Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Future.

David:
There is a lot going on in the world today, from technology, to politics, to social issues, to entertainment. Some of these things cross over and affect each other. This week, I thought we might  review some fictional works of the future, and see how close or how far they really came to the world we live in now, and where we might be headed.

Doug:
Ok, but the future is always in the future, so any failed predictions may just not have happened yet. The timeline of future predictions is hard to get right. I tend to give futurist a decade or two leeway.

David:
Granted, but some of the books that are the best known descriptors of the future were written 80-100 years ago, such as Brave New World. I, Robot was compiled in 1950.

The discussion  wouldn't be complete without a mention of the book, 1984, which was written in 1949. The curious reality is that we are constantly being monitored, and more so every day, but rather than the government of Big Brother, we are freely asking our own computers to monitor us in our homes and on the internet. While the book portrays the ever present cameras and says as an ominous presence, our reality is that there is benefit to having your computer tailor your time online to your preferences.

Doug:
Well, we aren't freely asking to be monitored. We are trading our personal data to companies. We gain convenience so that they can have information on us. I've always said that if 1984 were to be updated to 2024, Big Brother would be Big Business. I will say that I find it very useful for Google to parse my email and automatically add upcoming events to my calendar. But I also realize that that has a cost, and I am paying it.

David:
So 1984 got some things right, but instead of a nefarious government, it's mainly been a mass collection of data provided by us, and collected by advertising agencies. However, in the case of Google or FaceBook, they are collecting data specifically to manipulate us. I find that just as alarming as if the government was doing it. Maybe more so, as no one is there are no watchdogs at FB.

Doug:
More so! The government was created to serve us. Businesses (for the most part) only want to get our money.

David: Almost all of the novels, movies, and even cartoons have consistently portrayed the future world being inhabited by bipedal, humanoid robots.



As we've now seen with Google Home and other devices, we may have little need for such robots, or ones that appear like us. Our home will be our robot. We'll walk into the kitchen after Siri wakes us up. Siri will ask if we want something for breakfast, and a counter-top device will make it for us. We'll ask if anything newsworthy happened overnight, and Siri will tailor the news to what things are likely to appeal to us, based on prior preferences. And so on, and so on. Our car will work the same way, and so will our office, which will now be at home. This is somewhat reminiscent of Hal 9000, the computer from the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey.

Doug:
You are wrong about not needing humanoid robots. Taking care of the elderly is expensive, and hard work. Robots would be a perfect solution for this problem, and is the focus of much robotics research in other places in the world. 

Health care robotics research in Japan.


David: 
But the robots don't need to have two legs and a happy bear face to provide these services. A robot would be much more stable, and probably safer with a solid base. Right? We already have lift-chairs and other robotic devices that are available for just this purpose, without the humanoid appearance. 

Doug:
The bear face is often useful so it doesn't scare the living daylights out of grandma. But humanoid robots are often just designed to maneuver in our world, so it makes sense that they end up looking very much like us.

David:
Curiously, in the book A Brave New World, published in 1932, the government kept the masses subdued with a drug called Soma, which was a sort of tranqulizer. Either by accident, or with some purpose, since 1959 there has been a muscle relaxer marketed under the trade name of Soma. Perhaps they chose this name because the Soma from the book was described as "the perfect drug". I still find it amazing that anyone would choose to name their medication after a drug that appeared so prominently in a such an ominous portrayal of the future.

Doug:
Well, then you would be shocked to find out about the product Soylent. The movie "Soylent Green" supposedly occurred in the year 2022:


David:
Yikes!

Do you think they realize what they've done, or just thought it was a catchy, green, organic sounding name? I wouldn't drink it, because of a subliminal mental-block.

After all, IT'S PEOPLE !

Doug:
Yum! There are so many futuristic ideas about Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), and some of them are close to becoming present. Your nephew, Thad, just watched the The International Dota 2 Championship. Chances are that you have never heard of it, but more people watched it than watched the Superbowl. What is it? It is a free multiplayer video game competition.


That is, in itself, a futuristic event. But the interesting aspect of the event for me was the battle between the A.I. and the humans. The AI won. How did the AI beat the best player in the world? Part was just speed of commands executed (up to 60 actions a second). But part of the strategy was faking out the humans. The AI would appear (during what was an eternity for the AI, but pretty short for humans) to be getting ready for one type of attack, but then change tactics in the last few milliseconds. 

