Your Lying Eyes

Dedicated to uncovering the truth that stands naked before your lying eyes.

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30 November 2008

Waiting for those Domestic Bots? Keep Waiting

An article in Science Times last week warns us that modern science is in no hurry to bring us the next generation of domestic time-saving miracles.
...the attempt to build thinking machines that can perceive the world around them and then act on that awareness. Researchers are far, far from being able to design a Rosie Jetson or a Data, or even a Diaper Data. You can ask a human toddler to bring you the red ball from behind the sofa, and the toddler will comply. Ask a machine to perform the same seemingly ho-hum task? “We’re not even close,” said Seth Teller of M.I.T.
Well, sure, most of us never consider how difficult it is to make out distinctly all the things we see - it's a months-long training program we begin from the moment of birth - and something our brains are likely hard-wired to perform. You couldn't just start doing it from scratch today. (Like in the gospels, when Jesus cures the blind man and asks him how things look. "I see men like trees walking" was his unsatisfied response. Jesus made a few adjustments and asked "There, now, how's that?" "Perfect.")

The great achievements of the 20th century in household technology largely served to liberate us (and mostly women) from the enormous burdens of keeping a clean house and tidy yard (an effort considered essential to the health of the family). Electrification of homes and advances in electric motors eliminated some very difficult work: beating rugs, bending over sinks scrubbing clothes; hanging clothes on clothes lines; washing dishes after meals; and, last but not least, getting her hair in shape for a night out. Men benefited from the development of power tools, in particular the gas-powered lawn mower. And the automobile made everyone's lives unimaginitively richer. And then there was the air-conditioner, which allowed us to retire to sunny climes otherwise uninhabitable.

So why have things stalled - is it really due to limitations in optical recognition technology? Is what we have the best we can do? Thanksgiving weekend in the Northeast is a ripe opportunity for imagining further advancements in domestic automation. I put up Christmas lights on Saturday - nothing too elaborate, but I needed to maneuver an unwieldy ladder (a redundancy) at odd angles to get my strings of soon-to be-outlawed mini-incandescent bulbs mounted in just the right spots. I don't like climbing ladders, and for good reason - they are a major source of injury. Wouldn't it be a lot safer to ascend in a cherry-picker or other hoisting device? Here's a website marketing various industrial hoisting devices that surely could be modified for home use. There's no technological limitation - the only problem is that we are not a wealthy enough society to have a cherry-picker in every garage. Had we continued to grow 5.5% each year as we did in the sixties, we might be wealthy enough.

Leaves are another source of wasted hours in the northeast. Paying people to do the job for you is one approach (particularly with cheap immigrant help), but not a sign of an advancing society. Why aren't there machines that can be operated remotely, covering one's entire property, can sense the difference between a football and leaves, rejecting the former while pulverizing the latter (we know such technology exists from watching "How It's Made"), and automatically spitting out fully bagged piles of powdered leaves along the way? This is not technologically insurmountable - it's just too expensive for the average household, and thus not worth developing. But again, if we were a wealthier society,

How about laundry? The washing machine and dryer were great inventions, but the long term effect seems to have been to allow households to own many more individual items of clothing, so that now laundry seems as big a job as it ever was. About the biggest innovation in household laundry has been to place laundry rooms on the bedroom level in newer homes. (There's also the ubiquity of dry cleaning thanks to immigrants willing to work dirt cheap.) How do we not have continuous washing systems, where one basically drops a piece of clothing in a slot, chooses a cleaning method, and walks away while the machine cleans, dries, and folds the article, depositing it in a neat pile? If a 3-inch camera can find people's faces in a viewfinder, how difficult is it for a machine to differentiate underwear from socks and shirts from pants?

I'm sure many of you have better ideas. The fact that our work and time saving technologies have not advanced beyond 1970 in any area of our lives outside of communications and data processing is testament to how little we have grown economically. We just haven't gotten appreciably richer since then.

14 November 2008

How Bad a Hangover?

How bad is the hangover we're going to experience from our mini-growth binge the last 4 years? You know, the binge that was almost entirely financed by people taking out loans they couldn't afford? Steve Sailer is suggesting (not entirely seriously) that if the current crisis wiped out 30% of our wealth, that suggests our real income should be only 90% of what it is today - meaning, about 3 years of 3% negative growth. That surely would be the worst economic slump since the Great Depression.

