Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Real Telekinisis

Paraplegics will lead us all into a brave new cybernetic future, where the boundaries between flesh, titanium and random access memory have been forever erased. But that's not all, folks. The future will be even stranger than most of us imagined. It will resemble more the places depicted by fantasy writers than science fiction authors.

On Thursday, January 10, 2008, a monkey made a robot on the other side of the world move with just his thoughts. Imagine the possibilities in just a few decades. With improved wet gates (the interface between flesh and machine), and low energy radio chips like those used by the Z-Wave protocol (already popping up in everything from nightlights to toaster ovens), our minds will be able to open drawers, unlock cars, even remotely control aircraft just at the...snap of a thought.

Those with compromised motor functions will be the first to brave the journey into this weird future since the risk of peripheral brain surgery makes most of us a little squeamish. But eventually the benefits will outweigh the risks. Those who were previously "disabled" will be the "enabled". Not only will they run faster than the rest of us but their mindprint, the area they can instantaneously control at the flick of a thought, will be far larger and, in theory, limited only by the speed of light. And with all likelihood, implanting wet gates will become less and less invasive with every passing decade. Wet gates will probably be as common as cell phones are today.

Welcome to the world of...real and universal telekinesis.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Who is the Underdog?

CNN today made the argument that African-American's have a harder time getting elected than women. The fact was presented that, in the U.S. Senate, there are 16 women senators but only 1 black senator. I'm ashamed to admit that I almost bought this blatantly fallacious argument.

Comparing the raw numbers of senators is an absolute comparison and is completely bogus. To determine if a segment of the population is under-represented, we obviously have to compare the number of senators that belong to that segment to the segment's size in the overall population.

According to the 2000 census, 12.3% of the U.S. population is African-American. Without any more complex statistical segmentation (into pockets of greater concentration such as South Carolina), that would imply that there aught to be 1-2 black senators. 50.9% of the population are women, which means 50-51 senators aught to be women!

Whereas African Americans are currently, if we're generous, under-represented by 50%, women are underrepresented by 68%. Of course, it would be more accurate to say that African-Americans have been switching between being statistically under-represented by 100% and fully represented since Edward William Brooke was elected in 1967. In the last 41 years, there have been a total of 20 years without a black senator. In the last 15 years, 6 years had no African-American senator.

My argument here is not that African-Americans have an easy time getting elected to the Senate. Until at least 2 African-Americans serve in the Senate at the same time, such an argument cannot be made. My argument is that women still have an even harder time getting elected! This is very relevant given the current arguments surrounding Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's presidential candidacies. It seems as if each candidate can, strangely enough, take advantage of portraying themselves as the underdog.

We can with quite great certainty say that both groups have a disadvantage over white males. But to claim women have broken through the glass ceiling more than there is a racial bias due to the raw numbers is completely erroneous. Frankly, the fact that people make that argument is yet another example of how patriarchal our culture remains.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

The Primaries: A Reality Machine at Work

I have to admit that I was surprised that the New Hampshire electorate so upset the information cascade set off by Obama's vapid speeches. What it demonstrates is that democracy is a complex process that can't be understood by applying simple surface analysis to statistical data.

That said, the phenomenon of information cascades continues, new realities being spun in these primaries as we speak. I suppose that we have to consider that social truths are fluid yet real. If I say I hate someone, it is indeed likely that I do indeed feel real and intense dislike towards that person. My hatred may influence others to feel just the same, and so on, thereby affecting that person's ability to transact with us all.

By attaching traits to people, we make those traits real in some sense. So information cascades in the social domain are more than just persistent misleading dead-ends: they are dream machines pumping out realities-to-be. But no one quite knows how these reality machines work or how to use them to their advantage.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Pirmary Information Cascade

Another information cascade sweeps through yet another primary as everyone starts talking about change. Barack Obama’s vapid speeches has moved the media, the electorate and the other candidates to embrace an amorphous promise of something new. There is no substance in what is being said. It’s all emotional and, supposedly, heartfelt.

Don’t get me wrong. Emotions are important and powerful movers. But a yearning to be better without a concept of what is really wrong and how to improve our condition is profoundly dangerous. It’s what makes us sit in tantric positions only to develop sever joint problems. It’s what makes us elope into disastrous marriages.

The primaries for selecting the presidential candidates of the two main U.S. parties are ideal breeding grounds for information cascades. A small group of people in a few states are sequentially given the opportunity to voice their opinion. After Iowa has made its decision, the media interprets, turns and twists the meaning of their caucusing into speculative arguments often presented as fact. Then it’s New Hampshire’s turn to propagate the cascade. And then, finally, South Carolina, yet another relatively unique state.

At the end of this sequence, many facts have been invented out of thin air. Candidates are attributed characteristics not derived from a personal analysis of their traits. The characteristics have been attached by a small number of talking heads and bloggers using the tally of a poorly cross-sectioned electorate as guide and proof. With every subsequent primary, the overall population shifts its opinions based on these fabulations.

The primary process is often presented as something good. Underdogs are given a chance, politicians are forced to talk directly to the people, etc. But what it leads to are things like Bush and Obama: support for politicians who profess to be agents of change without any specifics. Bush was the unifier who you supposedly wanted to have a beer with. Obama is now being depicted as the gracious golden boy with a uniting smile. I believe this idealized image of Obama is as detached from reality as that of the old chummy beer buddy Bush.

One good thing about Democratic caucusing in Iowa is that it does try to produce a candidate that most can live with. By forcing those groups that constitute less than 15% of the caucus attendants to choose another candidate, people are allowed to express their secondary choice (i.e. one they are likely to accept and eventually support). What is bad about it is that a local faction tries to make a choice that should belong the constituency as a whole, which in the case of the Democratic nominee to the U.S. presidency is the entire Democratic U.S. electorate, not just that of Iowa.

And it has real consequences. Candidates that might have insufficient support in Iowa to receive any delegates, but who has some yet untapped greater national support, drop out of the race. These candidates might not have much chance to become the nominee. But they might forfeit a chance to be the eventual nominee’s running mate, or at least sending a pivotal set of delegates to the national convention.

The state based sequential primary process is such a ripe breeding ground for the worst types of information cascades that it needs to be replaced with a single national primary process. When voters decide independently of each other who is their best choice, they are much wiser than when they act based on brewing mass hysteria. But I’m afraid it will be a long time before the primary process is subjected to any real major…change…