Thad reports that humans can beat the AI, but they have to do actions that are weird and unusual, so that the AI can't predict what they are doing. (Prediction of past game movements is the central method of Deep Learning, the new successful approaches to neural networks.) I don't remember reading any old SciFi with that motive, but there probably are such stories written. 

David:
I suppose we'd be derelict if we didn't mention Idiocracy. While other books have had segments of the population become sub-human or imbeciles in the future (The Time Machine), few have actually had the entire population devolve. As I look around, I sometimes think Idiocracy will come closer to the truth that many other predictors. Sad.


Doug:
That's a nice segway into next week's topic that will happen in The Future.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Talking about Big Data will give you goosebumps!

Doug:
One of the things I worry about most these days is people mining Big Data and finding ways to manipulate us. Some of the studies of Big Data are interesting, insightful, and funny. For example, The NYTimes reported on a Google analysis of the most misspelled words, state-by-state:

Google conducted a state-by-state analysis of the most commonly misspelled words for the first four months of 2017.
Indiana's most checked-on word was "hallelujah" and Pennsylvania's was "sauerkraut." That, no doubt, says something about our respective locales. Wisconsin's most-searched misspelling was "wisconsin."

But such analysis can also find what we find irresistible. For example, here is a study on social media headlines by BuzzSumo:

The article, wryly titled "This Study on the Most Effective Facebook Headlines Will Make You Cry Tears of Recognition," shows what works and what doesn't, in attracting eyeballs. Of course, just getting you to read something isn't worrisome manipulation. However, combine that with fake news, and we're in trouble.

David:
This just seems to be Advertising 101. Tag lines to get your attention have always been used to entice readers to take a longer peek at specific ads. "Be the first to impress your friends by using our new and improved widget! But wait! Buy it now and we'll include a once-in-a-lifetime guaranteed offer of a second widget at no additional fee! Hurry, as quantities are limited!" How many thousands of times have we heard that message?

Are you saying that there is something new and improved with big data collection?

Doug:
Yes, there are new things with these techniques, but not "improved" from our perspective. If you combine fine-grained details (like misspellings per state, or county) with targeted, effective headlines, you get "advertising" that works. But I'm not worried about this from a sales perspective; I'm worried about this combined with fake news. Now you are sold lies to get you to believe something that isn't true.

David:
Not true. We get these sales pitches all the time, yet we can spot a lemon or snake oil salesman. An effective ad may get your attention, but it doesn't make you purchase something. You still have to make that decision yourself. Fake news headlines are the same. Remember the National Enquirer back in the 1970's and 80's? Headlines about Elvis and alien babies certainly grab your attention, but few believed such nonsense. Fake news is more sophisticated, to be sure, but it is still the reader's responsibility to sort out truth from fiction.

Doug:
We don't get these pitches all the time. This is new. This is targeted. And it is designed to both be believable, and also to pitch you what you want to believe. How will you be able to tell the difference between what is true and false? You won't be able to, and, doubly insidious, you will want to believe it. And they don't want to sell you something; they just want your attention, and for you to believe.

David:
The biggest problems I see at this point is Americans are poorly informed about civics and the real world around them, and also that news organizations have become so biased themselves that fake news seems more believable. When everyone is peddling a biased narrative, some story that fits that narrative becomes more believable. Even CNN has had to fire people because they bought into a fake story that fit their belief system. Remember Dan Rather? That was what got him into trouble: he wanted the story to be true so much that he failed to investigate.

Doug:
You are confused. I'm not talking about CNN or Dan Rather. But I'd be more concerned about people's ethics than their civil knowledge. I am talking about information that is created to sell you a narrative. Here is an excellent, if long, article on the problem; I recommend following the author. (CNN fired people because they made missteps in their reporting, not because they believed fake stories. And the reporters may very well end up correct.) If you can't tell the difference between CNN and any of the fake news outlets, then you have already been duped. If you can tell the difference, then "hallelujah" and pass the sauerkraut!

