombed!

Ah well, consider it an action shot sunset:

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Damn, I must be transforming into a Leftist! Now I agree with something Noam Chomsky said regarding Russia interfering in the 2016 (and other) elections!
It’s a pretty remarkable fact that—first of all, it is a joke. Half the world is cracking up in laughter. The United States doesn’t just interfere in elections. It overthrows governments it doesn’t like, institutes military dictatorships. Simply in the case of Russia alone—it’s the least of it—the U.S. government, under Clinton, intervened quite blatantly and openly, then tried to conceal it, to get their man Yeltsin in, in all sorts of ways. So, this, as I say, it’s considered—it’s turning the United States, again, into a laughingstock in the world.
Of course Russia interferes in our elections! Of course many other countries do as well. And, of course, Chomsky is quite right that we interfere in other countries all the time.

I still personally dislike Chomsky since I think he personally set natural language processing and semantic analysis back decades, but in this case I think he's right.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Good For Obama!

"Democracy demands that we're able also to get inside the reality of people who are different than us so we can understand their point of view. Maybe we can change their minds, maybe they'll change ours. You can't do this if you just out of hand disregard what your opponent has to say from the start. And you can't do it if you insist that those who aren't like you because they are white or they are male, somehow there is no way they can understand what I'm feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters." Barack Obama, July 2018

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

My New Favorite Word


[dith-uh-ram, -ramb]
  1. a Greek choral song or chant of vehement or wild character and of usually irregular form, originally in honor of Dionysus or Bacchus.
  2. any poem or other composition having similar characteristics, as an impassioned or exalted theme or irregular form.
  3. any wildly enthusiastic speech or writing.

I saw it in the following paragraph:

Having produced not one iota of discovery in this criminal case the unlawfully appointed Special Counsel requests a special and unprecedented blanket protective order covering tens of millions of pages of unclassified discovery. Having made this special request based on a secret submission to the Court and a hysterical dithyramb about the future of the American elections, one would think that the Special Counsel would cite to case holdings that support this remarkable request. But no, instead, the Special Counsel seeks to equate this make-believe electioneering case to others involving international terrorism and major drug trafficking, and relies only on irrelevant dicta from inappropriate, primarily out-of-circuit cases. In short, fake law, which is much more dangerous than fake news.

The Great Tragedy of Our Age...

... is that you can't differentiate anymore real life from The Onion.

Sessions’ own church accuses him of child abuse over immigration policy

Seriously, I often open up multiple tabs of my web browser, The Onion being one among many of the other supposedly serious news websites. Lately I do need to check, multiple times, which page I am really in.

Friday, May 18, 2018

The Intelligent Dodder Weeder

I've been really busy lately at work building BIG machines. My latest creation is the Intelligent Dodder Weeder shown here ambling down the road between fields:

It's 40 feet wide when the wings are down, weighs about 20,000 pounds including the tractor, finds and kills dodder weed in fields of safflower at the rate of about 20 acres an hour, which replaces a crew of roughly 100 people.

With a network of 54 computers with total computational power of 75,000,000,000,000 operations per second (75 teraflops), it processes 720 images per second coming from 36 cameras and identifies the dodder weed using a traditional machine vision algorithm approach coupled with a deep convolutional neural net recognition system. Wherever the weed is found, it's sprayed with an herbicide to kill it.

At this moment in time, it may well be the most advanced mobile agricultural machine in the world in commercial operation. There are probably experimental machines that are at least as advanced, but our Weeder is operating 12 hours per day, 6 days per week in actual working conditions.

It was fun to design and develop this latest machine, but it was a huge amount of work to get it up and running.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

"There’s a hole, and, uh, someone went out"

I sincerely don't know if, upon flying a huge and heavy machine such as a Boeing 737 with 144 passengers, with an exploding engine and a hole, I would have the nerves to behave as she did.

Maybe I could, but I would need a few expletives while profering the phrase she did up above. Right there you see the difference between men and women when driving (or flying?).

