Monthly Archives: March 2016

The man in the tree.

I was very interested in this story that occurred this week in Seattle. An agitated man with a long beard and disheveled clothes climbed a 80 foot Sequoia tree and remained there for the night. He refused to cooperate with police and spent the night in a makeshift fort that he made in the tree. It was only when he came down for a snack the next day that he was taken in. Some would say that he was simply a philosopher gone mad with city life. Of course, no need to be a philosopher for that.

Now it is clear that the man was probably in some sort of mental distress as he was yielding a knife according to witnesses. And of course climbing trees in the middle of a city is not exactly something mundane. What is surprising is how this man was treated by the social media. Quickly someone created a twitter account to parody him and even the Seattle police on its account created some tweets, some of which were jokes. There was even a live feed by local news with a newscaster narrating the antics of the man in the tree. In other words, a real circus

The newscaster saw in the whole affair a metaphor; would not some of us climb up in a tree and forget about the world we live in? Or forget our problems?

Mental health is no joking matter, and we obviously have some ways to go before some of us understand this. For the Seattle police to joke about someone’s mental health is dismaying to say the least. Shame on them. For news station to consider this event as news is typical of them. Another slow news day perhaps in Seattle…..



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Artificial intelligence making great progress.

In the past weeks the game of Go has been in the headlines as never before. And the reason for this sudden notoriety? A computer program has beaten a Go master four games to one. A shocker.

The game of Go is a two-person game very popular in Northeast Asia. In this game players try to occupy the most territory possible by placing white and black stones on a board that is 19 lines by 19 lines. Novices like me play on a board that is 13 by 13. Less difficult to play but also less strategy. A typical Go game can last for hours depending on how experts the player are.

Now I cannot pretend to be a good player in this game, being quite a novice at it. My real interest is chess, and in 1999 a computer program called Deep Blue of IBM was able to humble a grand master called Garry Kasparov. I remember well the interest of those games and how I followed them.

Mr. Lee, the human master, was amazed at how quick and good the computer program called AlphaGo was. He lost three straight games to the program as well as losing the 1 million prize money, finally losing 4 games to 1.

What was most interesting was the comments the master made after his series of games. In short, he said that the program was not perfect and that there were weaknesses in some of its moves. Also interesting was the reaction of the South Korean authorities who took pains to say that it was really human programmers who won the matches.

One cannot be too surprised by the progress of artificial intelligence. What is surprising is the speed of the progress of these programs. We are well on our way to robots who might look like us and even do the tasks that we usually do. I do think that if the fears associated with these improvements are not managed we run the risk of alienating a large portion of the population. I would not be surprised if one day in our democracies an anti-robot party could develop. Just as there were people in the 19th century who opposed the industrial revolution and its new machines so there could be people in the near future who will oppose robots as they take more and more responsibilities in our economies.

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Free Money; an idea whose time has come.

This idea has floated around for many years mainly in left leaning circles. But now more and more this idea is being entertained in more conservative circles. Also described as a guaranteed income for all, it would imply that the government would give a lump sum of money to all citizens 18 years old and older. This would replace all social programs that are now offered to the average citizen. The amount of money given would be 18,000 dollars per year, pegged to a common measure used to combat poverty.

The benefits are clear; from unemployment money to old age security to baby bonuses all could be replaced by a one time lump sum of money to cover all. Yes, it would be subject to taxes but nothing would stop someone to earn money if they choose so, commonly called work. Let’s not forget the savings that could be achieved in the bureaucracy that is linked to all these social programs. Obviously, the more a person works the less it would keep of the 18,000 dollars. That would keep the cost of the system down without discouraging people form earning money.

As robots are slowly invading the workplace of so many people that once thought they were safe from the onslaught, it makes sense to imagine ways in which people can still have money. After all, if we lose our jobs on a massive scale, who will buy all those useless items of consumerism that must be bought if we want our economy to grow? A good reason why economies grow is in part due to consumer demand. We may have no choice in he future but to subsidize people so that the economy can still function properly. It would be the human thing to do.

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Apple vs the F.B.I

For the past few weeks a battle has been brewing between these two giants. The heart of the matter is this; can a law-enforcement agency force a commercial company to create a piece of software that would disable a security mechanism that protects the privacy of its users.

The FBI says that it needs to access the iphone of a terrorist as valuable information may be on that phone. It is a valid request. It also says that it would be for this just one phone.

Apple counters by saying that once this piece of software is applied to this phone, all other iphones would be vulnerable. Once the genie is out, you cannot put it back in. They say that giving access to the phone could potentially endanger the lives of people. Some countries who infringe on human rights would love to have this piece of software. Think what countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan could do. Authoritarian regimes all over the world salivate at the thought that a judge would give this power to the F.B.I.

I firmly side with Apple on this. Privacy is important, more so now than ever before. With all the spying that the NSA is doing as well as other foreign governments private commercial companies should resist being seen as agents of the government. Let the government go to court and get an order from the court. Apple must resist this to the bitter end. On that front, the somewhat accommodating comments from Mr.Microsft himself Bill Gates were less than stellar. I would be ashamed if I were him. He did try to justify himself but the damage was done.

More than ever the average citizen out there should be intelligent when surfing the net. Whenever possible encryption software should be used. We should be suspicious of any government who wants more and more access to our private lives. We all know that governments are notorious for their inability to keep secrets. Let’s hope that the courts in the United States will side with Apple. Already just last week a judge ruled in favour of the software company. Apple has made the case that forcing them to write software to disable the software protecting the iphones would violate their First Amendment right and in the past courts have said that writing code is a form of free speech. The only hope now is that the courts do indeed see the bigger picture, not the fact that valuable information could be on that phone. Enough of our privacy has been eroded already. It is push back time!

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