Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Singularity

As far as I can tell, when someone refers to himself as a "futurist," his job mostly involves serving as a prophet for the coming singularity. If you haven't heard already, "singularity," in this context, refers to the moment when machine intelligence becomes greater than that of the human brain. After this event, when computers begin to program and improve themselves, it's impossible to predict what will come next since it will be an increasingly greater intelligence that propels technology forward. The newest Big Think episode gives a good example of this thesis by one of it's most famous proponents:

Kurzweil is convinced that by 2029 computers will be smarter than people. I can only guess how he arrived at this number, but he seems pretty confident about it. It's fun to think about, but this is obviously a controversial idea. His analysis is partly an extrapolation of Moore's law, but that will eventually hit its physical limits when circuits can no longer become smaller. Kurzweil finds ways around this problem with the possibility of quantum computing, but the fact that he needs someone to invent a non-existing technology makes you wonder how he can be so confident about a year as precise as 2029. And I'm sure there are better arguments against it, but most scientists don't take this sort of thing seriously enough to put the time into critiquing it.

But that aside, this idea is about as close to the "promised land" a secular person can get (unless Arnold Schwarzenegger has something to do with it, but I don't see why super intelligent machines would become evil, necessarily). Almost all difficult questions would become easy; we could just ask the machine. Economies could be coordinated, conflicts resolved, diseases and maybe even old age itself could be cured.

But in the end, life would be so fundamentally altered that the thought of it is a little revolting. It's impossible to know if we should be rooting for it or not.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Death spiral

Arlen Specter switches parties, giving the democrats a good chance of achieving a filibuster-proof majority in the senate, and Rush Limbaugh's reaction was to suggest Specter take John McCain with him. The Republicans appear to be a party in free fall. Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight gave a reasonable explanation for what's happening to the Grand Old Party:
Thus the Republicans [...] are in something of a death spiral. The more conservative [...] their message becomes, the more they alienate non-base Republicans. But the more they alienate non-base Republicans, the fewer of them are left to worry about appeasing. Thus, their message becomes continually more appealing to the base -- but more conservative, partisan, and strident to the rest of us. And the process loops back upon itself.
The partisan in me cheers, and the prospect of democrats controlling the 60 senate seats needed to reform health-care and to do something about global-warming (though it's still a long-shot) should make any liberal feel hopeful. But, while I don't think the Republican party will ever disappear entirely, a small, ideologically rigid right-wing party isn't necessarily a good thing for anyone, even if that party won't win elections.

Party systems work well for a few reasons. A opposition party can serve as a vehicle to punish the misdeeds of the ruling party. In Canada, people were angry at the long ruling Liberals after the "sponsorship scandal," so they gave the Conservatives a minority government. Then, the Liberals picked a feckless leader and Canadians gave the Conservatives a slightly larger minority during the last election. The Conservatives in turn, misinterpreted the nature of their mandate, and now they're down in the polls while the Liberals are up. In the American case, much of the outcome of the last election can be seen as Americans punishing Republican misrule and incompetence. For this purpose, it doesn't really matter who or how big the opposition party is, as long as they have the resources to challenge the ruling party at every level.

The other big reason 2 or more viable parties help a political system work is competition. Just as free-markets are efficient and dynamic because of competition, political parties compete at the market place of ideas, and everyone benefits. But here it does matter who the parties are. If the Republicans turn inward and spend all their energy pandering to an irrationally angry base, then they aren't seriously competing, and Democrats will become complacent and eventually stagnate.

After 8 years of Republican misrule, it is hard to not enjoy watching that party fall apart. But we should be hoping that they moderate, and put themselves back together.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Israel, Syria, and the Dangers of Peace

A few weeks ago I came to an astonishing conclusion: a peace between Israel and Syria means war between Israel and Iran.

Sounds crazy, no?

Here's how I got there.