Another difference is, I wouldn't have had to hear what she did while trying to be a pilot:

“During my senior year of high school in 1979, I attended a vocational day where I heard a retired colonel give a lecture on aviation,” Shults told author Linda L. Maloney for the book “Military Fly Moms.” “He started the class by asking me, the only girl in attendance, if I was lost.”
“I mustered up the courage to assure him I was not, and that I was interested in flying,” Shults said. “He allowed me to stay, but assured me there were no professional women pilots.”
Out of college, Shults was rejected by the Air Force — who did offer her brother a chance to enlist. After more than a year of trying, Shults caught on with the Navy in 1983. Shults, of Texas, spent 10 years with the Navy, and was among the first women to fly an F/A-18 fighter jet when her squadron transitioned from the A-7.

I wonder, were the technical qualifications to fly in the Navy any different from the Air Force, or the gender was really the point?

Saturday, April 07, 2018

My Brief History of Hawking

I was fourteen years old when I first met Stephen Hawking, in 1995. Not the flesh and bones Hawking, of course, but something more interesting: his brain, in the form of his ‘A Brief History of Time’. 

I wish I could say the book inspired me to pursue Physics further, but the best I can say is that it was funny and insightful at many points. I felt myself a failure at understanding many of the ideas there discussed. Today, I know it was not entirely my fault, but back then I finished the book a bit frustrated. While Hawking was quite an example of life and the power of mind over matter, I can’t say I much admired him as a science writer. My real inspiration to do Physics end up being another brain’s creation, that of Mr. Albert Einstein. I was back then trying to understand Relativity and its many ‘paradoxes’, so thrilled by the whole thing I needed no further inspiration: it was a done deal I could do nothing else but Physics, to try to get to the bottom of it.

And I am glad that I did, because only afterward I could appreciate the greater insights Hawking’s brain had to offer me - not as a science writer, but as a scientist. It is about that Hawking I want to talk about.

Back in the 60’s, very many things we now take for granted weren’t well understood. ‘Black holes’ were not branded yet, and its most distinguishing feature, the event horizon wherefrom nothing can escape, was a source of great confusion. Due to a 1939 work of Openheimer et al (the same one from Manhattan project fame), people initially thought the collapse of a dying star would get ‘frozen’ at the Schwarzschild (or event horizon) radius, which we nowadays identify as the ‘point of no return’ from a black hole. It was a very strange result, because no one could figure out why the attractive gravitational force would somehow ‘stop’ working to make the collapse go all the way down.

It took almost 20 years for Relativists to realize, in a work by David Finkelstein in 1958, that Openheimer’s results were a mirage caused by the coordinate system he used. If you addressed that mistake, you end up concluding that every dying star, above a certain threshold of mass, will end up as a black hole: a most simple solution of Einstein’s Equations, where all matter ends up dying in a central ‘singularity’ surrounded by pure vacuum, all hidden behind that ‘point of no return’ event horizon.

For many people, such a simple universal result sounded too good to be true, or pretty weird. ‘Too good’ because it would render all big stars, which could differ in so many ways, all exactly alike in their deaths (aren’t we all?). And ‘weird’  because that central singularity was, well, singular - a point where Einstein’s equation breaks down and nothing else in the theory can be calculated meaningfully. 

So it is not surprising some physicists, in particular the Russian school represented by Landau & Lifschitz, got second thoughts about those results. The initial calculations were all based in simplifying hypotheses, like perfect spherical symmetry of the collapsing star for example, that could be easily broken in any real life star. They launched themselves into the task of showing that, in any more realistic setting, stars could well end up in other configurations, maybe without a singularity and preserving some of their initial complexity, as opposed to being a mere point of mass ‘M’ in spacetime. At some point in the 60’s, they published their final theorems in prestigious scientific journal, supposedly showing the end state of stars would generically be free of those nagging singularities.

