Monday, July 31, 2006

In the sandtrap

It is the conventional wisdom that the Middle East is turning into a giant mess, especially in reference to the current war between Israel and Hezbollah. As it happens, I agree with this theory but have a little different spin on it. But first we have to back up a little bit to explain where we are now.

First of all, Hezbollah is a terror group. It has no legitimate existence. It's primary intent is to kill and torture it's enemies, mostly but not exclusively Israel. It also does social service work, but not in the same way a Western charity would. It uses its social work to increase and maintain it's political base for terror, with a secondary aim of indoctrination as well.

Sometimes people don't realize that terror groups are, in general, pretty weak, militarily speaking. They make a living on attacking soft targets with brutality, intending to shock the political associates of the victims into capitulation. Hezbollah has, in the present conflict, significantly stepped up in weight class. They are launching ongoing missle strikes from Lebanon into Israel, and have been made significant company-size coordinated maneuvers, and have maintained military-style command and control.

This is very very bad news. The good that could possibly come of it is that the nature of the threat is so severe as to motivate Israel to eliminate the group in toto. But that ship has sailed, or is just about ready to. Apparently, maybe Israel intends to 'weaken' or 'degrade' Hezbollah's capability, at least to the point where they are no longer the target of Hezbollah missile strikes, though they haven't done this yet. But even if Israel accomplishes this, it will still be very much the worse off. The diplomatic fallout for the tremendous damage to civilian infrastructure will be very bad, in Lebanon and elsewhere. All the while Hezbollah, even if weakened, will still be the strongest player in Lebanese society.

Frankly, at this point it's anybody's guess what Israel's strategy is. I personally don't know, and others whose opinion I respect are at a loss as well.

Poland, again

Okay, so I'm back in Poland again, so let's do a little update. First, one thing that I didn't realize before I came here that seems obvious in hindsight is that when you learn a new language and are exposed to a new culture, you tend to be immersed the popular bourgeois aspects of it.

So what is Poland like, at least Krakow in the year two thousand and six?

Well, the underlying concern is the standard of living, and it underlies just about all the issues in the public arena today; money, jobs, European Union, emigration. Obviously these are important concerns the whole world over, but it has a special flavor here. Whereas an American might think to himself "What is my best career direction and how can I best leverage my talents?" a Pole would say "How can I support myself and my family right now?" Unemployment is at roughly 20%, and millions of young people (and others) have left for greener pastures. The point isn't necessarily that life in Poland is completely dire, but rather that Polish society and individual Poles have a very interesting road ahead that will define their standard of living, and the contingencies of it dominate the thoughts of Polish society.

By contrast, the nature of Polish culture and how it is expressed in today's world as opposed to Communist times (what I am interested in) is much less important.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Whither AI?

Strictly speaking, on a practical level Artificial Intelligence has been a failure since it was invented fifty years ago. That is, even though computers and machines are more useful and do more things better than ever before in history, they are no closer to demonstrating true consciousness or intelligence. You might even say they are further away. Tom Bethell has a interesting retrospective in the current issue of the American Spectator and worth a read (link is subscription only).

But there's one thing I want to dwell on, because in considering the things that computers can or can't do, there is an interesting insight into the human consciousness which is end of all this effort. Bethell mentions Cyc, a multi-decade AI project intended to rigorously describe all the rules that a young child knows about the time he enters

"The New Scientist reported earlier this year that Cyc now contains around 300,000 concepts, 'such as 'sky' and 'blue,' and around 3 million different assertions, such as 'the sky is blue,' in a format that can be used by computers to make deductions.'
There's still a long way to go, though. 'Despite more than 20 years' work, the Cyc project contains only about 2 percent of the information its designers think it needs to operate with something like human intelligence.'"

Why is something so simple so difficult? Because the child knows very early that reality exists, something that he is part but not all of. The child psychologist Jean Piaget famously claimed that babies acquire the idea of object persistence around the age of 1. Eg, if a ball rolls behind a sofa and out the other side, the ball on one side of the sofa is the same object as the ball on the other side, and furthermore, it still existed even when it was out of vision. Because things like 'ball', 'sofa', 'sky', or 'blue' are in the child's consciousness as part of reality, every observation is an opportunity to make inferences or generalizations about reality or specific objects in it.

For all the things it does well, the computer is at a monumental disadvantage here. It has no comprehension of reality to generalize from, so every conceivable aspect of a 'sofa' has to be directly input as a rule or data point. And even for the very simplest things, there are too many such aspects for the computer to get a good handle on.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Global Hot Air

My friend JR sends me this link, which is as useful a summary of the conventional wisdom regarding global warming as anything. The point being is that there is a strong consensus among scientists (though not a unanimous one*) that global warming is real.

Where a lot of people go wrong is to assume that this is conclusive: we have figured out everything we need, we need to start acting now (JR may believe this himself, if he stops by he can speak for himself). The environmentalist agenda on global warming is much bigger than this. It is fairly summarized in four points:

1. The phenomenon is real and significant.

2. It is caused by human economic activity, mostly excess carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

3. If it continues, the consequences will dramatic and adverse.

4. The only solution is immediate radical economic change, primarily by mandating severe worldwide reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

The "consensus", insofar as it exists, only extends as far as #1 above. (It is also very important to note that just be because there is a scientific consensus behind something doesn't mean that it is true.) The point being, is that all four of these propositions are very highly debatable (and #4 in particular very dubious).

Now by itself, that might not mean anything. Most important decisions are made upon incomplete information. By the time all the relevant information is available, the window for useful action has most likely past. But this is an exception. The sort of thing that would make the environmentalists happy in this case is so radical that we cannot do it haphazardly. It is essentially a worldwide group suicide pact for life as we know it. When you look at a big enough picture, it doesn't matter very much what the nature of our problems are, the nature of the solutions are the same. We as people can only work, create, innovate, perservere, adapt until the problems are gone or at least managed. But that is exactly what the environmentalists want to take away from us. The more religiously motivated among them are doing this on purpose, even.