A few weeks ago I kept on hearing people say that peace between Syria and Israel was possible and within grasp. It's no secret that former PM Olmert pushed for a deal, though how strong he did and if it could even be OKed in the Knesset is another matter entirely. The general shape of the deal would be peace between Israel whereby the Golan Heights would be returned to Syria, and, in exchange, Syria would sever its ties with Iran and stop arming Hezbollah. Basically it's a land-for-peace deal with some broader Middle East positioning thrown in.

Such a deal would be immensely beneficial for Syria, which has long demanded the Golan, having claimed to reacquire it by any means possible. However, for Israel, this deal makes no sense whatsoever, with perhaps one possible exception.

There are many obvious reason for not giving back the Golan from the Israeli perspective: it's an excellent military position, it gives Israel complete control of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and the general fact that countries should never give up land unless they absolutely have to. Land is a country's most valuable resource, and the Golan is especially fertile land, a relative rarity in Israel. Not to mention the fact that Israel isn't exactly a huge coutry - giving up the Golan would amount to about an 8% reduction in territory, which is a huge economic and militaristic loss.

However, let us suppose that Israel was given such a tempting offer, no rockets from Hezbollah and Iranian isolation. Would it make sense for Israel to give up this land for peace?

I don't think so, and my answer is simple: once the government leaves the Golan they will not enter it again without force. Possession is key here, and while it is hard to walk away from a huge chunk of fertile land, it is even harder to ensure that what you walked away from will be delivered. In essence, Israel has no reason to trust Syria that it will keep up its end of the bargain, and even less reason to believe that even if Syria stops arming Hezbollah, they won't get their rockets from somewhere else.

It's not land-for-peace, it's land-for-promises, which are far less valuable than possession. Israel would be crazy to trust Syria, bearing in mind that if they're ever double-crossed their only option is a full-scale invasion of the Golan, which absolutely no one would want.

So why am I worried about peace?

Well, it seems to me that the only reason Israel would give up the Golan is if they really needed Syria to sit out a war, in particular, one with Iran. As it stands now, a war with Iran, which is three countries away, would almost certainly involve fighting on the Syrian front. If, on the other hand, Israel convinces Syria to take its land and walk away, the subsequent Israel-Iran war would probably go a lot smoother for the Jewish state, not having to deal with defending a Northern border.

Again, this comes down to trust, and there's little of that between Israel and Syria, but the only worthwhile gamble I see is militaristic - hope Syria stays out of an upcoming fight. Anything else are promises that not only may not be delivered, but may not be possible to be (after all, Syria doesn't control Hezbollah).

So beware talk of peace. It may be talk of war in disguise.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Taking a Page from the Obama Playbook

It's election time again! In South Africa that is.

South Africans go to the polls April 22 and decide if Jacob Zuma, the loved and reviled leader of the African National Congress, the ruling party since 1994 that took South Africa out of arpartheid, goes head to head against Helen Zille, the leader of the Democratic Alliance, the official opposiiton, and a host of lesser parties (38 in total, many of them local, though the Congress of the People stands out).

While I know rather little about South Africa's politics, I know one thing when I see it: Obamamania.

Compare the following websites, that of the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance. While the ANC page loo0ks like it's struggling to get out of the 90s, the DA page is full-on Obama, with their I-can't-believe-you-actually-copied-Obama's logo to that comforting blue background, and even to this call for volunteers: "contribute to change". Even the Congress of the People is touting Obama's message of hope with a nice, circular logo: "VOTE FOR HOPE - VOTE COPE".

While the DA and the COPE have their work cut out for them, from the sidelines, it's clear that elections from now until something bigger comes along will be all about trying out out-Obama each other, with sleek, sexy ads and messages of hope and change.

And who knows. It might just work.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A turning point?

For those of us that accept the scientific consensus around global warming, the inaction on the part of the United States to regulate greenhouse gases has been infuriating and disheartening. The more the science around climate change evolves, the less fun this issue gets. There are politically controversial issues that you can enjoy debating, and form a sense of identity around whatever position you come to occupy. Global warming used to be one of those issues for me, but at some point it stopped being fun. It's too serious and keeps getting more serious all the time.