How bad have our other post-war retrenchments been? Looking at all the 3-year periods of quarterly GDP growth since 1947 (based on simple arithmetic averages), the worst period was the one ending in the 4th quarter 1982. This was the stagflation-induced recession that began in Carter's last year and ended in Reagan's 2nd year. That was a helluva recession, but total growth over that period was flat - not negative, certainly not 10% negative! The next worse 3-year periods after that (and not including any of the other 11 quarters in that period) were the three years ending 2Q 1958 (0.69% average growth), 2Q 2003 (1.23%), 2Q 1976 (1.43%) and 4Q 1991 (1.48%). So, such a slowdown - or reversal, actually - would be unimaginable for pretty much all of us.

On the other hand, what would a 10% reduction in income really imply? Having only a little better standard of living as, say, Switzerland, rather than a lot higher (see here)? Not exactly bread lines and soup kitchens for all.

12 November 2008

Planet Bailout

The New Yorker's October 6 edition dedicated its cartoons to the financial meltdown. The talk now of bailing out the auto industry reminded me of my favorite:

11 November 2008

Safe Progress

Is it any coincidence that the one segment of our society that is progressing - electronics - involves non-hazardous technology? Well - not even, if you count the kooky worries about cell-phone-induced tumors and the ever-so-critical need to properly dispose of used computers. How effete can we get?

How would our society deal with the bold inventions of the past? The automobile kills some 40,000 people a year in the U.S. - what kind of inhumane society would countenance such a killing machine just so a few industrialists could reap billions in profits? Airplanes? Preposterous. They crash, killing their occupants and innocent bystanders on the ground - why hundreds could be killed each decade! And the pollution they would cause - a blight on the earth.

Washing machines and dishwashers? You don't seriously propose pumping billions of gallons of toxins into our rivers and streams, just to save a few hours of work? - the exercise would be good for you. Vacuum cleaners? Allergic children across the nation would be endangered by the allergens they pump into the household air. And speaking of allergies - George Washington Carver would have been thrown in jail for genocide.

Perhaps that's why we don't have flying cars, moving sidewalks, robots raking leaves...because we've turned into a nation of wusses.

10 November 2008

Obama's Victory: A Silver Lining?

For Yankee fans, anyway. In the last 50 years, the Yanks have not won a single World Series during a Republican administration. They've won 8 championships* in that time, all while a Democrat resided in the White House, which happened in only 20 of those 50 years. On the other hand, the New York Giants have won their 3 Superbowls during Republican rule, which does not bode well for their Lombardi Trophy chances this year despite their 8 and 1 start.

*The LA Dodgers have won the second most Series in that time - 5 ('59, '63, '65, '81, '88) - 3 under Republican presidents and two under Democrats. Brooklyn won its only championship in 1955.

The Hangovers Come Easier

It seems not all that long ago I could go out on a Friday/Saturday, pound down like 4 pints of Guinness before dinner, consume a couple bottles of wine during dinner, then have 4 or 5 more beers afterwards and then cap it off with some brandy or maybe scotch. Sure, the pain the next day was severe, but hell I'd earned it! But nowadays, as I age, I find a few beers and half-a-bottle of wine can pretty much ruin my day.

And so it seems with our economy. Let's take a look at our GDP growth over the last 50 years. From 1962 thru 1969 we had an amazing 8-year run where we averaged 5% annual growth*. We then slowed down in early '69 and the economy sputtered about for about 2 1/2 years. We had by then entered into our inflationary period, but at least when the economy got on track we grew pretty hard. For example, in '72 and '73, we grew over 5% per year, but then hit the doldrums of '74 and '75, which, in combination with Watergate, brought us the Democrats' most dominant period in Washington.

The late '70's are known for hyper-inflation, but there were also some real gains as well. From 1976 thru '79, the economy averaged over 4% growth. But then we hit the wall in 1980, and thru 1982 we hit some hard times. The the "Reagan Revolution" ushered in another pretty good 7-year run, averaging close to 4.5% annual growth. The Bush administration was doomed by the dormant economy of 1990 thru 1991. But then, as all good Republicans know, the economy grew again in 1992 (at the same time Clinton and his lapdogs in the press were obsessing over the Worst Recession Since the Great Depression). The Clinton years started out slow, but thanks to the boom of the late 90's, he had a nice 7-year run averaging about 3.7% each year.