David:
I don't think CNN is trying to publish fake news stories, but they do leave out important details at times because of their bias. If you watch the news portion of Fox News, not the opinion shows, you might pick up on certain words that you would believe are biased. I see the same thing at MSNBC, CNN, and many other outlets. Polling shows that most Americans do not care at all about the Russia-collusion story, but the daily news is intensely focused on the story as though it were all true. Continuing to run non-stop coverage about an issue with no proof appears to be based editorializing. Some might call that investigative journalism, some might call it fake news pushing an agenda.

Doug:
Unnamed sources does not mean "no proof." The Washington Examiner: borderline! And that article was from May, 2017. You realize a few things have happened since then, right? But even if no one cares, it is still news! Oh, wait... maybe your news only gives you "news" that you care about. That is part of the equation for fake news: your pump is primed, to coin a phrase.

David:
What I'm saying is that you must make decisions about what you believe. Individuals must be informed and take some responsibility for what they believe.

Doug:
But there is no way that any one person can know what is true! How can you tell if any one story is based on fact, or is designed/engineered/tested to appear that way? You can't. We need reliable sources.

David:
But I do agree that it is a problem, and the problem is likely to get worse. This summer we watched the newest Star Wars movie, Rogue One, which had dead actors portray major characters. It isn't too far of a stretch to see how easy it would be to make a video showing someone doing something or saying something that they never did. Soon, we may not be able to believe our own eyes.


Doug:
That is my point: you can't tell (from pictures or text) what is the truth. But with artificial intelligence and advanced geometric graphics, this isn't limited to the big studios; you'll be able to do this too. Consider this research: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ohmajJTcpNk


Combine that with Big Data and targeted research, and we don't stand a chance. Unless we have reliable sources. We can't watch only news that we want to watch. We have to watch the news we need to watch. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

In the News - Healthcare Reform and Travel Bans

David:
There is a great deal of news in the media recently, and some of it is actually important. One of the things I thought we might analyze is the pros and cons of the current health-insurance-reform bill.  Currently, it is stuck in a quasi-limbo state in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The main two sticking points, as I see it, are how to curb the uncontrolled expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare, and how to restore freedom of choice in the insurance marketplace.

Doug:
It is funny how "freedom of choice" is one of your "two sticking points" on insurance. You are "pro-choice"! Most people would rather have good, low-cost healthcare rather than a choice of terrible, expensive insurance. Why do we even need insurance on healthcare? Everyone needs healthcare. Insurance for something everyone needs is not necessary. It is like having insurance for food. We can save money by bypassing the health insurance middleman. Everyone needs to be educated, so we have public education in this country. Everyone needs healthcare. The Republicans are paving the way for single-payer healthcare. Perhaps they really want single-payer healthcare, but they just don't want to do it themselves.

David:
That just isn't true at all. The vast majority of people don't require any interaction with a physician for most of their lives.

Doug:
Shorter: most people don't need a doctor, until they do. You especially don't need a doctor once you die. If you want to save money, get poor people to die earlier. Say, you don't think...

David:
Ah. So you're against right-to-die laws that allow you to refuse medical interventions. I'm for freedom to make your own health-care choices.

Once you've been born and get immunizations, most will not need anything that the health care industry provides for decades. Most would like to have insurance for emergencies, and they should, and they want to be able to get it cheap. That is the underlying structural deficit of Obamacare: It mandated that all insurance carriers must provide services that the majority of Americans didn't want or need, and that drove premiums through the roof. As an example, if the government mandated that all auto insurance provided for gas, tires, and oil changes, no one would be able to afford car insurance.

Doug:
I don't know about Indiana, but the state government of Pennsylvania does mandate that my tires, headlights, turn signals, engine, and the rest pass inspection. And that costs money. Not a lot, and it goes directly to the doctor, er, I mean, mechanic. And insurance is mandated as well. So to follow your analogy, you are either suggesting that the car inspection services and car insurance agencies should be the same companies, or you are suggesting that health insurance companies also do mandatory checkups. Somehow many people can still afford to drive cars in PA.

David:
You get to choose whether or not to drive. It's a privilege, not a right. If you choose not to drive, you don't have to pay those fees. And the money for the inspections goes to the government. And car insurance is available over the internet, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of auto insurance companies that provide a host of services.