So the New York Times headline today: "E.P.A. Clears the Way for Regulation of Warming Gases," comes as a huge relief. Here's the good news:
As the E.P.A. begins the process of regulating these climate-altering substances under the Clean Air Act, Congress is engaged in writing wide-ranging energy and climate change legislation that could pre-empt any action taken by the agency. President Obama and Ms. Jackson have repeatedly said that they much prefer that Congress address global warming rather than have the E.P.A tackle it through administrative action.
Here's the scandal:
Two years ago this month, the Supreme Court, in Massachusetts v. E.P.A., ordered the agency to determine whether greenhouse gases harm the environment and public health and, if not, to explain why. Agency scientists were virtually unanimous in determining that they do, but top officials of the George W. Bush administration suppressed the finding and took no action.
In my view, this paragraph damns the Bush administration, maybe even more than Iraq. It willfully decided against performing the one duty a government has that really counts: protecting citizens from circumstances that are too big for individuals to face alone. They had the science but chose to ignore it, and the delay may turn out to be catastrophic.

This won't turn things around immediately, and to the extent that it does, it might turn out to have come too late. But without the US government on board, it was hard to see how there could even be a chance of finding a solution. When Dick Cheney said: "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy," he may have been cynical, but he wasn't entirely wrong.

A New Yorker article a couple weeks ago gave an explanation for why. When an individual decides to conserve by, say, riding a bike instead of driving a car, that person is actually decreasing the overall demand for gas (by a tiny amount), which lowers the price and gives others an incentive to drive more, raising the price and overall emissions back to where it was in the first place. If your goal is to go to your grave without a guilty conscience, than this works well. If your goal is to actually have an impact on climate change, it does nothing.

It's a collective action problem and governments have to take the lead by writing new rules of the game. The US has long been the largest emitter of green house gases, but more than that, it has a leadership position in the world that no other country has. Canada, for example, has basically been waiting to see what the US does before coming up with a plan of its own. And no other country has the same level of resources to put into research and development to create the technology that will really lead to a solution.

For the first time in a long time, this is good news.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The electric car cometh, part 2

TED just released a talk by Shai Agassi that is very related to my last post. In it, he lays out a convincing argument for the mass adoption of the electric car, including a system of battery-swap stations based on the idea of a separation in car ownership and battery ownership. It gets really exciting when he starts going over the successes he's already had with the idea, including in Israel and Denmark.

UPDATE: The Times magazine published a great article on Agassi. Here's a particularly compelling sentence:
Agassi figured that a company controlling a world network of charging stations would become so profitable so quickly that it could subsidize its customers’ electric cars, much the way mobile companies give out free phones to people who sign two-year contracts.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The electric car cometh
Spring is here, and with it familiar feelings of fear and loathing have returned. Now that my bicycle is again my primary means of transportation, I’m remembering how much scorn I feel towards anyone who happens to be in a car. I realize that it’s unjustified self-righteousness, and I completely forget it when I’m driving one, but I really can’t help despising Montreal drivers during biking season. Rather than thanking me for getting myself around without contributing to the coming environmental apocalypse, I get the feeling that most drivers are about as fond of cyclists as cyclists are of them.

The problem for me is mostly the fear of being killed, but no less a source of frustration is the idea that I’m breathing in whatever the tail-pipe in front of me is putting out. There’s a reoccurring thought I have while on the road: future generations will look back on a time when the combustion-engine dominated our city streets, to the point that people shrug off frequent “smog warnings” as if it’s a normal part of the weather report, the same way we think of the coal-polluted London of the industrial revolution. Cyclists may continue to fear for their lives, but the electric car is coming, and soon.

