Sunday, April 13, 2014

Technologists Mad About the Future, or Just Mad?

Bryan Appleyard delivers a hard-hitting critique of technooptimism the New Statesman, reaching back to the 1950s and tracing the madness up through Google's Larry Page and Ray Kurzweil who Google hired as a resident futurologist of sorts.

The reality, as the revelations of the National Security Agency’s near-universal surveillance show, is that technology is just as likely to unleash hell as any other human enterprise. But the primary Ted faith is that the future is good simply because it is the future; not being the present or the past is seen as an intrinsic virtue. 
Bratton, when I spoke to him, described some of the futures on offer as “anthrocidal” – indeed, Kurzweil’s singularity is often celebrated as the start of a “post-human” future. We are the only species that actively pursues and celebrates the possibility of its own extinction.
Bratton was also very clear about the religiosity that lies behind Tedspeak. “The eschatological theme within all this is deep within the American discourse, a positive and negative eschatology,” he said. “There are a lot of right-wing Christians who are obsessed with the Mark of the Beast. It’s all about the Antichrist . . . Maybe it’s more of a California thing – this messianic articulation of the future is deep within my culture, so maybe it is not so unusual to me.”
Appleyeard's essay echoes of Evgeny Morozov's critique of irrational exuberance among the digiterati and is refreshing, even when it oversimplifies like in its critique of TED. Technology is always a two-edged sword, and so is TED. We love it for the global learning and debate it made possible, but we fear its potential to evolve into an opraesque secular mega-church.

Read the whole thing here:

Why futurologists are always wrong – and why we should be sceptical of techno-utopians
Bryan Appleyard is the author of “The Brain Is Wider Than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World”

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Let There Be Hyperlinks, a World Wide Web of Hyperlinks, He Said

For my Swedish readers, here is a link to an interview I did with Tim Berners-Lee back in 1996.

Tim Berners-Lee: Webbens tillväxt var viktigare än vinsten (1996)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

McCain Pops-Up and and Asks Obama to Show Putin All his Cards

Senator John McCain -- a Republican senator from Arizona, and predictable political pop-up doll that seldom misses a chance to call for our attention -- is "deeply concerned" that Putin's expansion could continue.

"President Obama said that Russia would face 'costs' if it intervened militarily in Ukraine," McCain said. "It is now essential for the President to articulate exactly what those costs will be and to take steps urgently to impose them." (CNN)
Yes, Mr. President, why didn't you put all your cards on the table immediately, and why haven't you evicted the Russian troops already?

Seriously, if Putin's aggression wasn't bad enough, now we will have to endure the Republican choir mocking the president, and we will hear calls for military mobilization and preparations for war from the neocons, who have felt rather lonely since W deflated. Not so sure though about the Tea Party. Will they embrace a new war even if it means more deficit spending (or more taxes)?

Monday, February 24, 2014

Have a Wonderful Day Writes Barnes & Noble’s Eliza, Who Is Not Quite "Her"

My wife Lisa bought me the audiobook version of Miguel de Cervantes’ wonderful novel Don Quixote for Christmas. The recording was based on Emily Grossman’s excellent translation, which I have wanted to listen to since I bought the softcover version in 2003. The price was rather steep, so I never bought it, but now I had it, and I began to listen to this wonderful story. The weeks passed and I listened to the story in the car almost every day. After about a month, something funny, or actually sad happened while listening on what turned out to be file 11 of the audio-download. The spoken book skips ahead, leaving the reader confused. At first I thought it was my mistake as a listener, but when I listened closely and compared the audio to the printed version I discovered that file 11 of the audiobook was messed up.

I wrote to Barnes & Noble and told them about the error, and a representative from Nook – the tablet area of B&N answered with an apologetic email where they explained that they would get in touch with the publisher of the audiobook and get back to me. A month later I remembered their unfulfilled promise and wrote back to Barnes & Noble. Here is a quote from my letter:

We had an exchange earlier this year, after my complaint that the file Part 11 contained an error as several pages of the book had been mixed up. The audio skips from line 11 on pg 281 in the printed book (Harper Collins,2003) to line 2 from the bottom on pg 297 and then the reading continues on line 12 on pg 281 and goes on the end of the chapter on pg 288.
On February 20, I got an email from Mark, a Customer Service Rep at B&N/NOOK support:
We understand that you are concerned about the status of fix for audio book. We are happy to help you. To protect your privacy and before we can send our answer to you, we need your order number, which you can find in the subject line of your order confirmation email or within the body of the email.
If you no longer have your order number, one of the following pieces of information will be helpful:
-The last 4 digits of the credit card used on the order, or
-Your billing address AND the title of one of your items. 
We also need the email address you used to place your order if it is different than the one you are using to respond to this email.  (If you reply to this email from another email address, please include your original inquiry.)
I searched my email folders, but couldn’t find the order number, so I provided them with the last four digits of the card they asked for, as well as the billing address and title of the book.
The next morning I received a new email from NOOK support.
Dear Hans,  
Warm greetings from Barnes & Noble!  
Thank you for writing back to us. We understand that there is a content issue with the Audio book which was sent to you as an eGift and you were informed that it would be investigated and fixed. We apologize for the inconvenience caused as this issue was not resolved upon your initial contacts with us and we will do our best to resolve this issue for you. In order for us to check your account about the Audio book we need the email address which was used to purchase the book as we did not find it in your account, or if you have the service request number of the initial interactios with us when you were informed about investigating on the issue. This would help us in checking the records and the status of the issue. Just to confirm, please visit the link below:
Are you referring to the same book in the above webpage? We feel that this could be resolved best by contacting us through our phone support line or you could also write back to us with the required information.
Warm greetings ... that felt nice! But the sentence where Ethan, another Customer Service Representative, writes that “we understand that there is a content issue” reminds me of “talking” to Eliza, one of the first chatterbots, i.e. a computer program that mimics a human being. Joseph Weizenbaum's virtual psychotherapist Eliza took excerpts from a persons sentences and restated them in order to get the person to tell more. In her email, Ethan asks for my wife’s email address, and wants me to confirm if the book she provides a link to is the one I have complained despite the fact that I already told Mark that I was referring to Grossman’s translation.  I wrote back, supplied my wife’s email address, and explained the situation again. Later the same day, I got another email from NOOK support, this time from Vicky at Customer Support.
Thank you for writing back to us. We understand that you're still receiving incorrect Audio book. We apologize for the inconvenience caused. We are ready to issue a full refund for the Audio book, please get back to us with the confirmation.
By now I’m seriously suspecting that I am not communicating with persons at all, but with a sloppy chatterbot. The emails are ill written, but not the way a human errs, unless the writer behind the digital curtain is just cutting and pasting in a hurry.  “Vicky” also ignores my answer to “Ethan’s” question about the link he provided.  To be fair, I should say that I was offered to chat with "one of our Digital representatives for further assistance,” but my trust in the digital team had by now extended to “Chat Team,” so I kept writing to Mark, Ethan and Vicky, but my frustration was showing.
Sent:02/24/14 06:29:12 
Subject: RE: RE: RE: FW: Problem with Don Quixote audiobook

Hi Mark, Ethan and Vicky, Are you guys real or an algorithm? Or did NOOK support repurpose ELIZA for customer support?

You are rephrasing my previous emails, but it seems like you are not really reading them. I have given you the information you asked for, so you should be able to answer my question about the error in file 11 of the Don Quixote audiobook (the Emily Grossman translation). I was previously promised that you would investigate with the publisher, but you have asked about other editions and now offer a refund, something I never asked for. What’s going on?
It didn’t take long before I got an answer, this time from “Chase.”
RE: RE: RE: RE: FW: Problem with Don Quixote audiobook 
Dear Customer,  
Thank you for writing to us. We understand that there is a content issue with the Audio book which was sent to you as an eGift and you were informed that it would be investigated and fixed. We apologize for the inconvenience caused and will be glad to assist you with this issue.  
We have checked with your BN account and found that the credit card information status shows unverified. If you have further questions or inquiries, please feel free to contact us again and we would be glad to assist you.  
Wishing you a wonderful day!  
Customer Service Representative - Digital Support  
**{SrvReqNo:[8007760501]} ** DO NOT DELETE**
To which I just answered:
Dear “Chase,” “Vicky,” “Ethan,” and “Mark,” or “Eliza” for short,
The content issue is the simple fact that you are selling a product with an error in the recording/editing that leaves the listener confused at one point. My reason for writing to you in the first place was concern that other customers may not realize that the confusion in file 11 of the audiobook is due to a production error, and that Barnes & Noble might be interested in correcting this error and provide a correction in the form of a replacement file, but I get no sense that you are interested in supporting your customers on this issue, which disappoints me as a long time B&N customer.   
As for the credit card, this is totally irrelevant as 1) I am not purchasing anything, 2) not asking for a credit, and 3) don’t store my account number in your system, but only enter it when I shop.    
PS. I wonder how many turns we are going to take in this waltz before a human is called in.