Doug:
Not everyone needs a car. But everyone needs health, until they don't. Healthcare insurance should be regulated at least as well as car insurance:
"Insurance companies are part of a large industry — one of the largest and most profitable in the United States. It’s important for these companies to be tightly regulated."  - autoinsurance.org
Tightly regulated. That is part of what Obamacare did. You couldn't buy an insurance policy that did nothing, even if you wanted to, just like car insurance. And Obamacare was curtailing costs, until the current Republican administration starting whacking on it.

David:
This plethora of options and competition keeps prices lower. Health insurance should follow that model. Many companies, with a menu of services, that you can buy online would create a true marketplace and keep premiums low. If you want to wait until you're older to purchase insurance, you can do so. At least we can agree that most people want good, low-cost insurance.

Education is provided by the states, not the federal government. If you're arguing to return health care back to the states, then I'm all in.

Another important piece of news this week was a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court to allow the majority of President Trump's travel ban to be enacted, rebuking the lower court's decisions to stop it. While you may disagree with the ban itself, this decision certainly reinforces the separation of powers set forth in the US Constitution. Immigration is not within the prerogative of the judicial branch.

Doug:
Whoa there fella! You missed a step. The Supreme Court has not heard the Muslim ban case yet; it merely scheduled for a hearing in October 2017. That will be after the 90-day imposition defined by the executive order itself, so it will be interesting to see if a Supreme Court ruling has any effect. But it would be more interesting to see if they rule on whether a President can enact orders that are illogical even if he has the right under the constitution.

David:
Whoa there yourself. While the SCOTUS has not heard the final case yet, they did, as a mater of fact and law allow the majority of the ban to be enacted. The other thing you apparently fail to realize is that the courts can decide if something is constitutional, but they don't get to decide if a decision is wise or not.

Doug:
Wise? I didn't say wise. I said "logical." Can a President issue an Executive Order about growing flowers in Finland? I guess he can. But is it logical?

David:
Can you imagine if the President nominates a Supreme Court justice, and the Senate confirms that candidate, and then the court rules that the nominee isn't who they would have chosen? Apparently you can, if you believe they'll overrule a constitutional order because they don't like how it plays out, or disagree with the logic behind it. Since this preliminary decision was unanimous, it indicates that they felt the merits of this case give the President a high likelihood of success in October.

Doug:
There was other import news this week. Some state governments shutdown this past week. That had an impact on people's 4th of July travel plans. Here is a beach that closed to the public. Hey! There are some people there:


Can we zoom in? Ah, Republican Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie:


Three states did not pass budgets: New Jersey, Maine and Illinois. All three have Republican governors.

David:
Right. Three Republican governors all insisted that their legislatures send them budgets that balance and make sense. Governor Christie can't sign a budget bill, because the Democrat-controlled legislature didn't send him a bill to sign.

Doug:
Poor Chris. Let's make Chris Christie the face of Republican party. There was also news on the healthcare front: the Republicans failed to bring their secret health care bill (also know as the Big Tax Cut for the Rich) to a vote. That means more time to examine what effect this will have on the economy and lives.

David:
Which is the original point that I brought up in this blog. Was that picture of Christie sitting on the beach so jarring that your train of thought derailed?

Doug:
Yes, the Republican hypocrisy always derails my train. I didn't understand that when you said "health-insurance-reform" that you were referring to the "Big Tax Cut for the Rich."

David:
While Democrats, and you, portray the bill as a freebie for the rich and a death sentence for everyone else, there are lots of things within the bill that actually do need some discussion.

Doug:
Ya think?!

David:
Sure. There are things that should have been discussed when Democrats originally forced Obamacare through on Christmas Eve, without entertaining any Republican amendments.

Doug:
I think it is certainly true that congress entertained hundreds of amendments. 564 amendments, to be exact. Many of those (hundreds actually) were technical in nature. But many were substantial, like the lack of a single-payer option. But it took time to offer hundreds of amendments, don't you agree? Time that seems to be unavailable with the Republicans in charge.