The question isn’t so much “if,” or even “when,” but “who.” Last week, the New York Times had an article describing the Chinese government’s plan to establish an electric car industry. Since it currently doesn’t have much an automotive industry, in a relative sense anyway, China could leap over the old technology in the same way many parts of the country went straight to the cell-phone, skipping land-line technology altogether, while the west and Japan already have factories built for the old technology. According to the article:
Beyond manufacturing, subsidies of up to $8,800 are being offered to taxi fleets and local government agencies in 13 Chinese cities for each hybrid or all-electric vehicle they purchase. The state electricity grid has been ordered to set up electric car charging stations in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin.
Of course there’s a part of all us that fears China’s march towards global domination, but I see these developments as a clear good. China has already become the world’s leader in global-warming causing pollution, and anything that can be done to ameliorate that will benefit everyone. Also, with any luck, the added competition should spur on the development of electric-vehicle technology everywhere.

The Chinese government isn’t the only one trying to get into the electric car industry. The GM Volt is a plug-in electric hybrid that should be on sale in 2010, and even more promising are the smaller start-up companies working on their own prototypes:

One of the coolest things about plug-in electric cars is the idea of "smart charging." Apparently it’s possible to have the car communicate with the power grid. It would only start charging during times of excess power capacity, late at night. On the CBC radio science show “Quirks and Quarks,” there was talk of future cars that are left alone for long periods of time – such as those sitting in an airport parking lot – buying power from the grid late at night when power is cheap and selling it back during peak hours when it’s expensive. The owner of the car would return from his trip having made money from his parked car. Cars would become batteries that would smooth out power consumption and actually be good for the grid.

Car sales have plummeted during this recession, but people will eventually have to start buying cars again. When they do, we should all hope the cars people are buying are electric. It’s, unfortunately, probably not reasonable to hope everyone will buy bicycles instead.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The meaning of peace in the Middle East: Israel and Syria

If there's one word which gets tossed around without much concrete meaning with respect to the Middle East, it's "peace".

At face value, peace implies, at minimum, a lack of violence. If this is all there is to peace, I'm consistently baffled why people feel compelled to discuss peace between Israel and Syria. While these two countries are not officially at peace, they are not directly at war. This situation is similar in this respect to North and South Korea - not at peace, but not at war.

Perhaps peace between Israel and Syria would imply something broader than direct conflict. It's no secret that Syria has been involved in arming Hamas and Hezbollah, and perhaps one might claim that this is an act of un-peace, if not indirect war. While weapons dealers should, to a degree, be held responsible for the consequences of their clients, it is a strange thing to say that Syria and Israel are not at peace because of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians.

Is peace not only the lack of violence AND the commitment towards reducing all violence? Is it something broader than the lack of war, but the active struggle towards living without violence, hatred, or oppression?

Perhaps. I wonder if this is a consequence of peace or the conditions under which it can take hold without being enforced through the barrel of a gun. Either way, the upcoming "peace talks" destined to be (yet again) held between Israel and Syria will be of interest, not only in terms of the outcome and how far each side is willing to go towards "peace", but what, exactly, is desired in the end.

More on Israel and Syria later.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The difference between liberals and conservatives

I've been kicking this an idea for some time: is it possible to give a nice, neat explanation of where liberals and conservatives (the ideologies, the "left" and the "right" for all you Europeans who use "liberal" in a different way) fundamentally differ?

Clearly the answer is "no", but I think we can describe some general differences regardless.

Watching CBC journalist Joe Schlesinger the other day, a notable liberal, reminded me of one such difference. His piece on Somali pirates asserted that the true causes of piracy lay not in the Somalis themselves, but in foreign nations who have pushed them to such desperate acts to defend their shores from hazardous waste dumping and illegal fishing. The video is linked below and is well worth a watch and can be found here.

My demarcation criteria is thus as follows: "the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals tend to assume blame and be self-critical while conservatives tend to blame others and be assured of their moral superiority."

... and discuss.