And that’s the point where Mr. Hawking comes again to our narrative. Starting his PhD studies in the begin of the 60’s, his advisor gave him the problem of studying how general would be the presence of singularities in the begin of the Universe, what we call nowadays the ‘big bang’. The Russian school results looked to imply that, maybe, the universe would be born out of a well behaved solution, instead of an initial all-encompassing singularity.

As it happens, geniuses rarely operate in a vacuum. They often are immersed in a battle of great ideas, provoking and being provoked by other great minds. And here comes to our story the great mind of Roger Penrose, the British mathematician who first showed, right in the begin of Hawking studies, that for the case of black holes, their singularity was indeed a universal phenomena: that, no matter how the stars started (spherical or squared, you choose), their end state would indeed be that of the singular black hole. 

Penrose’s mathematical methods were new and alien to much of the community of Physicists, and to the credit of Hawking, he not only learned well and fast that new mathematics, but went on to apply it to what is, in a way, the inverse problem: matter being born out of a singularity, as opposed to it being the graveyard of a star. Adapting many of Penrose’s methods and hypotheses, Hawking was able to show that cosmological singularities are also a generic feature of cosmological spacetimes (actually, there are ways to dodge that theorem too, by changing its initial hypotheses, but let me play fast and loose here). The Russians ought to have made a mistake after all, it was the inexorable conclusion. They did (and they didn’t, it is much about which definition of singularity you take, but let me keep playing fast and loose). 

Such results were of great impact in the initial days of black hole physics, giving the young Hawking a position in Cambridge right after his PhD. To our luck, he was only beginning. His contributions in the following decades were many, but I will fast forward to what is, perhaps, the greatest of all.

By the begin of the 70’s, a young graduate student of John Archibald Wheeler in Princeton, one Mr. Jacob Bekenstein  (a jew born in Mexico - apparently and contra D. Trump, the country did send people other than rapists to America), made a most ingenious argument. By gedankenexperimenting what should happen to a box full of an ideal gas approaching a black hole, Bekenstein showed that, were we allow for a black hole to keep being defined as a void labelled only by its mass, we would run into big trouble. You could continually unload the gas of boxes brought into the vicinity of black holes, in such a way to make its entropy to disappear out of our universe.

So what? Well, by doing so you would promptly violate our cherished Second Law of Thermodynamics - which is like opening the Pandora box, for once you violate the 2nd, you can violate them all, virtually engendering any sort of perpetual motor giving you infinite energy out of nothing.

Physicists love free lunches at faculty meetings, but they abhor them in our theories. The solution was simple though, a black hole ought to have entropy, and one proportional to its horizon area, postulated Bekenstein in order to save our well ordered world.

Hawking, who already (sort of unseriously) played with the idea of black holes mimicking our First Law of Thermodynamics (in the way they absorb energy and grow their horizon areas), was not happy at all. As every physicist know,  macroscopic entropy translates to internal degrees of freedom, quantifying how they may all sum up to give us a well defined macroscopic state. But much of Hawking’s career so far was built upon showing that no such internal degrees of freedom exist: stars die into (and universes are born out of) faceless simple singular states!

So, trying to prove Bekenstein wrong -- while coping with his final loss of walking capacity, in the middle of absolute immersion into his calculations -- Hawking ends up proving him right, and incidentally gives us one of the most beautiful results of last half-century Physics: black holes do have entropy, an enormous one, maybe the greatest possible to achieve in Nature. Furthermore, they are not so black at all: they emit wavelight in one of the most precious ways Physicists can think of, the Planck-like (or blackbody-like) one, which is the same kind of radiation a red hot stove often emits, and was also the key through which Max Planck first  discovered quantum physics in 1900.

In other words, a self gravitating collection of bodies like stars and black holes, while being described by Einstein’s Equations of general relativity, end up obeying the very same laws of Thermodynamics we discovered while building steam machines in XVIII to XIX-century Europe. Being the physics of relativistic stars and universes so different from our classical mechanics of old, who ordered that Thermodynamics should transcend it all in such a way? Our Lord is subtle indeed, as Einstein once reminded us.

