Saturday, February 11, 2017

I'm with Her (Mia Farrow)

Not sure if the Nordstrom brouhaha is even worth noticing.  But since Paul Krugman thinks it is, here are my two cents:

I'm with Mia Farrow, and I quote in full, 'I've never plugged a store before, but Nordstrom's is great.'  I also liked the initial response of the Nordstrom spokesperson who, not realizing he was dealing with a fecal meteorological event stirred up by Jihadi Don, gave a Marketing 101 explanation of how a department store makes merchandising calls (to the effect of, 'we carry around 2000 brands, cull the low producers--about 10% of the total--every year, and replace them with new brands, to see how those will do.  We're a department store.  That's how department stores work'--not a direct quote).

Nordie's is a nice place.  I liked both the Pioneer Square Store in downtown Portland and the Washington Square store down towards Lake Oswego when we lived in Oregon.  The house brand is high quality.  The people seemed pleasant.  But I'm not much into shopping or retail or any of that shit, so that's all I know.

As far as Jihadi Don taking them on, it's ridiculous, of course, and not worth talking about in real time.  Except insofar as, down the road, as an early tell tale sign of petulant, petty undisciplined abuse of power, it may become symbolic.  For the time being, it's up there with Truman taking on the music critic who panned his daughter's singing (though, in Truman's defense, no money was involved, and his letter to the critic was a great deal more, entertaining, expressive, whatever, than the tweet that caused the current stir).  Of course, people talked about how inappropriate what Truman did for over a decade.  Now, the Trump defenders will excuse the tweet, the Trump haters will declare outrage, and, all in all, just a minor dignity chip knocked off the presidency pedestal, a spontaneous and unplanned incident in the ongoing demolition project.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Is humanity being prepped for AI, to live under machine rule?

All hail the mighty algorithm!  We are are destined to die salute thee!

Twice in the last week.  First, I went to the doctor, for a trivial reason (renew a blood pressure prescription).  He also ordered up a routine blood panel.  Then he got all excited and started describing how, at my age and with the blood pressure situation, I was a candidate for statins, based on a couple of numbers, which was how they used to decide and that resulted in over prescription, which the drug companies loved,  but now, we have an ALGORITHM, and you take all the results of the blood panel, the blood pressure numbers, and a couple of other things and just plug the numbers into the ALGORITHM, and that determines whether I’m in the roughly seven and half percent of the population in my age bracket that should be on statins as a precautionary measure.

It did not appear to bother him at all that the ALGORITHM had displaced his professional judgment, and converted him from the decision maker to a conveyor of decisions.  He seemed happy to be able to deliver what he felt was an improved quality of care to his patients.  He’s a good guy, a good doctor, and old enough to have outgrown his God complex and simple faith in Heroic Intervention.

Then I got into a conversation with an Art Professional (I don’t know what to call her, she advises the wealthy who collect contemporary art).  She was decrying the loss of passion for art among the collecting classes and how an investment mindset had come to predominate.  In certain respects, and at elevated levels, art is merely another asset class.  Of course this has been going on for a while, ever since banks started lending against the stuff and art collections started being used as chits in estate planning.  But this woman, fresh from the gilded trenches of galleries and auction houses, wanted to grouse, and I was happy to accommodate her.  The latest outrage is, you got it, ALGORITHMS.  ‘Collectors’ are making acquisition, divestiture and diversification decisions, used the same processes that hedge fund managers, trading desks and that ilk have developed to skim all the cream out of market fluctuations before any of it gets to retail.  Perhaps this is to be expected, as so many collectors are in financial services for a day job.

This woman was not so accepting of the ALGORITHM as the doctor.  Candidly, I think she has a point in her field.  In the world of art, I suspect there are too many endogenous shocks to bet the ranch on a trading algorithm.  Algorithms perform best in self-contained systems where, in effect, they arbitrage quantifiable discrepancies, allocate quantifiable resources to defined processes with measurable outcomes, etc.   But, as for figuring out whether Bollywood or Chinese cinema will someday displace Hollywood in global markets, your guess is as good as any algorithm.

But the faith in the almighty ALGORITHM does appear to be growing.  Colloquially, people refer to ‘black box’ decision making.  Nobody knows what’s in the black box.  Only a small priesthood can decipher the algorithm.

But the social truth is, the algorithm decides, then its servants execute.  And given the quality of human decision making coming out of Washington in recent weeks, the mess humans have made of the Middle East in recent decades, the rise of non-quantifiable religious fundamentalism and xenophobic nationalism around the world (well, to be fair, in Europe, the United States and the Middle East), etc., etc. perhaps decision by machine/rule by algorithm has a certain initial attraction.

Leaving open the question of who writes the algorithm?  Or, provides the initial programming instructions that send the AI development down some certain path . . .

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Jihadi Don

Take a look at the Der Speigel cover for April 2.  El Caudillo de La Basura Blanca beheading the Statue of Liberty.  If an American drone could take out jihadi John for the Brits, do you suppose the military forces of another member of the 'Coalition of the Willing' could return the favor and do something about Jihadi Don for the Americans?

More seriously, Americans have an uncanny tendency, in long struggles with adversaries, to take on some of the characteristics of the adversary.  So, during the cold war, the military-industrial complex of the United States indisputably came to mirror in some ways the state within the state that was the Soviet defense establishment.  On a more trivial note, the United States developed a cultural infatuation with all things Japanese during the brief Japanese challenge of the 1980s.  More recently, if you look at the rise of the Religious Right in the United States and compare it to Islamic fundamentalism, if you consider the network of religious madrasas and compare it to charter schools and American faith based education, it's hard to avoid the same conclusion.  I'm not quite ready to label the American republic a failed state, but . . . regime change, anyone?

Note--the author does not approve of either drone attacks or violence by or against presidents of the United States.  The utilitarian argument in favor of using drones--that those operations result is less collateral damage than conventional military operations--ignores the reality that, in the complete absence of casualties to the force using the drone, drone attacks are undertaken with far greater frequency and in a far wider range of circumstances than would be conventional military operations.  With respect to violence involving U.S. presidents, violence against presidents is, of course, prohibited by law, and violence by presidents is a wide ranging topic raising issues far more serious than this post.  But, nobody should grab anybody by the pussy, celebrity president or not.