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Banbury Cross

a pillow for lost thoughts...

Archives for: April 2012

Rossum's Universal Robots

In 1920, at the age of 30, the Czech writer Karel Capek wrote a play about a future populated with intelligent androids. The play was titled "R.U.R", an acronym for the company manufacturing such creatures/machines, and premiered in Prague a year later. When searching for a good descriptive expression, his brother Josef suggested the word "robot" - derived from an old Czech word "robota" meaning "serf labor" (the forced work of feudal vassals toiling on their Lord's property).

Nearly a century later, the word robot found its way into many languages and robots themselves, albeit a bit simpler than Capek's nearly-human androids, are invading the world of manufacturing at a break neck speed. And apparently not just manufacturing.

Whenever I listen to our beloved politicians, I start thinking that their ranks have been infiltrated by an army of nearly indistinguishable androids. I watched a couple of political debates recently, and I could not help noticing that its participants often fell into two broad categories.

The first kind reacted like normal people. They listened to the question and then tried to answer it the best way they could. Sure, you might have disagreed with them, but they made sense - at least from their point of view. Tom Coburn, Elizabeth Warren, Ted Kaufman or Marcy Kaptur are examples I can think of from the top of my head. These people usually think in terms of complete sentences or whole paragraphs, not just simplistic and easily digestible sound bites or clearly ideological bullet points. They might rant on occasion, they might ramble here and there, but they will tell it like it is.

On the other side, there is a different kind of animal. Politicians who in their effort not to alienate any segment of society will scrub their thinking of any potential controversy, and hence also of any potential meaning. These are politicians who - when you hear their answers - make you immediately wonder if they actually heard the question. Lindsey Graham, Nancy Pelosi, Michele Bachman, or Chris Dodd are the first examples to come to my mind. To a human ear their answers will always seem a bit incoherent, intellectually stiff, formulaic and even evasive.

A typical conversation goes like this:


Reporter: "Senator, our viewers would love to know what you had for breakfast today.

Politician: Breakfast is a very important segment of every healthy individual's daily regimen.

Reporter: That is definitely true, but I am sure you must have a favorite meal.

Politician: I think all meals have significant nutritional value and my office would be happy to provide some specific details.

Reporter: Are you trying to make a point that we should pay more attention to the quality of our nutrition?

Politician: Ummmm, again, I think all meals have significant nutritional value and I am sure my staff would be happy to give you specifics.

In this kind of dialogue, something doesn't quite add up, does it? You quickly get the sense that the two parties are talking past each other. Almost as if politicians were some kind of pre-programmed automatons. Sometimes, you can track this suspicion step by step: they digest the verbal input, turn it into a stream of salient keywords, then scan the bank of hundreds of thousands of possible responses, find the closest match, run it through a politically correct filter and finally send it to the output. In other words, they seem to be driven by a complex but purely mechanical meta-algorithm in lieu of a normal human brain - you know, that old fashioned and finicky medium that gave us such anachronisms as beliefs, visions, principles, leadership and integrity. That is something a Natural Language Processor - no matter how sophisticated - will never fully emulate (or at least not in the foreseeable future).

See, we are spending all this money on the research in Artificial Intelligence, and yet all that time the answers may be lying at our doorstep. Or more precisely, at the doorstep of the Capitol Hill. So why don't we just send a team of our top notch researchers to the DC area, let them catch one of those political androids, find their Central Processing Unit, open it and see how they are wired. I think this would further the development of robotics at least by 50 years.

And save the taxpayers untold millions, too.

Nature's Way

It's April again. That time when Mother Nature puts her chartreuse pantaloons on and starts dispensing the best colors from her room service cart. After the long winter recession life is booming again. The trees flaunt their brand new clothes and that lawn which seemed so hopelessly brownish just last week is suddenly an exemplar of green.

The thing that fascinates me most about this annual miracle is the equal opportunity with which it showers all participants. No piece of lawn, no standalone tree is forgotten. When you look at a meadow, there are no "rich neighborhoods" in it that would be greener than the others. It is as if the last growing season was forgotten and everybody got a fresh start. All the assets and liabilities of the past have been wiped away. The world has a clean slate.

This made me wonder if there was a little lesson there. Maybe humanity would have thrived better if we had forgotten the past every so often and given everyone a fresh start. Utopia? Sure, but let's think about it.

Some of us are born with a silver spoon in mouth and some with ankle weights of poverty. As a result we have many dull but wealthy scions festering in expensive private schools with nothing to their credit but crooked character and sallow imagination. On the other side of the tracks, we have lots of bright kids whose minds are sentenced to atrophy in the boredom of poorly run inner city schools. And the question we should be asking ourselves is - can we really afford to waste capable minds? If we codify this continental divide, we will never unlock the hidden treasures of our human resources. I have tremendous respect for those who earned their lifestyle through their toil and expertise. Not so much for those whose only source of income is derived from the trust fund set up by their industrious grandpa.