It is thus easy to understand why Hawking, playing a final joke upon us physicists, wanted for his tomb to display his cherished formula for the black hole entropy, mimicking the famous entropy formula in the grave of Ludwig Boltzmann, the man who created the concept of entropy as we know it. After all, “life would be tragic if it weren’t funny”.

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Social Media May Be Really Unhealthy For Civilization

In an article I found fascinating, Jordan Greenhall describes a number of things about social media apps like Facebook that are detrimental to civilization. He groups them into four categories:

  1. Supernormal stimuli;
  2. Replacing strong link community relationships with weak link affinity relationships;
  3. Training people on complicated rather than complex environments; and
  4. The asymmetry of Human / AI relationships

Each category is too involved to describe here with any detail so I urge you to read the whole article. However, here is an excerpt from category (4):
Imagine if your spouse, your therapist and your priest all entered into a conspiracy with a team of world class con men to control and shape your behaviour. Sound a bit unsettling? Well consider what the Facebook algorithms alone know about you. Every conversation you have — even those that you type out but don’t send — are perceived by the Facebook AI, and then analyzed by technology designed by thousands of researchers schooled in the very cutting edge of psychology and cognitive neuroscience. 
Every conversation you have — and every conversation the other 1.4 billion people on the platform have. In one second, the Facebook AI learns more about how people communicate and how they make choices as a result of their communication than an average person will learn in fifty years.
This is somewhat of an exaggeration at this point, but won't be in a decade or two. AI is becoming more capable than humans in many areas and, to the extent that AI is "intelligent" at all, it's a completely alien intelligence. While it sometimes seems almost human, there's nothing human about it. For example, when you're having an oh-so-pleasant conversation with Siri or Google's Assistant or one of the many automated phone systems you regularly encounter, the entity with which you're conversing has nothing in common with a human. Nothing at all. It's not even programmed by a human in any sort of conventional sense. It's just an alien entity trained to do various tasks like set your alarm clock when you ask it to do so.

When the trainers train it to do benign and helpful things it will be (mostly) benign and helpful. However, if the trainers, such as those working for social media companies, train it to manipulate social media users via emotional and other human weaknesses in order to increase profits and power, it will do that too - without having any understanding whatsoever of what it's doing. It's not immoral, just amoral. In fact, the trainers themselves may not really know what they're doing. They may just be trying to sell more advertising or whatever.

The problem is that we are changing our behaviors in ways that are simply bad for social cohesion and civilization itself. We'll see how that works out. Even those of us who are a little older we'll get to see how this one works out because I believe much of the impact will be experienced within the next 20 years.

Related: Nvidia DGX-2 is 2 petaflop AI supercomputer for $399,000

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When you've lost Ann Coulter...

She wrote a book called "In Trump We Trust", yet she nowadays is only one tweet away from asking for his impeachment:
It was four nights after Coulter had aimed a bitter Twitter blast at the 45th president of the United States—who had complained last Friday, after signing the $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill that contained generous funding for liberal social and cultural programs favored by Democrats, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but zero dollars for his vaunted wall, that he would never do such a thing again.
“Yeah, because you’ll be impeached,” Coulter had tweeted to her 1.94 million followers, one of whom is Trump. (Later during the debate, she repeated a report that the president was seriously considering vetoing the spending legislation, but after White House chief of staff John Kelly explained that such a veto would mean missing his planned weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump said “f--- it!” and signed the bill instead.)

Of course, it is not easy to defend Trump and yet be coherent with any system of thought, if we can be kind enough to call her Nativism as such, given Trump is so erratic a thinker (again, I am very kind). It is then no surprise she nowadays hedges like this:

“I knew he was a shallow, lazy ignoramus, and I didn’t care,”

Well, I can't quite agree the man is lazy - he could be spending all of his time in Mar-a-Lago,  like any other good Floridian retiree, yet he is out there making the biggest reality show we've ever seen. No, lazy he is not.

