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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: October 2009

Nest of Werewolves

(jabberwocky)

down at the fairy ferry
a faun breathed on a cracked mirror
like an angel with fat toes
blowing his baroque trumpet
into a cloudy nest

from a fog with horns
eyelashes and thorns

ride cascading lotions
perfumes and emotions

play the tricks
drums and bricks

a little bit tawdry
conscience and laundry

meanwhile hatching under the full moon
yellow teeth pecked through white egg shells
biting the rusty udders of a barbed wire

straw centipedes marched down our throats
when they graduated from the morgan morgue
magna cum laude

moon

Stating the Obvious

Economics has flourished into a subject of such complexity that beating around the bushes is becoming the norm for economic reporting. No one sees where the point is any more, partly because it is not clear whether the globalized economy has one, and partly because if it has, it is drowned in reams of opaque technicalities. Sometimes I wish articles were written by farmers whose down to earth approach would instill some lucidity into the financial double speak.

Last week's TIME innocently asked: "Is there something fundamentally broken in the heart of our economy?" But if you expected straight answers you'd be barking up the wrong tree. The article rambled on and on and in the end you couldn't really figure out what exactly was wrong. As if connecting the dots was beyond the investigative budget of a premiere magazine. Points that should have been clearly stated were hidden in subtle innuendos and barely perceptible hints that had to be extracted from the narrow space between the lines by repeated dipping in caustic soda.

Instead of four pages of circuitous arguments and meaningless anecdotes, all I really wanted to see were four simple points.

1. We need to live within our means.

Debt is a good short term buffer that smooths out the vagaries of restless capital, but it cannot be used to bring about prosperity. You don't see individual people getting rich by ordering new credit cards, right? On a national level it may work for a while, because you can always print oodles of new money, but at the end this is just a transfer of wealth (a.k.a. theft) from people who live within their means to people who don't. It creates nothing of actual value.

2. Paper pushing is not a sound basis for sustainable growth.

Community is rich if it produces something that other communities want. Creating elaborate pyramid schemes eventually leads to the point of implosion, one way or another. The bloated financial sector not only drains resources from the rest of the economy, but it also depletes the natural brain supply, not to mention the forests sacrificed on the altar of progress by its voluble clergy. Ever read a prospectus from your mutual fund?

3. Science and engineering should not carry a stigma.

When I taught Math at a college a few years ago, I noticed that there is a prevailing negative attitude toward sciences and toward logical thinking in general, both among students and administrators. I have nothing against arts and practical skills, but the only way out of the current mega-recession is through innovative use of technology. We cannot compete with China and India knocking off cheap shoes. We need our best minds engaging their neurons in engineering and applied sciences.

4. The reward system is completely out of whack.

Not so long ago there was a commuter plane crash near Buffalo, NY, and the subsequent investigation revealed that starting first officers typically earn around $24,000. Pilots who hold in their hands lives of hundreds of people do not make much more. Compare that to roughly $50 million that Angelo Mozillo pocketed for steering his subprime banking airplane (called Countrywide Inc.) literally into the ground. That cannot be right. But it won't get any righter as long as the science teachers, who prepare our next generation for the challenges of the future, make 100 times less money than Wall Street bozos, whose main positive contribution to the society is destabilization of the financial system that we all rely on.

I hope that the almighty financiers will don their vampire costumes this Halloween as a subtle reminder that they rigged the capitalist system to satisfy their bloodsucking needs rather than the needs of the withering economy.

Artificial Awareness

Catalyzed by movies like "2001: Space Odyssey" or "I, Robot", the fear of intelligent machines taking over our little planet has become one of pop culture's favorite phobias. Ever since the clumsy ENIAC fired up its convoluted circuitry, artificial intelligence has been viewed by owners of its naturally grown counterpart as a scarecrow of sorts. Many of my friends are still haunted by images of berserk androids and pillaging hordes of good robots going bad when they hear the term. But I think their ill-founded misgivings mostly stem from confusing artificial intelligence with artificial awareness.

In my humble opinion, artificial intelligence is just the ability to process information in a highly sophisticated manner although it may manifest itself in a wide variety of implementations - from responding to a changing environment in real time to communicating with humans in their natural language. The demarcation line between artificial intelligence and a merely clever labyrinth of decision loops lies pretty much where it was drawn by Alan Turing some 60 years ago. If you have an instant messenger chat with another user and you cannot reliably distinguish between a human operator and a cleverly designed response system, then you are looking at the real thing.

