Archive for ‘July, 2009’

Strange things are afoot at the circle K

datePosted on 22:55, July 31st, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

“We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission…”
Harry Schoell, CEO, Cyclone Power Technologies Inc.

- The best thing about cheesy 80′s SF on the telly, (and StarWars), was the robots. I was all kinds of disappointed when I saw my first real robot, via the news, and all it did was swing a big ‘arm’ around and did something to help build a car in a Japanese factory.

I suspect now, that the thing I found cool about those SF robots was that they were little metal persons. They clearly had more than just processing power and autonomic reactions. They were self aware, curious, emotional and aware of others. Nothing like robots at all then, appalling SF, and even worse telly. But still, they were pretty cool.

In the early nineties when I was looking at a few theories of mind, Artificial Intelligence was obviously a useful thing to think about. What would it mean to say that a computer, or an integrated system of machines, could think? That would obviously be a mind, wouldn’t it?

Back then I thought the most important issues, if such machines were invented, would be; “What rights, if any, do we give them” and ” Help, they are going to kill us”. Those are still important issues.

- There’s been a bit of talk about what they are calling ‘The Singularity’, defined as the point at which we invent a machine ‘smarter’ than us. The existence of such a machine, would cause a positive feedback loop with the machine(s) being able to further improve both their own descendants, and us, upwards along an increasing spiral of alleged awesome. I’m not at all sure what to think about that.

Most of the talk I’d heard about this was from people mocking the boosters of the idea, many of whom to be fair, do seem a bit strange.

This though, is a little bit different from that. More prosaic, less utopian, more real.

While the computer scientists agreed that we are a long way from Hal, the computer that took over the spaceship in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” they said there was legitimate concern that technological progress would transform the work force by destroying a widening range of jobs, as well as force humans to learn to live with machines that increasingly copy human behaviors.
The researchers — leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists who met at the Asilomar Conference Grounds on Monterey Bay in California — generally discounted the possibility of highly centralized superintelligences and the idea that intelligence might spring spontaneously from the Internet. But they agreed that robots that can kill autonomously are either already here or will be soon.

They focused particular attention on the specter that criminals could exploit artificial intelligence systems as soon as they were developed. What could a criminal do with a speech synthesis system that could masquerade as a human being? What happens if artificial intelligence technology is used to mine personal information from smart phones?

A bunch of scientists have had a meeting discussing AI issues, they’ll be releasing the report “this year”. Should be interesting. The NYT report itself is kind of strange. It seems to be offering a warning, but the meeting also seemed to be about letting people know that there is nothing to be alarmed about. (So look over there and don’t worry your good selfs. It’s all under control.)

Aside from the criminals and terrorists, I’m more than a bit concerned about what governments and corporations will find do-able, working together even.

I’m not stocking up on tin foil just yet, but some of this stuff needs to start getting regulated I think. Or at least talked about. That which isn’t already classified of course.

Normalising diversity

datePosted on 00:23, July 31st, 2009 by Lew

May I echo the inimitable Queen of Thorns, and say how great it is that Māori Language Week is being so well observed. Labour MPs on Red Alert are posting in te reo; Nickelodeon has done Spongebob Squarepants in Māori; Lockwood Smith is reading the Parliamentary prayer in Māori and Te Ururoa Flavell on Tuesday raised a point of order during Question Time (in Māori, no less!) to insist that the Minister of Transport pronounce “Kamo” as “Kamo” rather then “Carmow”. Even David Farrar has a post in Māori, and on that count he beats me at least. Well done.

Such usage is the thin edge of a wedge of linguistic diversity becoming normalised in Aotearoa. The wedge was first driven long ago, but one of the more memorable blows was struck by the venerable Naida Glavish who (working as a tolls operator) got in trouble for answering the phone ‘kia ora’ and generated great and unexpected support. When returning sick and exhausted, with no money and a broken shoulder from a long and abortive road trip across Asia (more on which another time), I could have hugged the (Pākehā) Air NZ cabin steward who greeted me with ‘Kia ora, bro, welcome home’. The NZ Herald has redesigned their masthead in Māori (though I can’t find a copy of it on the website just now). Māori introductions on National Radio and other media are commonplace these days and everyone knows what they mean. I recall the Māori Language Week last year, or the year before, when they were formally instituted and then – the horror! – their usage continued after the end of the week. There was apparently a bit of a backlash against it, and Geoff Robinson read some messages calling for a return to English-only introductions. Robinson, bless his English heart, had one word for the complainers: “tough”.

And that’s all they deserve. My high school German teacher had a banner above her blackboard which read “Monolingualism can be cured”, and it can be. Other languages must be used to be known, and normalisation is the first part of usage. Raymond Huo, also on Red Alert, is posting in Zhōng Wén; it is wonderful.