Addendum, February 25, 2014.

Today I got an answer from B&N that looks like it was written by a human being.
Dear Hans Sandberg,
We understand that you are concerned about the contents of the purchased NOOK book. We can see how that would annoy you and apologize for the inconvenience. As the issue is not resolved and our content management team is working to make necessary corrections on the file. We request that you wait for 2 more weeks or we would go ahead and refund for the order
It's like somebody finally took a step back, or maybe a supervisor stepped in, and said that we may need to actually read what the customer is writing. It's going to be interesting to see what will happen next. In the meantime, I have found the order number, which I will send to NOOK/B&N.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Could a Radical Surge Pull the Democrats Away from Centrism?

The political writer Michael Tomasky discusses the future of radical politics in an essay for the New York Review of Books that is nominally a review of Lane Kenworthy's book Social Democratic America (Oxford University Press), but really a discussion of the balance between centrist and radicals in the Democratic Party.

"There exists these days, among Washington policy intellectuals and advocates who tilt toward the left end of the accepted political spectrum, a certain measured optimism. It’s not about Obama, or any feeling that he might somehow, with his sagging poll numbers, be able to persuade congressional Republicans to fund, say, an infrastructure investment bank. Confidence is appropriately near zero on matters like that. Rather, it’s about the widely held perception that the Democratic Party, after years of, in the argot, “moving to the right,” is finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and toward a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years or even decades."
Will this leftward pressure make Hillary Clinton run as a populist (if she decides to run), rather than cozy up to her and her husband's Wall Street friends? Will she do a reverse Romney and cater to the left in the primaries to fight off Elizabeth Warren, only to turn rightwards once nominated?

Lane Kenworthy's key argument is that the move towards a more welfare oriented - social democratic if we use a more European term - society is a necessity, and he thinks that the Republican party eventually will come to there senses - somewhat. But Tomasky points out that if the Republican party nominates a more moderate candidate and he/she loses, then the extreme candidates may have a chance again.

It's Complicated, In Fact, It's so Complicated That You May Never Be Able to Understand

This essay (almost) blew my mind, and connects nicely (if nice is the word for a rather scary concept) with Samuel Arbesman's essay "It's Complicated" in Aeon Magazine. In the essay "The Algorithms of Our Lives" for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lev Manovich raises fundamental questions about how we study (and can study) a reality that is becoming entangled in a world of dynamic and ever-changing data flows and updates. His focuses on the study of humanities, but the argument is much broader than that, and he sees implications for how research is done, what we measure or even can measure.

"We need to be able to record and analyze interactive experiences, following individual users as they navigate a website or play a video game; to study different players, as opposed to using only our own game-play as the basis for analysis; to watch visitors of an interactive installation as they explore the possibilities defined by the designer — possibilities that become actual events only when the visitors act on them. In other words, we need to figure out how to adequately represent 'software performances' as 'data.' "
Much of this kind of research is done within companies like Google, Facebook and
"Therefore, if you are one of the few social scientists working inside giants such as Facebook or Google, you have an amazing advantage over your colleagues in the academy. You can ask questions others can't. This could create a real divide in the future between academic and corporate researchers."
Not only that, much of this research is done by "machine-learning technology that often results in 'black box' solutions." If complexity makes understanding impossible, what does that mean for education? Could simulation games like SimCity be part of the answer? Here is a quote from the essay:
"For example, the computer game SimCity, a model of sorts, gives its users insights into how a city works. Before SimCity, few outside the realm of urban planning and civil engineering had a clear mental model of how cities worked, and none were able to twiddle the knobs of urban life to produce counterfactual outcomes. We probably still can’t do that at the level of complexity of an actual city, but those who play these types of games do have a better understanding of the general effects of their actions. We need to get better at ‘playing’ simulations of the technological world more generally. This could conceivably be geared towards the direction our educational system needs to move, teaching students how to play with something, examining its bounds and how it works, at least ‘sort of’."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Pragmatic Vision for a Social Democratic Future in the U.S.

