August 26th, 2008

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Vernor Vinge!

I enjoy the writings of Vernor Vinge.  Here are some of his thoughts. 


Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?

Published: August 25, 2008


In Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Dr. Vinge, this is a most ambitious — and perhaps unattainable — goal for any member of our species.

Dr. Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist in San Diego whose science fiction has won five Hugo Awards and earned good reviews even from engineers analyzing its technical plausibility. He can write space operas with the best of them, but he also suspects that intergalactic sagas could become as obsolete as their human heroes.

The problem is a concept described in Dr. Vinge’s seminal essay in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which predicted that computers would be so powerful by 2030 that a new form of superintellligence would emerge. Dr. Vinge compared that point in history to the singularity at the edge of a black hole: a boundary beyond which the old rules no longer applied, because post-human intelligence and technology would be as unknowable to us as our civilization is to a goldfish.

The Singularity is often called “the rapture of the nerds,” but Dr. Vinge doesn’t anticipate immortal bliss. The computer scientist in him may revel in the technological marvels, but the novelist envisions catastrophes and worries about the fate of not-so-marvelous humans like Robert Gu, the protagonist of Dr. Vinge’s latest novel, “Rainbows End.”

Robert is an English professor and famous poet who succumbs to Alzheimer’s, languishing in a nursing home until 2025, when the Singularity seems near and technology is working wonders. He recovers most of his mental faculties; his 75-year-old body is rejuvenated; even his wrinkles vanish.

But he’s so lost in this new world that he has to go back to high school to learn basic survival skills. Wikipedia, Facebook, Second Life, World of Warcraft, iPhones, instant messaging — all these are quaint ancestral technologies now that everyone is connected to everyone and everything.

Thanks to special contact lenses, computers in your clothes and locational sensors scattered everywhere you go, you see a constant stream of text and virtual sights overlaying the real world. As you chat with a distant friend’s quite lifelike image strolling at your side, you can adjust the scenery to your mutual taste — adding, say, medieval turrets to buildings — at the same time you’re each privately communicating with vast networks of humans and computers.

To Robert, a misanthrope who’d barely mastered e-mail in his earlier life, this networked world is a multitasking hell. He retreats to one of his old haunts, the Geisel Library, once the intellectual hub of the University of California, San Diego, but now so rarely visited that its paper books are about to be shredded to make room for a highbrow version of a virtual-reality theme park.

At the library he finds a few other “medical retreads” still reading books and using ancient machines like laptops. Calling themselves the Elder Cabal, they conspire to save the paper library while they’re trying to figure out what, if anything, their skills are good for anymore.

Dr. Vinge, who is 63, can feel the elders’ pain, if only because his books are in that building. He took me up to the Elder Cabal’s meeting room in the library and talked about his own concerns about 2025 — like whether anyone will still be reading books, and whether networked knowledge will do to intellectuals what the Industrial Revolution did to the Luddite textile artisans.

“These people in ‘Rainbows End’ have the attention span of a butterfly,” he said. “They’ll alight on a topic, use it in a particular way and then they’re on to something else. Right now people worry that we don’t have lifetime employment anymore. How extreme could that get? I could imagine a world where everything is piecework and the piece duration is less than a minute.”

It’s an unsettling vision, but Dr. Vinge classifies it as one of the least unpleasant scenarios for the future: intelligence amplification, or I.A., in which humans get steadily smarter by pooling their knowledge with one another and with computers, possibly even wiring the machines directly into their brains.

The alternative to I.A., he figures, could be the triumph of A.I. as artificial intelligence far surpasses the human variety. If that happens, Dr. Vinge says, the superintelligent machines will not content themselves with working for their human masters, nor will they remain securely confined in laboratories. As he wrote in his 1993 essay: “Imagine yourself confined to your house with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with ‘helpful advice’ that would incidentally set you free.”

To avoid that scenario, Dr. Vinge has been urging his fellow humans to get smarter by collaborating with computers. (See for some of his proposals.) At the conclusion of “Rainbows End,” even the technophobic protagonist is in sync with his machines, and there are signs that the Singularity has arrived in the form of a superintelligent human-computer network.

