Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Our Robot Overlords

This is absolutely creeping me out:

I had no idea robotics had advanced to the point where a machine could do something like this. This thing - Big Dog, it's called - is amazing. It's easy to make a four-legged machine that just plods along in the direction you point it. There are plenty of toys that do that, so long as they don't bump into anything. But to navigate over a pile of bricks? Recover from being kicked? Get up after slipping on ice? That's uncanny.

What's unsettling is that the production models this may lead to will be, basically, delivery devices. But what will be delivered, and to where? In our military we already use drone aircraft, not just to spy but to attack targets. What might be done with drone ground troops? Imagine tens of thousands of these things, heavily armored and bristling with weapons, trudging into a city to take it. Terrifying, and the potential basis of a cool thriller sci-fi movie where we of course overcome the robots and win in the end. This movie may have already been made, even. But when they're on our side? Each one remotely directed by a US soldier from perfect safety?

That becomes profoundly disturbing. Throughout human history it has never been possible to wage a war without suffering SOME human casualties. If a war can be waged by drone air, sea, and land forces, without risking a single American life, won't it become terribly attractive?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I'm In Love with TED

No, A and I aren't splitting up. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and it's the name of a conference held annually at Monterey Bay since 1984. It draws together over a thousand of the top people in a wide range of fields to meet, give presentations, talk, have a ball, and figure out how to save the world. What do I mean by top? I mean people like Bill Clinton, Paul Simon, Bill Gates, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bono. James Hong, co-founder of the website Hot or Not describes it this way: "It's brain candy on steroids." You've probably seen clips from TED on the news, since this is where Microsoft and Apple debut their latest big breakthroughs; the original Apple Macintosh was presented to the world here.

I wish I could go. Unfortunately, it's by invitation only, and even then the price of admission is $6,000. However, and very fortunately, they have a website that offers over 200 edited clips of presentations on an incredible range of subjects, like "Is There A God?", "How the Mind Works", and "What's Next in Tech." They're available to view for free, and I'm probably going to spend the next six months watching all of them.

They encourage bloggers to embed their favorite clips in their blogs. Here's the first one I saw. Watch to the end, about five minutes, cause you won't believe what that octopus does:

Then there's these guys. (About 15 minutes.)

That's from Worth a visit.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Or, how to keep a dachshund amused for hours and hours and hours...

Friday, March 14, 2008

David Paterson of New york

I'm fascinated by how David Paterson is going to do as the new governor of New York. I had never heard of the guy before the Spitzer governorship exploded, and I find that not only will he be only the third black governor since Reconstruction nationwide, but the first blind person in such a high office.

I think I'm a bit more interested in blind issues than most sighted people. My mother (hi, Mom!) was a teacher at a state run school for blind adults, teaching them the skills to live independently, among other things. She taught cooking, and a kitchen is a classic example of something which is easy for the sighted and a daunting obstacle for the blind. Since you can't read labels, your shelves and refrigerator had damn well better be organized. And a hot stove is a scary thing.

Paterson is not totally blind. He has enough vision in one eye to get about without a cane or a dog, and can recognize people close up. He also says he can read somewhat, obviously with magnification equipment. And he has a lovely sense of humor, evidenced in the New York Times's coverage of his first press conference as governor-to-be:
And when asked whether he, like Mr. Spitzer, had ever patronized a prostitute, Mr. Paterson could not suppress his trademark dagger wit.

He paused, gave a sly smile, and answered, “Only the lobbyists.”

Then there is this piece in the Times. The author, who like Paterson is functionally but not totally blind, writes about how blind people compensate for their disability. You have to develop a sharp and detailed memory, you have to get very good at "reading" the character of the people you talk to, and you have to be very, very patient. Also, I think, you tend to get underestimated, as people tend to think unconsciously that anyone who needs a little help just to get around in the world can't be all that bright.

A governor with these qualities is nobody to take lightly. Watch out, Albany.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

We're Addicts. Or Cats.

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, about how addictive browsing the web can be. The word "addictive" may be closer to the reality than is comfortable.