It goes beyond language, as well. Cultures, norms and ways of doing, approaches and modes of understanding are not monopolised by English-speaking WASP culture. I wrote earlier this year about a book by John Newton about James K Baxter and the Jerusalem commune – it is called “The Double Rainbow” and has been published. The title is Baxter’s, and Newton explains it in the introduction:

The double rainbow is Baxter’s symbol for a mutually regenerative bicultural relationship. He recognised that the Pākehā majority ignored Māori culture, not just to the cost of Māori – though few Pākehā have seen this more clearly or objected more trenchantly – but also to its own detriment. Pākehā, he wrote in 1969, a few months before he first moved to Jerusalem, ‘have lived alongside a psychologically rich and varied minority culture for a hundred years and have taken nothing from it but a few place names and a great deal of plunder.’

Diversity is both a means and an end. It is a means by which people may understand one another and live in harmony and all such wishy-washiness; but more importantly, it is an end in itself because two heads are better than one, every culture has its own irrationalities and blind spots and deleterious foibles. Humankind has achieved its primacy as a species through the constant adaptation of cultural and biological systems which spread risk rather than concentrating it. Monocultures are vulnerable; they may be unified and may even be strong against certain threats, but against uncertainty, or against threats or challenges of an unknown or unpredictable nature, homogeneity a weakness rather than a strength. Diversity is resilience. If you won’t believe me, take it from Robert A Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Who wants a society of insects?

L

Ok, rape, anything else?

datePosted on 21:43, July 29th, 2009 by Lew

From the Department of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, this story from Australia:

Austereo’s Kyle and Jackie O Show sparked the controversy this morning when the 14-year-old girl revealed on air that she had been raped.
The girl’s mother submitted the teen to the test due to her concerns about her daughter’s experiences with drugs and sex and wagging school. Before the actual test, the girl admitted on air to Sandilands, “I’m scared … its not fair.”
Her mother asked her daughter: “Have you ever had sex?” The 14-year-old replied: “I’ve already told you the story about this … and don’t look at me and smile because its not funny.”
After a pause, she raised her voice with frustration and said: “Oh okay, I got raped when I was 12 years old.”
After a long pause, Sandilands then asked “Right … is that the only experience you’ve had?” before the mother admitted she knew of the rape “a couple of months ago”.
Her daughter yelled, “Yet you still asked me the question!

There really are no words.

L

A Two Level Game In Afghanistan

datePosted on 19:26, July 29th, 2009 by Pablo

News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan).  He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.

I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.

One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).

Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.

The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.

To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.

These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.

Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts.  The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.

Uncitizens

datePosted on 12:21, July 29th, 2009 by Lew

A lot of self-described liberals or libertarians are arguing that the extent of peoples’ membership in society should be determined by their economic contribution to it, and a few, ignorant of reality, are even arguing that their membership in society is determined by their economic contribution.

People like Peter Cresswell, who asks “What gives bludgers a right to privacy?” The answer, of course, is that they have the same rights as anyone else. Peter, citing an imaginary selection of rights which apparently does not include any right to privacy, argues that the beneficiaries’ rights impinge upon his, and theirs should give way. Beneficiaries, to him, are uncitizens.

People like Cactus Kate, who reverses the rallying cry of the American Revolution to read “no representation without taxation” under the delusion that its meaning persists unchanged. She argues that franchise should be restricted to those over the age of 25, except where they earn $60,000 per annum or more. With reference to the current case, she restates the common refrain that “the taxpayer is paying for their lifestyle therefore should have knowledge when the beneficiary is whinging about benefits paid to them”, which essentially translates to “beneficiaries don’t have rights to privacy”, per PC. Beneficiaries, and those under 25, and the poor, are uncitizens to Kate.

People like David Farrar, who makes the same argument that, because the information concerns welfare, the people in question have reduced rights to privacy; but realising the paucity of that stance, goes on to rationalise it with ever-decreasing logical circles. I needn’t even specify the depths to which the KBR have sunk on this issue; so much for David’s moderation policy.

People like Bill Ralston, who argues that when one screws with the media bull, one gets the horns, and when one reveals any details to the media about one’s case, it’s open slather. For Bill, it’s not beneficiaries who are uncitizens – it’s ‘people who speak to the media’ who have reduced rights. I wonder if he realises the chilling effect of this could do him out of a job.

People like jcuknz in the comments here who, to be fair, is only repeating what he’s read elsewhere.

People like the callers to Paul Holmes’ and Michael Laws’ talkback shows this morning, who think their right to know trumps another’s right to have their personal information remain private.

People like Matthew Hooton who, like Ralston, thinks that by going to the media the women in question waived their rights to privacy but, paradoxically, who also thinks that people going to the media with personal information should sign a privacy waiver to prevent disputes such as this. Hooton also has the gall to refer to the information control methods of Soviet Russia in criticising their actions – not, mind you, the government’s punitive use of personal information for political purposes, which bears a much stronger resemblance to the authoritarian methods of the Soviets.