Lane Kenworthy, a professor of sociology and political science in Arizona, has written a long and intriguing essay about USA's social democratic future in the upcoming January 2014 issue of Foreign Affairs. For most people, and this includes academic and political observers, the Nordic model with extensive social security and high taxes are written off as somehow un-American, but Kenworthy challenges this prejudice and he does it in Foreign Affairs, claiming that America will change and that the Republican party too, will embrace an expanded welfare state. Intriguing indeed! But the essay is well argued and not an ideological riff. It lays out the way ahead and offers a new vision that could replace the impotent blur that has led the Democrats since Clinton's days in office.

America's Social Democratic Future - The Arc of Policy Is Long But Bends Toward Justice

Here is a long quote of his setup:

"As pioneered by the Nordic countries, modern social democracy means a commitment to the extensive use of government policy to promote economic security, expand opportunity, and ensure rising living standards for all. But it aims to do so while also safeguarding economic freedom, economic flexibility, and market dynamism, all of which have long been hallmarks of the U.S. economy. The Nordic countries’ experience demonstrates that a government can successfully combine economic flexibility with economic security and foster social justice without stymieing competition. Modern social democracy offers the best of both worlds.

Still, the notion that the United States is likely to further increase the size and scope of its welfare state might seem blind to the reality of contemporary American politics. But step back and consider the long run. The lesson of the past hundred years is that as the United States grows wealthier, Americans become more willing to spend more to insure against risk and enhance fairness. Advances in social policy come only intermittently, but they do come. And when they come, they usually last.

That trend is likely to continue. U.S. policymakers will recognize the benefits of a larger government role in pursuing economic security, equal opportunity, and rising living standards and will attempt to move the country in that direction. Often, they will fail. But sometimes, they will succeed. Progress will be incremental, coming in fits and starts, as it has in the past. New programs and expansions of existing ones will tend to persist, because programs that work well become popular and because the U.S. policymaking process makes it difficult for opponents of social programs to remove them. Small steps and the occasional big leap, coupled with limited backsliding, will have the cumulative effect of significantly increasing the breadth and generosity of government social programs.

This is not a prediction about the timing or conditions under which specific policy advances will occur. It’s a hypothesis about a probabilistic process. Over the long run, new programs will occasionally be created and existing ones will occasionally be expanded, and these additions and expansions are unlikely to be reversed."
It's radical, but it is also pragmatic, and it is a much needed evolution.

Also check out Kenworthy's three Youtube lectures on the same theme:

America's Big Government Future: A lecture by Dr. Lane Kenworthy, Professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of Arizona, December 15, 2011. Presented by the Democrats of the Red Rocks, Sedona, AZ

Friday, December 13, 2013

Execution in North Korea: Remember Lin Biao, and the Gang of Four

Kim Jong-un had his uncle shot by a firing squad using a machine gun. It is bizarre, but probably something Machiavelli would have recommended as quartering doesn't seem to be an option in North Korea. The strange (it actually makes Game of Thrones seem normal) but interesting thing about the way Jang Song-thaek was ousted is that it was made public, and that publicity will undermine the legitimacy not only of young Kim's rule, but of the entire system, not unlike how the official revelations about the fall of Mao's designated successor Lin Biao, and then the "Gang of Four's" palace intrigues broke the spell of infallibility surrounding the Communist Party leadership. New York Times reports:

“Although high-ranking leaders, including members of the Kim family, have been deposed before, we haven’t seen anything this public or dramatic since Kim Jong-un’s grandfather Kim Il-sung purged his last major rivals in the late 1950s,” said Prof. Charles K. Armstrong, a North Korea expert at Columbia University in New York and the author of “Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950–1992.”
Some of the analysts quoted in the New York Times piece see this as an end of their dreams of economic reforms. I rather think this is the beginning. Either Kim Jong-un will introduce reforms as a way to buy back some of the legitimacy he has squandered, or he will be the next guy executed, and then the new leaders will have to push reforms to mark a break with the miserable tyranny.

Execution Raises Doubts About Kim’s Grip on North Korea (December 13, 2013)

North Korea Releases List of Accusations Against Purged Official (December 8, 2013)

North Korea’s Leader Is Said to Oust Uncle in Power Play (December 3, 2013)

CNN on the execution of Kim's uncle

Hubble Telescope Images