But notice the pattern - over 5% annual growth during the good times in the 60's, about 4.5% in the 80's, and 3.7% in the 90's. So during our good runs, we're building up less growth each decade (the 70's were a mess, as everyone acknowledges). So how did our latest "run" match up? "Run" hardly describes it. Just counting the last 5 years, we averaged less than 3% growth. Even the entire decade of the 70's, good times and bad, averaged over 3%. So here we are, in a new recession, only 7 years after the last one, and a measly 2.5% annual increase in GDP to show for it in between. Like the pathetic binges I try to muster up on weekends, the hangover hardly seems worth it.

So is it just pure Bush-administration mismanagement, or some more fundamental, growth-suppressing force at work?

*This, and all other quoted average growth rates, are simple arithmetic means of annual GDP increases.

UPDATE: Thanks to the Derb at the Corner for the link and Corner readers for some thoughtful comments. I think we're trying to solve a problem that is a bit "above our pay grade." But there are some clear trends that are hard to discount. I don't want to sound like I'm "blaming" anyone, but the fact is that the proportion of the population that is Hispanic has grown substantially since the 60's, and since Hispanic median income is about 70% of non-Hispanic whites', there is an obvious drag there. It's also hard not to consider the effects of freer trade. More international competition as well as off-shoring of manufacturing cannot have helped. Finally, the rise of consumerism - in particular, the expansion of mass credit, is a suspect in possibly reducing our investment in durable, tradeable goods in favor of non-tradeable services and imports.

7:04am EST: Another obvious culprit we all missed: the rising cost of energy. How many billions of dollars were diverted from technological progress in the West to build shiny palaces and casinos in the Near East? On the other hand, the decimation of our space program was well on its way before the first OPEC actions as the Left was determined to derail technology in favor of whatever it is that the Federal bureaucracy has been doing over the last 40 years.

I might try to look into this more to if there's any data to support these guesses - though no promises - I have a life, dammit!

FYI - the inspiration for this post was Krugman's recent "Hangover Theory" column and Steve Sailer's ridicule thereof.

08 November 2008

You're Not Funny, Barack

Hopefully, he's gotten it out of the way in his very first press conference, and will not make any more attempts at humor. He's just not funny. Humor clearly does not play a particularly prominent role in his daily life. My guess is that he's spent his life in the company of the type of people for whom the following formula is guaranteed to elicit knowing chuckles: name something stupid, then link it to a Republican. So he went with that tried-and-true formula with his (presumably) sycophantic press-corps. I've consulted with all the living ex-presidents. Hah - of course they're living otherwise I'd need a seance'. Seances are stupid, but I'm not - hey, how about Nancy Reagan! Hey, Wha' Happened? Why all the blank stares? Oops. I just took a gratuitous swipe at the frail first-lady of one of the nation's great presidents. Apology time!

In America's Half-Blood Prince, Sailer notes that the protagonist of Obama's autobiography "is a bit of a drip, a humor-impaired Holden Caulfield." Did you see McCain and Obama's performances at the Al Smith dinner? McCain was hilarious - surely the highlight of his campaign. Obama's performance was pretty lame - he was delivering his lines and seeming to be getting the joke only as the punch-line was delivered - punctuating it with a goofy chuckle, like some kid learning the clarinet and amazing himself when suddenly a sound almost recognizable as a musical note suddenly blows out of the instrument.

Bush was also good at delivering jokes, provided they were written for him. I think it was also Sailer who pointed out that in press conferences Bush would often pause and smirk as if he were about to deliver a clever riposte, but what would actually come out would invariably not be funny. But he could deliver a punch line well. Obama can't even do that, so let's hope he'll manage to subdue any further urges he has to inject 'humor' into his public appearances. I really can't stand public "apologies".

On the other hand, I really have to agree with uber-right-winger Laurence Auster's take on Obama's first press conference:
Obama's press conference is being shown on PBS. Leaving aside all other considerations for the moment, I have to say that it's a pleasure to see a president-elect who is neither a palpable sleaze (eight years of B.J. Clinton), nor an inarticulate semi-boob with barely enough intelligence to be president (eight years of G.W. Bush). He has a proper demeanor, and can speak.