Far from being liberal, or libertarian, these arguments belong to oligarchs. Far from the liberal creed of holding the rights of all people to be self-evident, these explicitly call for rights to be attached to wealth or some other form of privilege. They believe that people who are dependent on the state ought to be at the mercy of the state. It is perhaps no surprise that it is these people whose rhetoric and iconography is littered with terms and images like “slave of the state” – for that is what they imagine being otherwise than independently wealthy should be. These are people who would restrict participation in democracy to economic status – who pays the piper calls the tune, and who pays tax may vote, presumably in corresponding measure.

These people are just as bad and foolish as the doctrinaire Marxists who argue that nothing matters other than what is strictly material. Their argument is the one which holds that, if a group of people share a meal, it’s not relevant where they eat, what they eat, what they drink with it, who chooses, what they talk about during dinner, what concessions are made for the purpose of sharing – the only things which matter to them is who pays for the meal and how much it costs.

That is a bare and miserly sort of humanity. Other things matter. A person’s a person, no matter how small.

L

On this blog it is likely that, from time to time, the authors and commenters will criticise government policy, speeches, and political tactics.

We would like to reassert that this is neither explicit nor implicit consent to release any private information about the authors or commenters that is held by any government agency, minister’s office, local government organisation, political party, or any other person, organisation or agency.

For the purposes of clarification this non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the following information:

  • benefit status or history;
  • family status or history;
  • ACC status or history;
  • health status or history – including information held by DHBs, PHOs, central government agencies and private providers whether directly or indirectly contracted by the state;
  • interactions with justice or law enforcement – including complaints, interviews, interactions, documents supplied;
  • employment status or history;
  • any grants applied for or received; and
  • tax payments, status or history.

In addition we would like to restate that posting or commenting here does not give implicit or explicit consent for any private information held about any author or commenter to be used for a purpose other than the purpose for which is was supplied. This non-consent includes, but is not limited to, the reuse of personal information for political purposes.


[Update after r0b's comment – any other blogger or author of any internet or other commentary or correspondence critical of the government is welcome to reproduce this with or without alteration]

Guidelines on a website are not advice

datePosted on 15:31, July 28th, 2009 by Lew

I’m not a big-city lawyer either, but Paula Bennett might have done well to consult one here.

In response to a parliamentary question from Charles Chauvel asking whether she’d taken advice as to whether the two women whose details she revealed after they questioned the government’s decision to cut the Training Incentive Allowance could be deemed to have given consent for the rest of their details to be released by going to the medias. Her answer was, more or less, “I looked at the guidelines that were on the Privacy Commissioner’s website” and a wee bit of misdirection about the previous Labour government.

The guidelines specify that a minister “need only believe, on reasonable grounds, that the individual has authorised the disclosure”, and later admitting that she did not make enquiries of “her officials or anyone else” as to the details she released. Without checking precedent or taking legal or policy advice, how can she claim “reasonable grounds” for implicit consent from a few brief and specific quotes in the Herald on Sunday?

The problem her stance raises – and perhaps the very reason for her taking it – is its chilling effect on political speech. If anyone who is dependent on the government for any part of their income (or other services) is liable to have the details of their cases made public for criticising the department upon which they rely, then that department is very effectively insulated from criticism. Being insulated from criticism means not being held to account for failings, and not being held to account for failings leads to a culture of impunity, a central plank of National’s election campaign against the former government.

I expect there will be a few smart privacy lawyers who’ll offer their services to the two women in question for a nominal fee, and the government would do very well to sharpen up. This is political gold for the opposition if the minister does not immediately back down and offer mea culpas of some sort. If the Prime Minister is required to pick sides, this is an important juncture for the government. She didn’t take advice. She can’t know what reasonable grounds are. Being a cabinet minister requires high standards of conduct and certainty. An employer would never get away with ‘I checked the website and then fired him’. If this goes to court, it won’t matter who wins or loses the case – the government will lose a bit of its shine, and so will its beleaguered Minister of Social Development.

There are good threads about this at the Dim Post.

Edit: Eddie has done some further digging to nail this down, too.

Edit 2: Woah, simultaneous linkage. There is no cabal, really.

Edit 3: It occurs to me that this is a political n00b’s monkey-see-monkey-do response to the Burgess case, where Labour and the media released some but not all details, and National used the remainder of the details to invalidate the political points being made. The differences with this case are that someone’s property holdings are a matter of public record, not information held by the government; and even if they were, property holdings are directly relevant (implied consent clearly applies) since the issue at hand hinged on the Burgesses losing their house, a matter which they brought into the public sphere.

