Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Here's a bajillion dollars, if you can spend a few million on software development.

Here's a bajillion dollar idea for someone who can make it happen.  Combine image recognition software + 3d modelling software + time & location tagged images (and videos) to build a 3d virtual world, instanced by time.  Conceptually, with 2 or more photos of the same building from different angles, one could start to build a 3D model of that building.  The more photos you use, the better the model could be. Those 2 or more photos could even be separate frames from a video or movie.  So if you knew where a video was shot and when, you might be able to build a 3D model of the set of the video.  Then, you could use subsequent photos or video to refine the model, or build a separate model of how that place appeared at a different time.  To start with, you'd have to go with popular places that are frequently photographed, like Times Square, and use all of the photos you can find to build a model of Times Square, and instance it for different times.  Eventually, you might be able to take a virtual tour of Times Square in 1950, or 1970 or any date you please.

As more and more data is added to a given model, one might even be able to work backwards and identify the time and location of a random photo, if it includes a popular landmark.

And when Google decides to take all of their stored photos and videos, and run it through this system, you might be able to take a virtual reality stroll through nearly any city for the last 40-50 years, or longer ago for really well photographed places.

And once they run facial recognition software on their archive, and scan it for license plates, they might be able to track any heavily photographed event (or person) from years ago.  For instance they could combine photos and in game footage of a Yankees game, and be able to virtually put you in the stands for any game of the last 20-30 years, and watch it play out from that viewpoint, and maybe even be able to accurately model and identify the people sitting next to you.  Of course, it wouldn't just be sporting events that could be recreated, using this technique, one would be able to tour the World Trade Center for instance or walk the decks of the Titanic.

And that was my daydream on my drive in to work this morning.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The violence inherent in the system

Violence. In 1762 Jean-Jaques Rousseau published a book titled "The Social Contract".  It was the culmination of generations of philosophical debate, but it was remarkable in the way that it succinctly stated that the benefits of living in civilized society should outweigh the loss of freedom implicit in living in that society.  The chief benefit is security.  Each citizen gains protection of their life, of their property and their possessions.  The point is that when we agree to not steal from, hurt or murder our fellow citizens, we are likewise protected from being stolen from, and being hurt or killed by our neighbors.  And when a citizen transgresses against this contract, a civilized society, will rectify the wrong and penalized the wrongdoer according to laws and procedures created beforehand and applied equally to all citizens.

The idea of the social contract was a dramatic improvement over the divine right of kings and other similar rationalizations of monarchy, theology and empire.  It is the philosophical underpinning of democracy.   And 250+ years later, it's still just an idea.  And the reason is because for every idealist who says that the freedom and security of living in a civilized country should be equally distributed to all, there's someone gaining wealth and power by saying "Except for those people. They don't count."

Implicit in the social contract is a means of enforcement.  The social contract empowers the state to enact penalties up to and including the commission of violence to compel adherence to the terms of the social contract.  But the nebulous 'state' does not enforce the equally nebulous 'social contract'.  The platonic ideal of the social contract is embodied in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and all of the lesser laws and ordinances which we as citizens are duty bound to obey.  The 'state' too is embodied by our fellow citizens in the military, in the police, and the other regulatory agencies to which enforcement has been delegated by our government.

So when we leave the realm of philosophy and look at how the social contract works for actual citizens, it becomes obvious that the implementation of this concept could use some reform. Race and class are the right and left of problem and the oponents of measures to reduce inequality are playing an excellent game of rope-a-dope with the American public and the press.  Each time someone raises a fact like "African Americans are 28 times more likely to be killed by the police" someone will claim that it's not about race, it's about crime, as if African Americans committed 28 times more crime than other Americans.  If someone suggests that helping the poor would be a sensible and charitable thing to do, then someone else will state that (African American) thugs and moochers already get too many handouts and that they all just need to get married and get a good paying job.  Race and class are the chicken and egg dilemma of inequality in America

Friday, December 12, 2014

When does it stop?

There's a common horror plot where bad things happen in buildings built on a cemetery.  I'm beginning to think that building is the United States and the cemetery is or patch of North America and large slices of the rest of the world.  The story we are told of the US is one of settlement, civilization, extraction and industry.  Which it was, but that same settlement and civilization meant displacing and killing Native Americans and importing enslaved labor to do much of the heavy lifting.  The US has become the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world because it has spent centuries not paying for the labor and resources used to build it.  We continue to underpay wherever we can get away with it.