Or maybe not. Perhaps this new godlike intelligence mysteriously directing events is pure machine. Dr. Vinge told me he left it purposely ambiguous.

“I think there’s a good possibility that humanity will itself participate in the Singularity,” he said. “But on the other hand, we could just be left behind.”

And what would happen to us if the machines rule? Well, Dr. Vinge said, it’s possible that artificial post-humans would use us the way we’ve used oxen and donkeys. But he preferred to hope they would be more like environmentalists who wanted to protect weaker species, even if it was only out of self-interest. Dr. Vinge imagined the post-humans sitting around and using their exalted powers of reasoning:

“Maybe we need the humans around, because they’re natural critters who could survive in situations where some catastrophe would cause technology to disappear. That way they’d be around to bring back the important things — namely, us.”

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David Brooks -

Here is David Brooks on what the Democrats need to do.  I take us to the end of his column, where he suggests they let Obama be who he is and lead as he is meant to do.

David Brooks:

At the core, Obama’s best message has always been this: He is unconnected with the tired old fights that constrict our politics. He is in tune with a new era. He has very little experience but a lot of potential. He does not have big achievements, but he is authentically the sort of person who emerges in a multicultural, globalized age. He is therefore naturally in step with the problems that will confront us in the years to come.

So as I’m trying to measure the effectiveness of this convention, I’ll be jotting down a little minus mark every time I hear a theme that muddies that image. I’ll jot down a minus every time I hear the old class conflict, and the old culture war themes. I’ll jot down a minus when I see the old Bush obsession rearing its head, which is not part of his natural persona. I’ll write a demerit every time I hear the rich played off against the poor, undercutting Obama’s One America dream.

I’ll put a plus down every time a speaker says that McCain is a good man who happens to be out of step with the times. I’ll put a plus down every time a speaker says that a multipolar world demands a softer international touch. I’ll put a plus down when a speaker says the old free market policies worked fine in the 20th century, but no longer seem to be working today. These are arguments that reinforce Obama’s identity as a 21st-century man.

And I have to say, during the first night of the convention, the pluses far outweighed the minuses. In spirit, the night extended Obama’s 2004 convention speech. The overarching theme was intrinsic to the man, unity instead of division, something new instead of conflicts that are old. His sister hit this theme forcefully. Jesse Jackson Jr. made the generational-change argument explicitly, paying tribute to the fights of the past while describing the more subtle challenges of the present. Michelle Obama was short on biographical details, but long on the idealism, which is at the heart of Obama’s appeal.

Obama may yet recover his core focus. Now he has to preserve it against his most terrifying foes: the “experts” in his own party.



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Voting -

Though where I live does have enough voting machines, I almost always vote absentee.  I don't know if that is an option in all states, but it would help alleviate the problem of ensuring everyone has an opportunity to vote within a reasonable time period and in honorable circumstances.

Editorial Observer

No One Should Have to Stand in Line for 10 Hours to Vote

Published: August 25, 2008

Everyone complains that young people don’t vote, but consider the experience of students at Kenyon College in Ohio in the 2004 election. Officials in Knox County, Ohio, provided just two voting machines for the school’s 1,300 voters. Some students waited in line for 10 hours, and the last bleary-eyed voter did not cast a ballot until nearly 4 a.m.

That same day in Columbus, voters in black neighborhoods waited as long as four hours, often in the rain. Many voters there and in other urban areas — including Toledo and Youngstown — left their overcrowded polling places in disgust, or because they could not wait any longer, without casting a ballot. In many of Ohio’s white-majority suburbs, the lines were far shorter.

Troubles in Ohio drew the greatest attention in 2004, but that state was hardly alone. There were complaints of long lines in other states, including Colorado, Michigan and Florida, where elderly voters endured waits in blistering heat.

I was in Ohio on Election Day 2004. The night before the voting, rumors spread that there would be a major effort by Republican operatives to challenge the registrations of voters in majority-black precincts. Those large-scale challenges did not materialize. But tens of thousands of votes were suppressed by something so mundane that no one thought to focus on it: long lines.

In Columbus, as many as 15,000 people left the polls without voting, many because of long lines. At a postelection hearing, a Youngstown pastor estimated that 8,000 black voters there did not cast ballots because of a machine shortage.