At least Mrs. Coulter, sad as she is because that Wall keeps not coming, can still keep her sense of humor:
So you are in favor of giving the president a spanking?” Long quipped—the night’s only reference, and a veiled one at that, to the Stormy Daniels situation.
At which Coulter laughed and said, “I do not remind him of his daughter!”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Libertarian Suicide Pact

Regarding immigration, libertarians have a difficult decision to make. On the one hand, the free flow of both goods and labor across borders (borders shouldn't exist anyway in their opinion) is a fundamental tenet. On the other hand, at least according to a new paper, this sacred bit of their ideology is self-destructive:
While there has been much discussion of libertarians' (generally although not universally favorable) attitudes toward liberal immigration policies, the attitudes of immigrants to the United States toward libertarian values have not previously been examined. Using data from the 2010 General Social Survey, we asked how American-born and foreign-born residents differed in attitudes toward a variety of topics upon which self-reported libertarians typically hold strong pro-liberty views (as described by Iyer et al., 2012). The results showed a marked pattern of lower support for pro-liberty views among immigrants as compared to US-born residents. These differences were generally statistically significant and sizable, with a few scattered exceptions. With increasing proportions of the US population being foreign-born, low support for libertarian values by foreign-born residents means that the political prospects of libertarian values in the US are likely to diminish over time.
Though to me that seems to be the problem with most "isms" - if followed blindly with no flexibility they're all kinda self-destructive.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Precarious Future of Jobs

When someone quotes a dubious statistic in conversation, I often reply by interjecting the somewhat humorous, "Did you know that 47% of all statistics are made up on the spot?" I always use 47% as the made up number - it's a nice prime number and has a good ring to it in my opinion.

So I almost always chuckle when someone puts forth 47 percent as an actual statistic. In this case:
...a now-famous Oxford University analysis forecasted that 47 percent of all jobs are threatened in the United States [by robots and automation].
Yup, that definitely elicited a chuckle. Yet while the exact percentage of jobs that are threatened is of course completely unknown and the statistic is meaningless in any case without a timeframe associated with it (threatened by next week? Next year? A million years?), the concept is serious and perhaps deadly serious.

As a roboticist, I do see automation based on AI and increasingly intelligent and flexible computing accelerating. For example, autonomous vehicles alone could replace several million workers within ten years (maybe more, maybe less, who knows?).

I predict my company of 4 people will eliminate thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of jobs in agriculture over the next 5 years. And the problem is that as workers move to new jobs, we'll end up automating those too, making it difficult for them to ever get back to a stable job situation. That's potentially different than in the past. Sure, buggy whip workers lost their jobs once upon a time but then went on to work in the automobile industry which was stable for the rest of their careers. Maybe new industries and opportunities will develop as old jobs are automated away, but it looks to me like the destruction of jobs in Schumpeter's Creative Destruction process will far outpace the creation, especially the creation of lower to middle skilled occupations.

While automation could promise ever more plentiful availability of goods, it's possible that we'll face widespread poverty as more and more workers find it impossible to land stable and reasonably well-paying jobs. One straightforward way of mitigating that is the Universal Basic Income where all citizens get a fixed monthly stipend, no strings attached. That would at least keep people from starving in the streets. And if so much is automated and there's so much wealth being produced, the UBI would be easily affordable.

But what about work itself? Can humans live without working? Or is work part of what humans need to be fulfilled? Are idle hands the devil's workshop? Will opioid and other drug addiction become even more widespread? Will all these things lead to the collapse of civilization?

Or will we all become barbershop quartet singers (I'm the guy on the right) and live happily ever after?

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Wanna bet?

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.

Yet, I will risk making a few here, so we can check back later what I got right.

I predict that:

- D. Trump will keep firing people from twitter.

- Russians will keep turning up dead for mysterious reasons (yep, today another one).