I reckon Bennett saw what a big win the government had with the Burgess case, figured she’d do the same with this case, and overreached. Schoolgirl mistake. But I think it’s giving far too much credit to call this a rope-a-dope by Labour.

L

Young and free

datePosted on 13:19, July 28th, 2009 by Lew

It seems that Australia is considering a measure which would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in federal elections.

There are some aspects of Australia’s political system which make this sort of measure perhaps less controversial than in NZ. Australia’s electoral system is more complex than NZ’s; there are many more levels of representation, with two chambers at federal and state level (excluding Queensland); the right being proposed only extends to federal elections, not to state elections which are arguably more important to local electors; and it is a right to vote in a country where adult electors are required to vote. In a sense, proferring the opportunity to vote to those young’uns who consider themselves sufficiently informed and engaged to do so could limit cases of people being thrown into the deep end of compulsory voting in a complex system without a clue.

Politically, this was poison in NZ not so long ago, with most of the vitriol directed at Sue Bradford (who sponsored the Civics Education and Voting Age Bill), and the Greens’ secret conspiracy to take over the country.

But wait a minute, didn’t that bill include civics education? Wouldn’t that make NZ’s electorate more aware of and engaged with political systems and norms? While those with an ideological barrow to push would deride the teaching of civics as a propaganda exercise wherever it didn’t take their particular viewpoint, it is perfectly possible to teach the broad strands of political history, principles of government and representation and the bones of the major ideologies in a non-partisan manner – not an unbiased manner, mind; in a manner which makes the presence of bias clear and obvious enough for students to go and educate themselves. As far as I’m concerned, civics education and democracy should go hand in hand – and civics education and compulsory voting must go together. As it stands, we rely exclusively on the media to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing – without any sort of formal idea about what it means to be free and self-governing, or any critical tools to judge whether we are, or whether the information we get is sufficient to that end.

So, while I’m unconvinced that 16 and 17 year-olds should vote, the idea of them voting with a civics education is frankly less frightening than the idea of adults voting without one.

L

Aren’t they precious?

datePosted on 09:11, July 27th, 2009 by Lew

DPF is trying – on an experimental basis, mind, without any predetermined outcome in mind, no horse-scaring intended – to impose standards on his comment threads at Kiwiblog. The proposed standards are not especially onerous:

  1. Respond to the topic and the arguments
  2. Don’t get personal

Even these are too much for the commentariat on the announcement thread (which at time of writing has only been going for a bit over an hour and a half); plenty of high dudgeon, snark and poorly-masked animosity. They just can’t help themselves, dear wee things.

I’ll watch with interest, but it looks to me like David will need to give up his day job to keep on top of it, or appoint some of the usual suspects as deputies to enforce these standards (presumably with zero tolerance for misbehaviour and draconian penalties for miscreants). At worst, one dysfunctional community culture (of incessant attack disguised as ‘robust debate’) could end up replaced with another which is just as bad (of obsequious positioning, sucking up to authority, and (where that fails) of alleged bias being transferred from commenters to the moderators). The General Debates will remain a lawless free-for-all, and I predict also that the worst vitriol will simply spill over into them. Can anyone say “you wanna take this outside?”

At best, though, the move could result in a culture which might actually do some justice to David’s frequently thoughtful and relevant content.

If he has time to write any.

L

Bronagh Key has a husband who is home a couple of nights a week, who brings in a good income, who loves her and supports her, who goes shopping for tea pots and oven mitts with her in the weekend, who attends their kids sports matches and events, and who goes on family holidays with her and the kids. Apparently that’s what John Key thinks is the life of a solo mum.

Now I’m not saying that her life is as easy as it would be if he wasn’t PM, but it is nothing like the life of a solo mother. That Key thinks it’s a sensible comparison says a lot about the rose tinted world he lives in, and how disconnected he is from the real lives of real New Zealanders.

We live in a country where thousands of children will go to school hungry tomorrow, where nutrient deficiencies affect the health of one in ten children in our largest city, where poor overcrowded housing is linked to outbreaks of TB amongst children, and where about quarter of a million children live in households below the income poverty line. National has done nothing for those children and it has done nothing for the thousands of actual solo parents in New Zealand.

In the midst of the noise about the cycleway, the jobs summit, the recession, the credit rating and the fortification of bread the poor have been forgotten again as National, Labour and the media talk up the difficulties of the middle class.

So next time John Key waxes lyrical about the need to “balance the demands and requirements of all New Zealanders” it might be worth asking if he’s actually aware that there are poor New Zealanders, or perhaps we should just borrow Bronagh Dougan’s response to John Key’s aspirations:

“Whatever”


If you’re interested in more detail about our child poverty problem I recommend these reports by the Children’s Commissioner and the Child Poverty Action Group.

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