Research suggests that humans get pleasurable feedback from encountering and processing new situations and new information, possibly even through the release of natural opioids in the brain. This makes sense. If our monkey curiosity is the key to our evolutionary success, and to our nature as humans, then it's logical that using that curiosity would be pleasing. Evolution rewards success, and sometimes directly in the now.

The question is whether this capacity can be overloaded by technology that evolution could not prepare us for. Could the flood of new data that the toobz feeds us be turning that pleasurable feedback into a permanent "on" rather than an occasional reward? Is this why people find it so hard to tear themselves away from the blogs, even when it harms their normal "meatspace" life? The article compares to a cat chasing the red dot from a laser pointer. It's natural hunt-and-kill instinct is overwhelmed by a stimulus outside its evolutionary experience. It can't help but keep chasing, even when there's no prey to catch.

Maybe what we all need is an internal SWAT team that will occasionally show up with serious firepower to say, "SIR! BACK AWAY FROM THE LAPTOP! NOW, SIR!!"

I mean, look at me. I read this article and what did I do? Blogged about it.

Spitzer: Isn't this what porn's for?

Oh, jeez, here we go again. Another high-flying politician, New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, with presidential ambitions yet, a crusader for right and justice, the scourge of sleaze and crime, gets caught bumping a pricey hooker when he's out of town away from his wife. Worse, he actually imported her into DC for a little fun between daytime business. (Google the "Mann Act" please.) The only novelty is that for a change he's a Democrat.

This stuff is so unnecessary. It's not uncommon for middle aged men to desire some exciting sexual variety after years of marriage, even in a happy marriage. No, scratch "not uncommon." It's damn near universal. The question is what you do about it.

Cummon, despite its disrepute, this is where porn does a lot of good. If a guy can look at what turns him on in private when he can scratch that itch but good, it may not be quite as fucktastic as banging in person what you're looking at, male, female, or in between. But it can take the edge off, make the urge for in-person banging less urgent, more manageable, and has probably kept a lot of marriages sailing smoothly on an even keel. And okay, yes, me too. Been there, done that, cleaned up afterwards.

But Spitzer? No. It wasn't because he was horny. Anyone can take care of horny in five minutes in the bathroom. This is about arrogance, and entitlement, and an ego that thinks he's climbed so high nothing can bring him down. One blogger, the Rude Pundit, consulted a hooker friend of his about why anyone would pay so much for a hooker, up to $5,500. She said, "The same reason people buy ugly paintings by famous artists or stay in penthouse hotel rooms for a night. Because they can. Status, you know."

Status. I think Spitzer's lost a lot of that in the past 48 hours. I think he's lost all that he had.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Another [yawn] Election

OK, this time it's Mississippi, just next door. It looks like Obama's winning this one too, which is fine with me.

But the relentless, nonstop, breathless coverage is getting damn exhausting, especially as it's covering what is more and more a non-story. ("This just in! Dog bites man, Obama wins primary. Film at eleven.")

The New Yorker ran a cartoon last week showing a team of these newsstars sitting behind their mockup desk, saying to the camera: "And now for three hours of meaningless speculation about a race we've already acknowledged is too close to call."

Damn straight. And getting so tiresome. HOW many months left to go??

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Got a complaint? Sing!!!

Oh man, this is wonderful.

In Finnish, there is an expression, "valituskuoro," which literally means "complaint choir." When a lot of people are griping about something, that's a complaint choir.

Then a few years ago a pair of performance artists, Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, thought, what if you took that phrase literally? So they began pitching the idea, community chorus performances with texts comprised completely of what local people were bitching about.

It was a slow start, but after a group in Birmingham, England, got excited about it the concept took off. (They had reason, and much to complain about, with Birmingham sometimes called the "arsehole of England".) After their performance, the concept has spread. And why not?

I think this is awesome, and the link to the main website is this: They offer many resources to help you in forming a complaint choir of your own, and so many have enthusiastially responded that, well, they've hit on something.

Their site has a lot of videos of complaint choirs all around the world. Go there and see, and maybe form your own. You know you want to.