Recently I heard that all tuition at US universities (public or private) comes to about $70 billion. Compared to various wars we are waging that seems like a chump change. Surely there must be a way to help sharp and crisp minds reach their full potential without going deep into debt. We already have a burgeoning SAT industry - so identifying those minds should not be a problem.

To help fund this program, I'd include a heavier tax on inheritance, because that is the point where the wealth flows into possibly less effective branches of the global skill market and the accompanying power gets wasted. That does not mean that silverspooners should give away their whole family fortune. After all, some projects require an effort of multiple generations. We should just place certain constraints on how much wealth can be transferred onward automatically.

The revenues from such tax would be used exclusively for education - just to make sure that some "well meaning" politician would not find use for them in bureaucracy or military spending. Let's say half of it would go to salary increases in public schools and the other half would fund stipends for the most worthy students. We don't want to lose the next Einstein, Jobs or Carnegie because they drowned their talent on the street.

This is not to propose some vulgar form of egalitarianism, Marxist or otherwise. The economic fate of the Soviet Empire showed clearly the Achilles heel of redistributing the wealth too equally. People simply won't put up their best effort if they know they will not be adequately rewarded for it. And we do want our elite to be the best this generation has to offer, don't we? Leadership is a task of great responsibility. It should not fall to someone just because their daddy had the most powerful Rolodex. In other words, we want to make sure that everyone with a true talent has a fair shot at it.

Equal opportunity. That's the nature's way.

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Who is the Fairest of Them All?

The Buffet Rule - a provision requiring millionaires to pay higher taxes - took the center stage in Washington politics this Monday. As you might imagine, the political fireworks were spectacular. Comandeering other people's money is like a catnip to politicians. Any time the revenue for public spending appears on the agenda, both sides of the aisle explode in a flurry of impassioned argumentative tomfoolery. So much so that sometimes I worry that they might be sued by the three stooges for copyright infringement. As they toss the rhetorical cabers left and right all over the floor, the very concept of "fairness" (which both parties love to worship) gets flipped more times than a burger at Larry, Curly and Moe's Grill Party.

The big battle of political wills ended in a draw this time - even though the bill technically passed in the Senate (51:45), it was immediately filibustered by Republicans, which means - for all practical purposes - it was dead on arrival. Unfortunately, much of the "fairness" inherently involved in killing it was severely misplaced.

No, I do not mean the fact that capital income is valued more than that coming from labor as exemplified by Mitt Romney's benign tax rate of 15%, where most of us pay way over 25%.

I am also not alluding to those opulent junkets in Las Vegas which some public servants consider to be the best way of spending taxpayers' dollars, second only to the secret service traveling all the way to Colombia for a refresher course in Kamasutra.

Nor do I mean the question of who exactly benefits from waging a war in some rugged desert north of Waziristan, especially now that the world's most wanted terrorist has been consorting with heavenly virgins for more than a year.

The central omission in the discussion of "fairness" is the mindbogglingly obscure nature of the funding for our federal budget. Without balancing our books and seeing who pays for what you cannot even begin to address "fairness". When the Fed engages in its quantitative machinations (i.e. buying the government debt with money that they literally make up), the accounting becomes so blurry that any notion of what is fair loses its meaning. To find it, we need clearly visible lines between assets and liabilities and transparent book keeping.

Another way of saying that is that we don't really pay for the services we receive. Indeed, had we paid them straight from our pocket, we might have realized that perhaps we didn't need some of the expenditures. But rather than having a hard adult discussion of what our priorities are, we shift part of the financing burden onto our children (through future taxation), and part onto the poor and middle class (through inflation). In this situation, accusing the lower income brackets that they do not pay "fair share" is a bit disingenuous. And disregarding the perspective of children, whose future is being systematically plundered, does not smell like "fairness" to me either.

But that's just how DC operates. Whatever is beyond the 4 year horizon is simply invisible. In the meantime, there is plenty of muck to hurl around. While one side of the aisle yells "class warfare", the other one screams "income inequality" with equal gusto. And in a sense they both have a piece of truth. But in order to make any reliable judgment on this issue, we have to see the true bottom line. So how do we get our representatives to balance our public books?

Well, I have an idea. Why don't we make their pay decrease proportionately to the budget deficit. After all, it is their job to compromise and negotiate for the common good, right? And deficit is an obvious failure to do so.