David:
No Republican amendments saw the light of day. Not very bipartisan. Once the bill gets through reconciliation, then perhaps Democrats will be willing to sit down and make corrections. Right now, they have refused to participate in anything other than some minor tweaks around the edges. You can't paint a Yugo a different color and then call it a Cadillac.

The discussion should happen with the few Democrats who actually are willing to admit Obamacare didn't pan out and is about to collapse, and with the Republicans who will admit that the discussion on healthcare has changed in the past 8 years.

Doug:
Obamacare is not ready to collapse. But if you say it often enough maybe someone will believe you. Obamacare is not ready to collapse.

David:
There are entire states that now have no coverage from the exchanges. That sounds like a collapse.

In my opinion, Republicans should once again pass the repeal bill they passed in 2015, and then sit down at a big table and start over with compromise in mind. There were things in Obamacare that people liked, and there will certainly be things from this new bill that will make things work much better.

Doug:
You are wishfully describing Obamacare in the past tense.

David:
Turning Medicaid into block grants, and allowing the states to manage the system by their own rules will likely lead to more innovation and better coverage for more people at less cost.

Doug:
Obamacare was a compromise. Single-payer is what we should have done to begin with. Why is Obamacare so hard to replace? Because it is fundamentally conservative.

David:
It was a compromise with Democrats who didn't want a single-payor system. There was no input from Republicans, and no compromise with Republicans.

Doug:
Also, Trump couldn't stop himself from tweeting on what's on his mind, including more talk about a woman bleeding:

Why is he talking about Mika's face?

David:
You just can't help talking about his tweets, can you? Neither can the media. Maybe his strategy is working (whatever his strategy regarding the tweeting is...).

Doug:
In the second tweet above, Trump implies that he controls what the National Enquirer prints. Why would he say that? Perhaps blackmail?

David:
I hate to get dragged into another discussion about Trump's crazy tweets, but in this instance, the second tweet was in response to a comment from Joe Scarborough that Trump refused to intervene regarding a National Enquirer story. Unnamed, anonymous sources at the White House claim it was Scarborough, who had been on good terms with Trump previously, requested his friend Jared Kushner ask Trump to call the publisher of The Enquirer to kill an unflattering story about the two Morning Joe hosts and their relationship. I doubt Trump ever even heard anything about any of it. That was months ago. Rather than Trump threatening blackmail, it sounds like Scarborough was pleading for assistance from an old friend.

Doug:
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: this man does not have the temperament to be president. I think these smaller crimes may be his undoing with his base. But that may just be wishful thinking.

David:
Tweeting isn't a crime, big or small. And from what I've seen, the base loves it. You've said a great many things about Trump during the campaign, and since the election, and so have I. And yet there are things still getting done. If you watch the news, however, you'd think that tweets are all the President does all day. Maybe he'll stop tweeting at some point, but I doubt the media would focus on any of the positive news anyway. They'd just start attacking this administration about something else.

Doug:
Это все на этой неделе!

David:
Almost. I still find it to be an example of Democrat and media hysteria that if you talk to someone who is Russian, that conversation is equated to talking to "THE Russians". It's as if every Russian is a representative of Putin himself. I've worked with several physicians who were Russian. Does that mean I've colluded with THE Russians? Okay, now we're done.

Doug:
No, we are not done. Why would you think that, and why would you think you could declare it? It is a ridiculous assertion that the Republicans were just talking to plain old Russians. I have Russian friends. I have professional colleagues who are Russian. I have students that study in Russia. But there is a quite clear difference between such people and Russian Oligarchs and those acting on behalf of Putin. You really want to claim that Natalia Veselnitskaya is just a regular Russian? Chuck Grassley was already investigating her:



Grassley, an Iowa Republican. She shouldn't even be allowed in the country! In any event, I guess we want to find out exactly who she is and what she was selling. We don't want to sweep her under the rug and assume that she is just a regular Russian citizen. Right? We want to know. We want to know if Trump is a puppet.

David:
Your own comment lists her as an undeclared lobbyist. Not exactly the same as a Putin spokesman. Nice try. Now we're done.

Doug:
You sure want this to be done. You are right though: Natalia didn't describe herself as a "Russian Spy." If you read Grassley's request, you'll see that part of this goes back to the Obama Justice office. This is much more interesting if you actually look at the facts.

David:
See you all next week!