Tuesday, February 24, 2015

That's a nice Silicon Valley you've got there, shame if something happened to it

Make them an offer they can't refuse
The Google Self-Driving Car is a project by Google that involves developing technology for autonomous cars, mainly electric cars. The software powering Google's cars is called Google Chauffeur. (...)The project is currently being led by Google engineer Sebastian Thrun, former director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-inventor of Google Street View. Thrun's team at Stanford created the robotic vehicle Stanley which won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge and its US$2 million prize from the United States Department of Defense.(...) On December 22, 2014, Google unveiled a fully functioning prototype of their driverless car and planned to test it on San Francisco Bay Area roads beginning in 2015. Wikipedia 
If I were looking for the best example of the social/political tone-deafness, the lack E.I., of IT folk, it would be the "Google Self-Driving Car". 

To me it is perfectly obvious that the name "Self-Driving Car" is a red herring, because I don't think that there is much of a market for a driverless car, simply because Americans love to drive their cars, it is one of the last places where they can enjoy the sensation of freedom and control. 

What I think that industry, specifically the transport industry might be very interested in is "Self-Driving Trucks" (buses, taxis, etc.). Eliminating truck drivers means that big companies, like Wal-Mart wouldn't have to deal with pesky unions like the Teamster's union...  Without truck drivers, there would be no Teamster's union. Wouldn't that be great? I mean they have all sorts of nasty Mafia connections, don't they? If we eliminated the truck drivers, we wouldn't have to worry about the Mafia anymore, would we?

Whaddaya, whaddaya... ya outta ya fuckin' mind?

No, really, does Google understand exactly who they are trying to put out of business? To put it more bluntly, do Larry Page and Sergey Brin have an algorithm that can locate Jimmy Hoffa's body on Google Maps? DS

Saturday, February 14, 2015

21rst Century Populism: the New "Us" Against the Same Old "Them"

Mark Bittman published a very important article last week in the New York Times, entitled, "What is the Purpose of Society?".  Important, because in just a few words he gets to the very heart of political action.

He begins with the most basic problem imaginable: food:
The world of food and agriculture symbolizes most of what’s gone wrong in the United States. But because food is plentiful for most people, and the damage that conventional agriculture does isn’t readily evident to everyone, it’s important that we look deeper, beyond food, to the structure that underlies most decisions: the political economy.(...) Think about it this way: There are two kinds of operating systems, hard and soft. A clock is a hard system. We know what it’s for, we know when it isn’t working, and we know that 10 clock experts would agree on how to fix it — and could do so. Soft systems, like agriculture and economics, are more complex. We don’t all agree on goals, and we don’t agree on whether things are working or in need of repair. For example, is contemporary American agriculture a system for nourishing people and providing a livelihood for farmers? Or is it one for denuding the nation’s topsoil while poisoning land, water, workers and consumers and enriching corporations? Our collective actions would indicate that our principles favor the latter; that has to change. Mark Bittman - New York Times
Toward the end of his article comes a paragraph which, in my opinion  could be the political strategy that "connects the dots" between many heterogeneous groups and issues in a way that might finally articulate a serious progressive challenge to today's floundering "conservative revolution".
It’s clear to most everyone, regardless of politics, that the big issues — labor, race, food, immigration, education and so on — must be “fixed,” and that fixing any one of these will help with the others. But this kind of change must begin with an agreement about principles, specifically principles of human rights and well-being rather than principles of making a favorable business climate.
I find this striking because it connects with what Podemos, the wildly successful, out of the blue, political movement that is shaking the foundations of Spain's establishment is saying these days.
Podemos originated in the aftermath of the 2011–12 Spanish protests against inequality and corruption. It is a left-wing populist party that seeks to address the problems of inequality, unemployment and economic malaise that followed in the wake of the European debt crisis. (...) Podemos is currently the 2nd largest Spanish party by number of members; it became the 3rd largest party within the first 20 days it allowed membership, with 100,000 signing up in that period, and currently has more than 344,000 members. Wikipedia 
Basically their message is that today's problems are not so much a question of "left versus right", but more a question of "up versus down"; "down" being defined as "la gente", a less political buzzword for the people than "el pueblo". This is a demographic smorgasbord that ranges all over the political system but who are united, perhaps unknowingly, in their mutual suffering, the common adversary of all of them being "La casta" (the "caste"), defined as a tiny minority of amazingly wealthy and powerful corporations and individuals who control and manipulate the financial, political and mainstream information systems to their benefit and to the detriment of the vast majority of their fellow citizens.

Finally we are talking about finding a common denominator shared throughout most of the population. Those suffering could include anyone from a civil servant trying to fix the climate or guarantee the purity of what Americans eat or a small, "main street" businessman smothered by the "big boxes", all the way to someone flipping burgers in McDonald's, and every imaginable minority: all could feel oppressed by the system as it stands.

