Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Is A.I. already here?

Wired's Stephen Levy on "The A.I. Revolution Is On":

The Kiva bots may not seem very smart. They don’t possess anything like human intelligence and certainly couldn’t pass a Turing test. But they represent a new forefront in the field of artificial intelligence. Today’s AI doesn’t try to re-create the brain. Instead, it uses machine learning, massive data sets, sophisticated sensors, and clever algorithms to master discrete tasks.

Interesting thesis: AI is all around us, in the form of probability and statistics engines, simple 'bot' algorithms, and other data mining software machines. Is our world now driven by a global, decentralized cabal of... algorithms?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

LWN on the cost of "free"


"Free" is awfully nice, but, as people far wiser than your editor have observed, if you are not paying for a service, you are not the provider's customer - you are their product.

Technorati token 39JQ4Q9T8N3T (ignore this)

On the evility of payday loans

The CARD Act (bill; NYT summary) is a failure, argues John Stossel in "Please Stop Helping Us". Quote,

Since the Card Act passed, mortgage and Treasury bill rates have dropped a little, but credit card interest went up -- from 13 percent to nearly 15 percent. Some banks also stopped offering credit to some people. JPMorgan Chase cut off 15 percent of its customers.

So the real result of this "consumer" regulation? "Hundreds of thousands of people can't get cards who used to be able to have cards, and all the rest of us now have to pay more," [GMU law prof] Zywicki said.

Stossel's screed continues his familiar anti-regulation stumping, but it's worth reading.
Stossel illustrates how the CARD Act made credit cards more expensive, or simply inaccessible.

When messing around with, I saw the truly devastating effects of payday loans on the poor. Talk about evil. 400% interest or worse. You think credit card collections agencies are rough? They pale in comparison to your local, legalized loan shark, who probably lives in or near your own neighborhood.

The CARD Act wound up pushing many "marginal" borrowers into the arms of payday loan sellers, and probably an illegal loan shark or two. Was the CARD Act worth that, on top of the US-wide credit card interest rate increase?

Reminds me of cash-for-clunkers (C4C), which, perversely, disproportionately hurt the poor. Junking all those old cars made environmentalists happy, while failing to make a measureable impact on emissions. C4C transferred a lot of your tax dollars to the local car dealership barons and the Big Six automakers. But it also removed cars from the used-car market that lower-income folks were more likely to buy — thus making lower end used cars on average more expensive.

P.S. Is "evility" a word? If not, it should be.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

America is a land of immigrants

America is a land of immigrants. The American Dream is about an idea: create a land where immigrants are welcome; a land where everyone is considered equal under the law, and naturalized citizens may start businesses or find jobs according to their knowledge and skillset, just as natural-born citizens do; a land where those on the bottom have a realistic chance of success, rising to the top.

More importantly, at the present time, America needs immigrants. Here's why:

  • America's population is aging; retirees are less productive and require more frequent, more expensive health care (with apologies to all retirees I know and love). Although pensions and retirement savings address much of this burden, present day workers pick up the slack.
  • America's birthrate is declining. Fewer new natural-born citizens are being created, leading to fewer workers over the long term, needing to support a larger population of seniors.
  • Medicare and Social Security both have huge predicted shortfalls as a result, and along with pensions, threaten to swamp all other expenditures at the federal and state levels.

If America is going to keep its promises to the current and near-future crop of retirees, we need a lot more workers. That means more babies, and/or more immigration. Productivity gains with existing worker levels are possible, but such exponential productivity gains are extremely unlikely.

So you can imagine my reaction when I was reading this Politico piece analyzing Republican immigration policy, and stumbled across this passage:

He won’t say when his committee plans to tackle birthright citizenship, the policy of granting citizenship to every child born in the country. He doesn’t want to talk about whether he will pursue reducing the level of legal immigration, family migration or work visas — all at the top of the wish list for anti-illegal-immigration advocates.

Anti-illegal-immigration advocates want to reduce legal immigration? Really? That is disappointing.

America needs more legal immigration. Above simple raw number increase, our immigration policies should also be adjusted to incentivize education level over family ties: college graduates before cousins.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Obama and the center

Politico: Barack Obama makes the sale

Is Obama masterfully riding the center, clipping away the angered liberals and conservatives, as convention wisdom currently suggests? Or was this the only option given political realities?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Wikileaks cutoff threatens cloud?

WSJ blogs: Amazon’s WikiLeaks Response Threatens Cloud Computing

It is all a matter of trust, said Dr. Reger. Clients have been worried about the security of their data by attacks on their provider. Now they have to worry about their data by attacks by their provider.

What a silly statement. Who didn't know this already?

Using a shared, external resource always implies (a) an external provider controls your data, and (b) an unrelated third party event may impact your data. Solutions where a third party manages your data existed long before the current cloud craze.

Using an external, third party provider means your data may be shared with other parties (law enforcement, hackers) without your knowledge. It means your provider might remove service at any time -- cutting off access to your own data.

It's all part of the risk/reward/cost calculus. Having "enterprise class" scalable bullet-proof on-site data storage and compute power impervious to hackers might be so expensive that you choose cheaper, less reliable systems open to other risks.

So, I don't buy the argument that this in any way "jeopardizes the huge potential growth of [cloud] adoption." Nothing has changed. Cloud providers already cut off services to various entities every day (ie. spammers and those who use EC2 for hacking). The possibility for clandestine data observation and theft always exists.