(President Bush carried Ohio by fewer than 120,000 votes.)

Most of the logistical questions about voting are generally left up to local officials. Too often they don’t want to spend the money to provide enough machines, and fail to hire or properly train enough poll workers for a smooth process.

There is also a lot of poor planning. In 2004, Ohio officials used old registration numbers to estimate their need for voting machines — failing to anticipate the large number of new voters added by registration drives that blanketed the state. It is hard, however, to rule out various forms of bias.

There have long been reports of elections administrators in college towns trying to suppress the “out of town” student vote. There is a long, painful history of obstacles to black voting. In Ohio in 2004, it seems clear that the majority of people trapped on long lines were trying to vote Democratic.

The Washington Post reported that six of the seven wards with the fewest voting machines per registered voter backed John Kerry, while 27 of the 30 wards with the most machines per registered voter went for President Bush.

Long lines are likely to be an even bigger problem this year, with the Obama campaign and various nonpartisan groups working all over the country to register millions of new voters. Without proper planning, these new voters may overwhelm polling sites.

For the sake of the legitimacy of our elections, more voting disasters — long lines, confusing ballots or unreliable electronic voting machines — must be avoided. Congress should take the lead, but it has failed even to set standards for numbers of voting machines. This year, it failed to pass a good bill that would have made funds available to states to buy backup paper ballots.

That puts more of a burden on state election officials, usually the secretaries of state, to promote fair elections.

Ohio’s dynamic new secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner — who says she is “hyperfocused on long lines” — is taking laudable steps to avoid a rerun of 2004. She has been pushing reluctant local election officials to have at least one voting machine for every 175 voters — nearly four times as many as there were at Kenyon College in 2004. She is also directing counties that use electronic voting machines to have backup paper ballots on hand equal to 25 percent of the 2004 turnout — which can also be used if lines get out of control.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has also been pushing local election officials to have backup paper ballots available, and she is providing funds for the hiring of more, and better trained, poll workers.

In the majority of states, however, too little is being done to make sure that polling places can accommodate all of the voters who show up. That is a mistake. An election in which people have to wait 10 hours to vote, or in which black voters wait in the rain for hours, while white voters zip through polling places, is unworthy of the world’s leading democracy.

Book Cover

Women voting -

It seems unfathomable to me that there was a time that women did not have the vote., and yet it is so.  It is important to look at all that has been accomplished and what continues to be sown.   Look at what can be done when sons listen to their mother.   :)

This is from The Writer's Almanac. 

It was on this day in 1920 that the 19th Amendment was formally incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. It proclaimed, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex." It ended more than 70 years of struggle by the suffragist movement.

It had passed through the House and Senate. At first, it looked like the amendment was not going to make it. And then, a 24-year-old legislator from Tennessee, Harry Burn, decided to vote for the amendment at the last minute because his mother wanted him to. And Tennessee became the 36th state to approve suffrage for women.

They sent the certified record of the Tennessee vote to Washington, D.C., and it arrived on August 26, 1920. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby signed the proclamation that morning at 8 a.m. at his home. There was no ceremony of any kind, and no photographers were there to capture the moment. And none of the leaders of the woman suffrage movement were present to see him do it. Colby just finished his cup of coffee and signed the document with a regular, steel pen. Then he said, "I turn to the women of America and say: 'You may now fire when you are ready. You have been enfranchised.'

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How to watch -

It sounds like the day of watching the major networks to get any news coverage is gone.  All that coverage for the Olympics and trying to get news of the convention from the ABC, NBC, or CBS was curtailed, and CNN and Fox showed their bias.

Dems, networks struggle over convention coverage

NEW YORK (AP) — National political conventions have become, in NBC's Brian Williams' words, "four-day infomercials." But it's not always clear the message is getting through.

The tension between convention planners and television news organizations who don't want to be seen as doing the politicians' bidding was obvious Monday during the first night of the Democratic meeting that will nominate Illinois Sen. Barack Obama for president.

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was addressing the convention, drawing a contrast between Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly was in a booth far above the delegates interviewing a pollster. O'Reilly waved in the direction of Pelosi on stage with a dismissive hand.