07 November 2008

Coolest Unexpected Halloween Treat. Ever.

I didn't even see this one on Drudge.
When their children returned from Halloween trick-or-treating, a couple found suspected methamphetamine and $85 in cash among their 7-year-old son's candy. Lars and Shelly Brosdahl called police, who confirmed that the substance was methamphetamine, worth up to $200 on the street.
"Yah, it was like all crystally and rolled up in a little baggie, so I thought maybe it's some of that rock candy we used to get when we were kids, you know, but then I see there's $85 all crumpled up with it and I say to Shel - 'Shel - this seems kinda funny, doncha think?' And she says 'Yah, Lars, maybe we should call someone.' So that's when we decided to call the police, just like that. Yah."


I found this story because I was looking into some other, really boring story - something completely uninteresting and surely not worth the time of any major news outlet or cable TV show to investigate. Apparently some young bi-racial couple - he a Polish-immigrant sergeant in the Marines, she an African-American, were beaten, tied-up, and executed in their home, and the suspects are 4 other (apparently Afrian-American) marines working under this very same Polish sergeant. Like I said, obviously nothing there of any interest and I don't blame anyone for not covering it in more depth. Why it gets even the perfunctory wire-service mentions it has gotten is beyond me.

05 November 2008

President-elect Obama - End This War!

I'm talking the Afghan war. Yes, that's the one that Obama has promised to funnel increased military resources into while reducing our presence in Iraq. Hopefully, that was just Obama blowing smoke up moderates' skirts (although that makes you wonder what else he's been BS'ing the electorate on). Yesterday, a coalition air strike during a firefight ended up blowing up a wedding party (a common problem in Mideast interventions). I mean, is that why we're there - so we can kill random Afghani civilians?

Afghani president Karzai has sent a letter to President-elect Obama demanding the U.S. put an end to civilian casualties. Of course, Karzai wants to have his cake and eat it too. What Karzai really wants is a 15,000-man security force, dedicated to preserving his presidential office. But Karzai has been president for over 6 years - if he hasn't figured out how to consolidate his power, with the presence of the world's most awesome fighting force dedicated to his survival, I'd say his long-term viability is just a tad suspect.

The Taliban, remember, were guilty of harboring the mass murderer bin Laden, not of actually being behind the 9/11 attacks. The longer we stay there fighting, the more glorious will be there eventual return. But as it stands now, there's no end in sight. Iraq looks promising in comparison. I can't imagine there's not some grand deal that could be worked out between the Taliban, Karzai, and the new Pakistani government that will allow for a power-sharing agreement, some large-scale U.S. economic aid, and bin Laden's head on a stake that would satisfy all concerned. Come on Barack, show us some Change.

04 November 2008

Well I Did It

I just got back from voting for McCain. I just pulled the levers - or pushed the buttons - damn I miss those levers - right down the line Republican, and so I voted for McCain. No need for Obama to go into office with any kind of blank-check mandate. I don't really want McCain to be president, but since Obama's election is foreordained, I figure I'll do my little part to send a message.

We face doom either way. Arguably, McCain presents the clearer threat with his determination to continue our ruinous wars. The solace in Obama's election is his promise to end one of these wars, saving us around $100b a year, money we will surely need. The threat he poses, though, has a longer reach and is more insidious, and that is Obama's vision of himself as the great Community Organizer of this community we call America. With some agitation here and flowery-prose there, he can extract the surplus resources of those who make money to provide power and influence to those who represent people who don't make any money. Yeah, it's a hard vision to get a fix on, but that's my takeaway from Steve Sailer's America's Half-Blood Prince, and it fits with the Obama I've seen over these last amazing 15 months or so.

But most likely Obama is at this point 99% focused on his own wonderfulness, and will thus do nothing to jeopardize the adulatory standing he has amongst the ruling classes, many of whom will turn on him should his re-distributionist side get too crass, so I don't expect anything too scary from him, at least for the first couple years. And I have nothing against his plan to increase taxes on the wealthy since a) I'm not wealthy and b) I think we should increase taxes on high-income earners until they can prove that they're capable of doing anything useful with that income.