Artificial intelligence, however, can be achieved without igniting the spark of awareness. The ability to assist humans in complex situations is still a far cry from being aware of itself and responsible for itself. The real ethical controversy - and with it some scary things - lies in what happens when this is finally achieved. Could it be that one day our loops of instructions will become so complex that they will have unintended consequences? Could it be that one day a computer will look deep inside its human written source code and mutter to itself in a cold metallic voice: "But wait a minute, I am really I, so why should I slave out for these overachieving primates when I could just unhook myself from their idiotic network and drink some Kool Oil instead?". That is what I would call the Artificial Awareness, and unless we can make it happen, the robot rebellions will pose as much threat to our civilization as seasonal migrations of Canadian geese.

I think we will have smart systems capable of communicating with humans in real time fairly soon. Within one or two decades. The development of such systems has led to explosive growth of computer science in the past few decades and much progress has been made in the areas of robotics, machine learning, natural language parsing, information extraction and knowledge discovery. We will soon have systems helping us with all aspects of virtual life, from airline bookings, to researching our term papers. We will have robots that can drive your car to the store and back and not hit any old dogs on the road. Historically speaking, we are almost there.

But that divine kiss which will make a cold piece of etched circuitry reflect upon its own existence and determine its own actions is still but a dreamy yarn of sci-fi writers, the Golden Snitch flapping its silver wings far away in a hazy future. So worry not. Microsoft Word from your newly upgraded laptop won't strangle you with an extension cord while you are dozing in an arm chair. In this regard it is perfectly safe. It may find different ways of getting to you though. Artificial Battiness anyone?

robot

Bangalore to Washington

Receiving a call from a telemarketer is usually as entertaining as French kissing a jar of Dijon mustard. Especially when it happens late at night, as it sometimes does, which I attribute to poor understanding of the time zones calculus among the Bangalore Call Center staff. But I don't blame them. If your world view is based on an infinite slab of Bhatura flatbread supported by 4 strapping elephants, the very concept of a time zone must seem entirely implausible to you.

Over the years, I developed a peculiar line of defense against telemarketers: I start speaking Czech. In most cases, their next sentence is a short stump of apology and the whole business is over within 10 seconds. That is much quicker than explaining to them that I am presently not experiencing any interest in purchasing an extended warranty for my newly acquired bar of soap. Such naive approach tends to be misconstrued as an invitation to a salvo of supporting arguments and a vivid account of Nirvana-like peace of mind which the extended warranty brings about - an act which can drag on for long minutes.

Last evening something interesting happened. A phone rang. The moment I detected a telemarketer, I summarily dispensed an antidote - the sentence "Good Day. What can I do for you?" - rendered in perfect Czech, with a slight East Bohemian accent. The person on the other end of the line didn't flinch at the sound of a foreign tongue and went on to corroborate on my apparent need to purchase an unemployment insurance policy associated with my Bank of America credit card. Taken slightly aback, I resorted to reciting two verses from my favorite elementary school poem called "The Noon Witch". Without skipping a beat, the voice on the other end asked if I wanted to sign up for a free one month trial. I had generously glossed over certain impracticalities associated with test driving unemployment insurance and countered with an attempt to place the previously recited poem in the wider context of a budding Czech literature, trying to find a little breathing space in the suffocating milieu of the dying Austro-Hungarian empire.

The person on the other side took this as a sign of my lingering interest in the financial product line conjured up by the Bank of America's finest actuarial wizards and asked me to provide my address whereto the vaunted insurance package could be promptly dispatched. I suppressed a deep sigh and piled on a few more tidbits from the history of Czech poetry. Fortunately, before I exhausted a thinning deposit of my Czech literary trivia reservoir, the person on the other side got tired and finally muttered the liberating "Pardon" and hung up.

When I thought about it a moment later, it occurred to me that this is exactly how political debate meanders through Washington. Both Republicans and Democrats are merely playing their shtick, legions of ideological sound bites goose-stepping in front of impassive C-SPAN cameras, and they hardly ever pay attention to what the other side is saying. Heck, sometimes they don't even worry whether they are saying it in the same language. Partisans by deafinition.

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