"Now we have Nancy Pelosi bloviating, and I say that in an affectionate way, behind us," O'Reilly said. "It doesn't seem like the crowd is on the edge of their seats."

Fox's viewers weren't allowed to judge for themselves. Same thing for CNN at the time, where Wolf Blitzer was holding court as Pelosi talked. Among the cable news networks, only MSNBC gave Pelosi's speech any real attention.

Three hours later, as CNN analysts were wrapping up the night, several talked about the absence of "red meat" attacks on the Republicans. But Democratic activist Hillary Rosen noted that Pelosi was doing some of that — only CNN wasn't really listening.

CBS was showing Katie Couric and Jeff Greenfield talking when Craig Robinson was onstage speaking about his sister, Michelle Obama. During a Jimmy Carter tribute, Fox was showing films of demonstrators outside the convention hall. There was little time spent on Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

On a night Obama's team clearly had set aside for assuring American voters that if they got to know the nation's first black major party-nominee better they would see similarities to themselves, most of the networks didn't bother listening to Obama's half-sister.

Several things may explain it. The networks paid to send much of their political talent to Denver, and want to show them off. They fear political speeches may turn off an audience that has, essentially, tuned in for political speeches. And they don't want to be sucked into an infomercial.

Viewers who want that message unfiltered were better off watching PBS or C-SPAN, which carried most of the action from the podium.

When the evening ended following Michelle O'Bama's speech about her husband, and some cute family unity with Barack Obama seen via satellite, commentators on both CNN and Fox judged that too little had happened on the first night.

"I thought it was a beautiful speech, beautifully done," said Fox's Chris Wallace. "But I can't help but feel after the first night of the convention that it was largely a wasted night."

Democratic strategist James Carville was mad that there weren't many attacks on McCain.

"They did a poor job explaining what the choices are," added CNN's David Gergen.

His colleague, John King, said that wasn't necessarily what Democrats were trying to do on the first night. "They are trying to race across the viability threshold before the Republicans can say that this man is not ready to be president," he said.

The action seemed better suited Monday for the broadcast networks. ABC, CBS and NBC are each devoting an hour each night to the convention coverage. They had originally mapped out an hour of prime-time for three of the four nights of the convention — as they all did four years ago. But strong interest in the campaign pushed the networks to add a fourth hour.

The slow moments earlier in the evening — so deadly to the cable pundits who craved more amusement — suited ABC, CBS and NBC perfectly. It enabled them to offer highlights of Sen. Edward Kennedy's emotional speech during the first half hour of their broadcasts, then segue directly into Michelle Obama's speech.

By 11 p.m. ET, the Obamas were gone.

barack obama

Hillary -

I watched the convention tonight on KQED, and it was a most satisfactory experience.    I appreciated the story of Lily Ledbetter and her struggle to get equal pay for equal work, and the amazing denial of that by this Supreme Court.   Mark Warner spoke and said, "In just four months, we'll have an administration that believes in science."  Now that is something to applaud.   He also said that in business having the only strategy be the tearing down of the competition doesn't work.  Why then would we allow McCain to have it be his only strategy, or policy at this point.  "We're all in this together."  It's about the future vs. the past.  

I enjoyed the film celebrating Hillary, and thought Chelsea looked beautiful as she gave her introduction of her mother.   I thought Hillary gave a great speech and did find tears for what might have been.  "No way!  No how!   No McCain!"   "We don't need four more years of the last eight years."    She said, it is appropriate that Bush and McCain will be together next week in the Twin Cities, because "these days they are awfully hard to tell apart."   She spoke of Harriet Tubman, and her mantra, "Keep going!  If you want a taste of freedom, keep going."   And she said now we need to get going.

The comments afterwards were supportive, though some thought she should have said more in support of Barack, and she should have refuted some of her former statements, so McCain couldn't use them in ads.

I thought she did a sincere job and looked beautiful, and as one man commented, "Eleanor Roosevelt would have been proud."

I find it all quite stimulating and hope the people who are being addressed are listening so we can all unite for the good of each one of us, the country, and the world.   She ended with "Godspeed."  Interesting, I thought.