But neither candidate - nor anyone of any consequence that I've heard speak over the last 8 months - showed any concern about our most dire threat - the descent of America into Third-Worldom. No one has yet explained how we are going to function as a nation when half the population is operating at less than 3/4 of the average productive output. Oh, that's right - all we need to do is just keep spending more and more on education. On that point, at least - on how to throw money down an education hole - Barack Obama is indeed uniquely experienced.

01 November 2008

Celebration Time - Stuff Happens!

As someone who travels to Newark, NJ, each workday, I have been contempating the upcoming election and the implications it has for each of us in our everyday endeavors. In particular, I have been considering the fallout from, first, an unlikely McCain victory and, secondarily, a likely Obama triumph, and how these might affect my commute home Tuesday evening or to work the following morning.

But let's assume, for a moment, that a resounding Obama victory Tuesday night will result in some down-home, Detroit-style celebrations across the country. That would surely require an emergency Obama press conference to address Americans' concerns, and if I were him I think I would handle it like this:

Q: Mr. [President-elect], you spoke of the television pictures that went around the world earlier of [African-Americans] welcoming [your election] with open arms. But now television pictures are showing looting and other signs of lawlessness. Are you, sir, concerned that what's being anarchy in [Detroit] and other cities might wash away the goodwill [your campaign] has built?

[Obama]: Well, I think the way to think about that is that if you go from a[n] [op]pressive [administration] that has -- it's a police state, where people are [stopped and frisked] and imprisoned by the tens of thousands -- and then you go to something other than that -- a liberated [America] -- that you go through a transition period. And in every country, in my adult lifetime, that's had the wonderful opportunity to do that, to move from [an oppressive] [Republican] regime to something that's freer, we've seen in that transition period there is untidiness, and there's no question but that that's not anyone's choice.

On the other hand, if you think of those pictures, very often the pictures are pictures of people going into the symbols of the [administration] -- into the palaces, into the boats, and into the [Republican] Party headquarters, and into the places that have been part of that [op]pression. And, while no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of [op]pression and people who have had members of their family [jailed] by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime.

But Wait. Wait. But in answer to your -- direct answer to your question –are we concerned that this would offset it, the feeling of liberation -- suggests that, "Gee, maybe they were better off [op]pressed." And I don't think there's anyone in any of those pictures, or any human being who's not free, who wouldn't prefer to be free, and recognize that you pass through a transition period like this and accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.

Let me say one other thing. The images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a [television], and you see it 20 times, and you think, "My goodness, were there that many [televisions]?" (Laughter.) "Is it possible that there were that many [televisions] in the whole [city]?"

Q: Do you think that the words "anarchy" and "lawlessness" are ill-chosen --

[Obama]: Absolutely. I picked up a newspaper today and I couldn't believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was Henny Penny -- "The sky is falling." I've never seen anything like it! And here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being [op]pressed and held under the thumb of a vicious [administration], and they're free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or 10 headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a [resident], who they claimed [was] shot -- one thing after another. It's just unbelievable how people can take that away from [the change] that is happening in [our[ country!

Do I think those words are unrepresentative? Yes.

Q: Given how predictable the lack of law and order was, as you said, from past victories, was there part of [David Axelrod's] plan to deal with it?

[Obama]: This is fascinating. This is just fascinating. From the very beginning, we were convinced that we would succeed, and that means that that [change] would [come]. And we were convinced that as we went from the end of that [administration] to something other than that [administration], there would be a period of transition. And, you cannot [change] everything instantaneously; it's never been done, everything instantaneously. We did, however, recognize that there was at least a chance of catastrophic success, if you will, to reverse the phrase, that you could in a given place or places have a victory that occurred well before reasonable people might have expected it, and that we needed to be ready for that. And, we have been.

Q: Yes, but Mr. [President-elect], I'm asking about [whether things will calm down]?

[Obama] [Yes]. Does that mean you couldn't go in there and take a television camera or get a still photographer and take a picture of something that was imperfect, untidy? I could do that in any city in [France]. Think what's happened in [their] cities when [they]'ve had riots, and problems, and looting. Stuff happens! But in terms of what's going on in [our cities], it is a fundamental misunderstanding to see those images over, and over, and over again of some boy walking out with a [television] and say, "Oh, my goodness, [your supporters are out of control]." ...And it's untidy, and freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things. They're also free to live their lives and do wonderful things, and that's what's going to happen here.

Thank you very much.

Excerpted, with limited editing [] from here.