That doesn't make it uniquely evil. It's just regular garden variety.  Every empire does this. The skylines of Moscow, Paris, Rome, New York and Beijing are graced with architecture paid for by the wealth of empires. The British Museum did not get filled with the priceless art and cultural heritage of a hundred civilizations by paying cash for those exhibits. Neither did the Louvre, or the Hermitage, or the Smithsonian. Of course in the last half century or so, the museums of the world have learned to accept only donations with a provenance, to prove that if they were stolen, it was from long enough ago that there won't be any lawsuits.

It's impossible to rank the empires of history on wickedness.  How does one compare Rome's destruction of Carthage and salting the earth with the inquisition of the Spanish Empire?  Vast gulfs of time, learning or understanding, of capability and worldview separate us.  We can say that empires oppress and subjugate and conquer and loot, and that often the most successful empires have founded their empire on their proficiency at and enthusiasm for those activities.

Which is not to say progress isn't being made.  Nominally at least, the countries of the world are opposed to slavery, even the ones which practice versions of it with prison labor or guest workers.  Nominally, the countries of the world are opposed to war, until they think they can get something out of it.  Nominally the US has repudiated the concept of an aristocracy, even as we destroy the inheritance taxes critical to preventing an aristocracy from arising. Fewer and fewer countries have the death penalty. Nominally we have equal rights, even though study after study shows wildly unequal treatment of women in the workplace, of African Americans in courts and in prison, and LGBTQ individuals in all walks of life.

The disconnect between our society's ideals and its treatment of people at home and countries abroad is heartbreaking.  And I wouldn't be surprised if this realization has caused people to embrace hypocrisy and indulge in the same high minded rhetoric as our founding fathers used when they set up a new nation of liberty and equality for everyone, except men who didn't own land, women, slaves and Native Americans.

And it's hard to retain my optimism that Americans will continue to maintain and expand the protection of the law to those from whom it has historically been withheld, when the news show so many people gleefully cheering on the deaths of young African American men by police, or at the hands of armed civilians.  It's hard to accept that the revelations in the Senate report are not some horrible aberration, but rather than a return to form by a military which was all too willing to torture and massacre in, for example, Viet Nam, and the Philippines and incarcerate entire populations of Asian American citizens during WWII. And I'm having a rough week because of this shit and I can't think of an up note to wrap up with.

Anyway, if I don't write another entry before the holidays, merry solstice, merry Christmas, happy new year, happy Hanukkah, happy Saturnalia, and joyous Kwanzaa to everyone, especially those who could use some good news.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

New bubbles: how much disruptive innovation can one economy take?

The next bubble has already started.   I think it's the sharing economy.  Or to put it anther way 'the desperately trying to monetize everything you own, so you don't have to live on the street' economy.  There is also the disruptive innovation economy or the 'lets destroy or circumvent regulations using the internet so our investors can get rich and to hell with everyone else' economy.  "Sharing" and "disruptive innovation", the one evokes lessons learned in kindergarten and the other images of poor buggy whip manufacturers clinging to an outmoded business model at the dawn of the automotive age.

Companies like Uber and Lyft, who call themselves logistics companies, get people to use their personal cars as an 'independent' taxi in return for a cut of the fare, the price of which they, not the drivers, determine. The independence of the drivers is a legal fiction, allowing Uber and Lyft to build and operate a nationwide taxi service without the bother and expense of 1) getting a taxi cab license in the local municipality or complying with local regulations, 2) employing drivers and paying benefits 3) buying and maintaining a fleet of cars and paying for fuel. 

Now, they are advertising subprime auto loans to drivers with bad credit, the terms of which can add $10,000 to the price of a $27,000 car.  I think this demonstrates pretty clearly that the best interest of their drivers is not their highest priority.  Servicing that loan will cost in excess of $100 a week, which is a big extra expense for a person working for what Uber and Lyft claim are 'tips'.

It is a particularly innovative form of capitalism, to charge people for the privilege of using their own property to make money illegally.

I think it is an idea whose time has come.  Smartphones can do more and more.  They can empower people to work from nearly anywhere.  Give a person a charged smartphone and a bluetooth headset, and they can do any number of customer service tasks.  Book a flight?  Troubleshoot windows?  Call out on dodgy scams? Take an order? Resolve billing issues? No one needs to set up a call center anymore.  Right now it is possible to set up and staff a call center and not buy a single thing, server space can be rented, programming a call center app can be contracted, and hundreds or thousands can download a 'work from home' app that lets them do anything that it previously took a dedicated call center operation to perform.

 Google is already testing self driving cars in California.  These technologies are ripe for convergence.  Once Uber and Lyft have their brand established all over the country, what's to stop them from replacing their drivers with cars that don't require drivers at all?  Within a year, the Oculus Rift VR goggles will release their consumer model, followed shortly by Samsung's lower spec'd smartphone based VR goggles. Will trucking companies put self driving trucks on the road with one or two people virtually riding herd on a fleet to get the automated trucks out of jams their programming can't cope with?