The "casta", then, is the common adversary of all "la gente", the people, that is to say, everybody that is not super-rich and powerful.

In American terms it would sound something like "everybody against the one percent".

What sort of mentality are "we the people" facing? Let's ask Bloomberg:
It's not necessarily natural to act selfishly. Decades of research suggest that humans are hard-wired to reciprocate kind deeds because doing so offers an evolutionary advantage. Yet being at work seems to strip people of a desire to help people. "Organizations are more future-oriented," Pfeffer says. "They emphasize calculation, rather than morality and duty." He and Belmi cite prior research showing how companies have increasingly walked back promised pension benefits, cut retirees' medical insurance benefits, and laid off staff in the absence of financial strains. Even though research suggests the obvious—that being stingy about reciprocation can make employees less productive and more likely to quit—companies still seem to have no qualms about screwing over workers. Bloomberg Business
Clearly then, contrary to much that "they" would like "us" to believe, (understatement warning) the corporate model cannot serve the well being of the community as a whole.

As Mark Bittman says,
Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?
You could say it louder perhaps, but I doubt if you could say it more clearly. DS

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

A European "Red Spring"?

Podemos Demonstration - Puerta del Sol, Madrid, 1-31
If it was conventional wisdom that a bunch of unelected bankers looking out for rich people were the reason everyone was out of work, politicians would be forced to explain to angry voters why we had this crazy system and might actually consider doing something about it. The late Aaron Swartz
"Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Albert Einstein 
The economic slump in much of the EU has encouraged the rise of populist parties of the right and left. The sense of insecurity on which the populists feed has been further encouraged by the spillover from the conflict in the Middle East — whether in the form of terrorism or mass illegal migration. Gideon Rachman - Financial Times

We must end austerity so as not to let fear kill democracy. Unless the forces of progress and democracy change Europe, it will be Marine Le Pen and her far-right allies that change it for us. Alexis Tsipras - Financial Times 
Tens of thousands of people have massed in central Madrid for a rally organised by radical Spanish leftists Podemos. The "March for Change" is one of the party's first outdoor mass rallies, as it looks to build on the recent victory of its close allies Syriza in Greece. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias told the crowd a "wind of change" was starting to blow through Europe. Podemos has surged ahead in opinion polls, and has vowed to write off part of Spain's debt if it comes to power.(...) Several of Madrid's main avenues became a sea of people and purple, the party's colour, he says, after its supporters travelled from all over Spain.(...) Broadcaster TVE reported that hundreds of thousands were at the demonstration, but there was no official tally. BBC News
Before we get started, it would be useful to remember that the founding "parents" of the "conservative revolution" or "neo-liberalism" as it is known in Europe, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both died of Alzheimer´s disease... This might not be the cause of the ongoing disaster, but it sure is a nifty metaphor for the situation we are in.
Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite hobby horses is criticizing the blockheadedness of post Cold War politicians who seem to have totally lost their fear of popular wrath.

Those who are cheerfully going about the work of dismantling the welfare state seem blissfully unaware that the welfare state was created by men as, or even more conservative then themselves, (Bismark, for example) in order to avoid revolutionary social movements which would destabilize and jeopardize the entire economic system and society itself. This was a strategy that was so eminently successful that it practically has destroyed revolutionary praxis. 

In my opinion endeavoring to dismantle the welfare state at the collapse of the Soviet Union is similar to a person who has successfully survived an operation for lung cancer and endured the ensuing chemotherapy and then, finding himself now in  remission, decides that it is ok for him to go back to smoking, the very thing that caused his cancer in the first place: idiotic.

It occurs to me that this tunnel vision, expressed in the obsession of  placating the financial markets, a vision which  ignores popular anger, is the result of the rise and predominance of the FIRE (finance, insurance, real estate) economy and the diminishing influence of manufacturing and agriculture.

The financial sector works with platonic mathematical models: money in the abstract moves with the speed of light. Fortunes that buy admiration, sex and luxury are made by simply tapping the key of a computer in a cubicle or on a trading floor.  All very clean and a bit autistic.

Reality, unfortunately, in as much as it touches living organisms, is never that clean and neat.

Thus farmers and manufacturers understand how the world of living creatures works better than financiers do.

They understand better, because both farmers and manufacturers exploit living creatures for profit and, leaving ethical question aside, to do this they need to have what farmers call "stock sense": an understanding of the animal off of which they make their living. It is this "stock sense", for example, that leads German manufacturers to have union representatives sitting on their boards of directors

Politics is not about numbers, it is about human beings. Numbers are rational and humans are animals that are  rational enough to get themselves into terrible trouble, but not really rational enough to extricate themselves from the trouble they can create. That might be the signature of our species and the epitaph of our planet.  DS