So let's see - with a mature economy we cannot expect to grow more than 3%, so deficits should stay under that threshold as well, otherwise it will become increasingly difficult to finance them. Now, if they manage to come up with a budget hole smaller than 3% - good - they get their usual pay. But for every 1% of the deficit, they lose 10% of their pay. Say you come up with a 10% deficit - that is 7% over the 3% target - so that would be 7*10% = 70% off your paycheck, Ladies and Gentlemen. And guess what? They will make a compromise before you could say "Popocatepetl".

But don't hold your breath for this measure to ever materialize. You will sooner see 435 lizards bowing on ice during the Stanley Cap finals than our representatives tie their pay to actual performance.

The Pothole Project

We love to love arts. Dabbling in any culture booster confers certain aura of sophistication. But we don't usually subject our minds to whimsical vagaries of Muses haphazardly. We tend to unleash our aesthetic feelers in officially designated areas, such as theaters, concert halls or art galleries. In the safety of a like minded crowd that is. I guess when it comes to discerning, we really appreciate cues - those little rubber stamps of peer confirmation that tell us we are part of the in crowd. It must be some eons old herding instinct in us.

Our planet is steeped in beauty. Literally. We bathe in it every day, although most of the time we let it slip away unnoticed. No one squats under a post-bloom cherry tree to scoop the fallen petals with their palm, very few have time to smell the roses on their way to the office, and you don't see people stopping on a sidewalk to admire the deep orange tones of the setting Sun. Most of the time we don't even consider it. But take the same scenery, put it on canvass, hang it on the wall and voila: suddenly everyone stops by and marvels at the rich colors, at the amazing textures, at the audacious perspectives.

That's the magic of the gallery - passing through its door is our cue that we are to become connoisseurs of high arts. We can throw away the shackles of banality and emit sighs of enchantment. Oh wow, look at those tulips, honey! Never mind that those are the same tulips that bloom in much livelier colors in the public park just in front of your apartment. Galleries are the places of authorized artistic inculcation; the places where our infirm individual judgment gratefully grasps the invisible hand of centuries old collective opinion.

The same principle is at work when it comes to say culinary arts. The food in a fancy restaurant often seems better than a similar dish served in a hole-in-the-wall joint. The elaborate decor and the impeccable service whisper to us: "Psst! Good food offered here". That is our subconscious guiding light coming on. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but separating our own subjective perceptions from the objective reality is hard. The visual prompts of a formal and perhaps expensive setting serve as training wheels for our verdict of a local chef's creations.

Our desire to be culturally refined is almost as natural as our predisposition for good food. But not having the handrails of context available can make us feel insecure. If we marvel at an opulent explosion of magenta in a sunlit rug caught in a tree, people may question our weird taste. In the gallery we are safe. Oohhing and aahhing is acceptable. Everything is a certified beauty. The supportive environment is a psychological subsidy of sorts. The kind of extra social dimension which also explains other aspects of our behavior - for instance why most people prefer going to the gym rather than jogging around the block or doing push ups in their own backyard.

However, like in every market, this subtle interference produces distortion. The values in a rigged market are not in sync with the underlying fundamentals. Not all great tasting food makes it into fancy restaurants and not all fancy restaurants serve great food. And same goes for the visual input. Even though art is a tireless rescue mission, not all great sights have been saved from withering in inhospitable places. No matter how many Manets, Monets or Munchs we commission, you can bet that sooner or later some poor schmuck will stumble upon an undiscovered Snowhite sleeping soundly in a plastic coffin obscured by a really dark forest.

The other day I was walking downtown Washington with a friend of mine and somewhere near the Union Station we came across a pothole which immediately caught my attention. It had a beautifully smooth shape that seemed to have fallen out from a Salvador Dali painting. Or maybe Joan Miro's. Anyway, I loitered around for a while to see if anyone noticed it, but the crowd was just passing inertly by. No time to wonder. Not a glance. The irony is that if the very same shape hung on the wall in MoMA and was signed by a famous name - preferably by someone who jumped off the cliff - everyone would be going gaga over it.

But that pothole would never make it into a gallery, because potholes are presumed ugly until proven pulchritudinous in the court of some critic's opinion. Unfortunately, when critics do come into contact with potholes, they are too busy turning the steering wheel. But I liked the raw appeal of this unexpected and unsolicited beauty. It was genuine. So I decided to rectify this insidious injustice and took a picture of it. Actually more than that, I decided I will shoot a whole series of remarkable potholes.

Who knows - maybe some other soul will notice them and one day there will be a shining new annex standing right next to the Museum of Modern Arts: the National Pothole Gallery. And then the natural beauty seekers will have to turn their restless attention elsewhere.

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