I'm not against our roads being full of self driving cars.  It's a technology that could save lives.  What I'm against is the goldrush mentality that will result in millions people unemployed when disruptive technologies are implemented without any consideration of the consequenses.  Every bus driver, truck driver, tractor driver, combine harvester driver, forklift driver, pizza delivery driver, taxi driver that can't earn a living is going to stretch the already weak economy even further. 

We don't have the kind of social safety net that can support millions of people leaving the workforce.  And let's not kid ourselves that ay brand new replacement jobs will be as well paying or plentiful enough to put all of the unemployed drivers back to work.

Once corporate America sees the potential of cyrpto-currencies, they'll be able to avoid paying taxes entirely.  The only people still paying taxes will be those too stubborn to change to the new currencies.

So, imagine Google and Amazon and other web giants wholeheartedly embracing 3-d printing, warehouse automation, driverless deliveries, and TOR encrypted untraceable commerce with crypto-currencies, and what you're looking at is the end of capitalism as we know it. I'm not so in love with American capitalism that I think it is the acme of economic systems, but we are living in times that are about to get a lot more interesting.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Twitter Fight!

Yesterday I caught the fringes of a twitter storm.  It was every bit as stupid a situation as most twitter storms are. Basically it was person A whose politics were far left trying to dig up dirt on persons B through F or G; who are journalists who not leftist enough in person A's opinion.  And therefore person A thought it was OK to go digging for dirt to try and expose persons B through F or G to the same kind of harassment that the targets of gamergate are experiencing.  This situation is disappointing on so many levels.  I am not going to name names, because the fact that I am aware of it shows that the situation is way higher profile than it deserves to be.  The only reason I mention it, is that it illustrates why tactics are just important as goals.  The ends don't justify the means.  If person A really wants to as he claims, fight white supremacists and fascists, then he's doing a poor job of it when he attacks journalists.  Especially when he employs the tactics of the online stalker: leaking personal information and coordinating a campaign of threats of rape and violent murder.  Employing those tactics makes people who becomes aware of the issue say stupid things like 'both sides are equally wrong'.

I think that the goal of most progressives and liberals is to build a better civilization, not to build paradise on earth.  We progressives and liberals should be able to look at injustice and say, "this needs to stop" even if that injustice works to our benefit.  That means treating opponents with respect both when they have similar goals and there is a disagreement on tactics or when their goals are diametrically opposed.  That means not stooping to dirty tricks.  Dirty tricks are effective only when they are unexpected.  But given the eagerness of on-line assholes to accuse others of 'false flag' operations, sock puppet accounts, hacking and doxing, it is unlikely that they would be taken unaware by in-kind response. Further, those dirty tricks hamstring any cause when evidence is revealed. 

Hatred is a terrible motivation.  Even when it is hatred of fascism and white supremecy.  Hatred can make a person think that their worst actions are justified when used on a hated enemy.  Hatred is a cheap thrill, a blast of anger that justifies horrific crimes.  Genocide, ethnic cleansing, these are not the products of principled opposition to a real or imagined injustice.  They result from people giving in to hatred and the belief that murder can solve problems.  It's easy to think the world would be a better place if evil people were dead.  And it might be.  But it wouldn't be as good a place as it would be if evil people saw the error of their ways, and quit being evil.  It sounds naive to put it in terms of 'evil' and 'good'.  It is naive.  Hardly anyone thinks of themselves as evil.  They may consider themselves better or different or a person to whom the regular rules do not apply, but outside of the seriously deranged, most people aren't evil.  Many people operate from different viewpoints, or with different ethics that from the outside can appear to be irredeemably evil.  I can think of a few dozen important people who are daily doing what I consider to be evil things.  But it would weaken my argument to name them, it would allow people* to dismiss this as mere tone trolling of the people I oppose. 

But people are not prey.  People are not resources to exploit or irredeemably violent fiends** to be dealt with as one would deal with a rabid dog. So I encourage everyone to exercise their empathy.  Put yourself in the shoes of those you oppose, and try to think with their experience and their ethics.  It won't be perfect. It can't be.  But the exercise itself should give you insight into how your opposition thinks, how they will act and what arguments they will find to be convincing.  Peace didn't happen in North Ireland because the most violent partisans on both sides were allowed to set the agenda.  Peace happened because both sides were sick of the violence.  Peace happened because it was easier to learn to get along than to keep going to funerals.