- To the delight of Italians, the Azurri will make it to the 2018 World Cup even after not qualifying. I bet they will be the ones selected after England withdraws their team over its Russian friends turning up dead. Italians are looking for an entrance anyway possible! Maybe they are the ones poisoning Russians in order to incriminate Putin, it is a devious plan: and Trump knows Putin is innocent, and that's why he fired Rex - or that's my own conspiracy theory after reading this Atlantic piece.

- Brazil will lose the worldcup again, though I hope in less shame than before. (OK, this one is easy, but I had to hedge in case I get all the other ones above wrong.)

If you have predictions too, try it at the comments section!

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

But why the perjury trap works?

One interesting aspect of Russiagate is how it was propelled by the very large access to information a powerful government like the USA, and its five-eyed friends, nowadays have.

If the Intelligence apparatus doesn't look particularly efficient at thwarting terrorist plots, it at least showed itself very good at snooping on Americans engaging in apparently legal behavior. We now know that, contrary to some overexcited initial reports, Obama's FBI did not rely exclusively on the Steele dossier, nor it had to withhold, from the FISA court, its connection to opposition research funded by opponents. That's because it had material of its own to start what looks like a very wide snooping of Trump's campaign, with far consequences to Mueller's probe today:

Pervasive surveillance has shown its power perhaps most significantly in creating perjury traps to manufacture indictments to pressure people to testify against others.

Mr. Van Buren finishes the piece above with an exhortatory remark:

Don’t be lured into thinking the ends justify the means, that whatever it takes to purge Trump is acceptable. Say what you want about Flynn, Kushner, et al, what matters most is the dark process being used. The arrival of pervasive surveillance as a political weapon is a harbinger that should chill Americans to their cores.

As a matter of principle, I tend to agree with Mr. Van Buren. Yet, for all the weaknesses associated to cases manufactured over perjury traps, I keep asking myself why the people involved were so eager to perjury themselves.

What was their mindset? Why would they all lie about things they could refuse to answer anyway?

Can you mount a case where most actors perjured themselves, but were still innocent?

Monday, February 26, 2018


Consider the following excerpt from a recent article.
Imagine America had as its president a man manifestly unfit by character and temperament to hold such an important public trust and exercise the important constitutional powers of the office. The president’s conduct in office had demonstrated him to be racist, mercurial, intransigent, personally crude, obsessed with his own public image and perceptions of his authority and success, and prone to intemperate public tirades, heaping abuse upon political enemies, the press, and all who opposed him. 
As president, he expressed sympathy for – at times even seemed to side with – the nation’s avowed enemies: persons and forces that until very recently had been the nation’s overt military adversaries and who still sought to undermine America’s political system. He collaborated openly with such persons. He offered excuses for vicious racists – and uttered some distressingly racist remarks himself – as he failed to protect a large swath of the American population from racial violence, intimidation and oppression at the hands of private parties. He blamed the victims, as much as the perpetrators – for supposedly having pressed too far and thereby provoked the retaliation that fell on their heads.
... He arguably abused the power to fire subordinates, removing or seeking to remove from office those who would not pliantly carry out his wishes to defy or disregard the law. He valued personal loyalty to him above all else and seemed indifferent to competent service to the nation. As shocking as it might sound, many judged the president unfit to issue direct commands to the military – impulsive, capricious, erratic and thus potentially dangerous.
He was an intemperate bully. He was politically artless and witless. But he was a snazzy dresser, or so he fashioned himself.
A couple of days ago was the 150th anniversary of the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the above excerpt was describing him (just in case you thought it might have been describing a different president).

The most interesting thing about the article to me is that, according to constitutional scholars, the phrase "high crimes and misdemeanors" need not be linked to a specific crime but can instead include the president's overall character and conduct. That was the first I had heard that.

The article also served to remind me that bad presidents (and other politicians and bureaucrats) have not been vanishingly rare, but simply do come to power from time-to-time. Yet another reason that checks and balances are so important.