*the five people or so who read this blog post anyway
** OK some very small fraction of people are irredeemably violent fiends.  There aren't enough of those violent psychopaths to do more than keep the police busy,  and inspire horror movies.  And some people are sociopaths with no morals that have learned to function in society, who can and do terrible things without getting their hands dirty. Society needs a way to identify and deal with them in a fashion that minimizes the harm to done to both them and to society, and no I don't know what that would be.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Public health is important.  There are more and more of us on the planet, and a greater fraction of us are living are living in densely populated cities.  The study of public health issues is the study of evolution in action.  To a microbe, a bacteria, a virus, a parasite, a fungus, the 7 billion of us represent 7 billion exploitable habitats.  7 billion homes full of food and water and shelter, to any organism that can fight or fool our immune systems.  We are megatons of food and a very exploitable habitat.  Given how we as a species deal with macroscopic threats to our individual survival, like tigers and bears, you'd think we'd have a better response to threats to our civilization.

Public health, measuring and improving the health of our population, is not glamorous work.  It's community clinics, it's sex education birth control and prenatal care.  It's vaccinations, health education, nutrition and sanitation.  It's exercise and diet.  It's hospitalization and hospice care.  It's meals on wheels and help for the disabled.  It's mental health services.  It's creating a system where we can thrive as human beings, and not allowing ignorance, laziness or profit seeking to dictate policy. 

And the USA is nowhere near as good as it thinks it is.  HMOs and insurance companies dictate standards of care that turn regular visits into bureaucratic dystopias, and doctors into assembly line workers.  Our health research efforts are often directed at the ailments of the affluent rather than those of the far more numerous global poor.  Our efforts to vaccinate for and eradicate polio, have been hamstrung by CIA involvement in Pakistan.  When the recommendations of public health run counter to those of the gun industry, it's public health officials who are silenced.

And so when a nurse I know voices concerns over Ebola, I listen.  It is a nasty disease, a terrible way to die, and a far bigger deal than it ever needed to be.  As west Africa shows us, it can tear through areas with weak medical infrastructure.  Areas of weak medical infrastructure exist on every inhabited continent. So what we need to fight Ebola now, and the next crisis next week or next year is a coordinated international effort.  If you have the cash to spare both the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders could use your help. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Third time's the charm

John Bolton, former US ambassador to the UN for George W. Bush's administration has written a column for NRO where he argues that the Islamic State (aka ISIS or ISIL) must be destroyed and that the US must do it.  http://www.nationalreview.com/article/386175/destroy-islamic-state-john-r-bolton

In his three page article Bolton articulates a vision of a redrawn map of the middle east.  It's a fascinating window into the mindset and worldview of  an influential neo-consevative (he does not describe himself as a neocon, but as one of the signatories of the PNAC it's hard to classify him as anything but a neocon). The article really sets itself up for an extensive fisking, but I like to think I am a busy man with important things to do, so I am going to skip almost to the end where he makes his point:

Obviously, the central problem is not Iran’s surrogates, but Iran itself, America’s main regional adversary. And until the United States confronts the ever more pressing need for regime change in Tehran, we can hardly expect others in the region to have the strength or the will to arrange things to suit our interests. Obama’s obsession with securing a nuclear-weapons deal means the odds that he would support overthrowing the ayatollahs approach zero. The regime is determined to possess nuclear weapons, so appeasing it in Syria, as Obama has done, was never going to cause Tehran to modify its positions in the nuclear talks. Far better to concentrate on regime change in Iran by overtly and covertly supporting the widespread opposition and watch Assad fall as collateral damage thereafter.
These possible outcomes constitute working hypotheses for U.S. objectives flowing from the destruction of the Islamic State. They are not philosophical abstractions, but practical suggestions that could well change as regional circumstances change. What we must not do is take our eye off the critical first step of destroying the Islamic State. Nor can we let theories about the kinds of regimes we would like to see emerge in the region blind us to what may actually be achievable.

What the hell?  John Bolton at this point has spent two and a half pages arguing for regime change in Iran, regime change in Syria, the dismantling of Iraq into two or three pieces one of which would be an independent Kurdistan made from bits of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. He does not ever explicitly state what the point of this exercise would be. What precisely would be the objective for which he advocates?

He advocates playing RISK with the entire middle east and completely forgets it isn't a single player game.  In his analysis he fails to mention little things like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and China.  He spares half a sentence to mention 'facing off with Russia' but not why one might want to do that.  He himself admits that he cannot predict what kinds of governments would arise in the wake of this project, and yet he seems to think the current status quo is so unbearable that we must undertake a third great middle eastern war (or series of wars) in order to stop IS and redraw the map for unspecified strategic objectives? 

I don't think it's out of order to ask why IS is a problem the US must solve and just what America is supposed to get out of his proposed course of action.