The Unexpected Experiences

We had arrived in Florence, AL, the previous evening for a weekend event, and had spent the night in a hotel room beside the highway.  We woke up early (considering the local time) because of the difference in longitude between the place we were visiting and our home (which we had departed the previous morning).  We had traveled in a south westerly direction the previous day.   I raised the shades covering the window pane just to take a look outside. This is what I saw. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sky was an optimal mix of purple and orange and shades in-between, with the clouds at different locations in the sky passing through different frequencies of the color spectrum.   I quickly pulled up a pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and dashed out of the front door of the hotel to get another view that would hopefully not be blocked by something in front of me.  By the time I got to a clear location, the moment was gone.  This was what I saw.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsider the different elements that came together for me to have this experience.  First of all, I had to open up the shades of the window at the proper moment in time when the sun was at the position that it was in relative to that location on the planet.  Secondly, the window to the room that we were staying in had to be facing east so that I would indeed see the event. (Being on the third floor of the hotel also helped.)  Thirdly, the cloud formation had to be right for me to get a glimpse of all those colors.  I would probably have not enjoyed this experience if any one of the three elements had been out of place.

Some may be tempted to invoke divine intervention as the cause for the circumstances of this experience. But if this had indeed  been a set up, I would consider it a partial screw-up – at the moment when the sunrise was at its best, I could only view it through the branches of a tree, and by the time I got to a location where I could get a better view,  that moment was over.  But perhaps the screw-up was also purposeful, eh?!  We can go on and on…

Best to take it as it comes and try to be prepared for the unexpected experiences, both good and bad.

A Bridge in Montgomery County in Maryland and the African American Experience

Some people think of systemic racism as a thing of the distant past, especially if they happen to live in a part of the country which in the 19th century fought for freeing the slaves.  But institutional racism was alive even in the later half of the 20th century, and in some senses is alive even today.  I would bet that there are some practices today that future generations will look at and say – how could we have accepted that?  The current state of the national education system comes to mind in this regard.   The video below presents life experiences of people who lived, and are living, some of these experiences, told through the story of the bridge.  Not all stories make it to the limelight.

Talbot Avenue Bridge will eventually be demolished and replaced by a new bridge that is a part of the Purple Line project for light commuter rail.  I understand that parts of the original bridge will be saved and moved to locations where they can be used as memorials to remind us of our history.

P.S.  I biked across the Talbot Avenue bridge last year as part of training for my long ride.  The bridge is a part of the Georgetown Branch trail, which is an extension of the Capital Crescent Trail.

Costs of our Life Styles

What we may not realize here in the US is that a lot of consumer products, and some of the services that we use, can be remarkably inexpensive in the grand scheme of things. In some cases it is hard to imagine how a product can even be made available to sell at the particular cost point to our benefit.  Some of our mass-produced food and clothing come to mind in this regard.   Economists will probably tell you that there are many reasons for this, and several factors that make this possible.  My point is that things are this way also because we, the public, generally wish it to be that way.  While we might feel good about the situation we are in in this regard for the moment, some of this does come at a cost, a cost that we ignore because we do not like to think about things for the longer term and in the bigger picture.  We may not realize that the situation could be a cause of issues over the long run.  Perhaps the living is really not that easy.

One of the results of our desire for cheap stuff is that we are willing to go anywhere in the world to get them.  This is probably the primary reason for the successful existence of Walmart.  I know that I myself like a good bargain and do not necessarily look for where the product came from. Cheap consumer products are brought in from some place abroad – where they can be produced less expensively – with cheaper raw material, with cheaper labor, with perhaps poorer working conditions, and maybe even using environmentally exploitative methods. In some cases even child labor may be involved.  We also look for the least expensive way to get work done, for a cost that we would not be willing to pay ourselves if we were ourselves in the business. We  are willing to exploit other people whom we we might even consider less equal to us in some ways.  And then we can get upset with the others when there are other issues that arise.  And if there are middlemen involved who have their own axe to grind, people can get squeezed even more to support our way of life.

Most of us will go go through life without even thinking about these kinds of consequences about the things we do and accept as normal, but it is also good to read about organizations that see what is happening and try to make at least a small (may be very small!) difference in changing how society works in these contexts.

https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/08/13/634962251/ben-jerrys-milk-with-dignity-pact-with-farmworkers-seems-to-be-paying-off?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=news

We should be supporting such organizations, and perhaps even be willing to go the additional mile in this regard in terms of possibly accepting an increased cost of living.  I believe there are organizations that focus on this kind of concept if one is serious about this.  Here is a link to one.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fair_Trade_USA

It is also not too difficult these days to get a better understanding of how your favorite store sources their products, and to respond appropriately.

 

 

St. Louis Union Station

This blog will serve as a postscript for my trip to the city.  After my visit to St. Louis in October last year, I wrote a blog about the struggle of older cities like St. Louis to thrive in this day and age.  In many cases, the downtown areas have become shells of their old selves, likely to also be surrounded by neighborhoods which are in a state of disrepair.  Most of the better-off population tends to live in the suburbs.  When people think about reviving such downtown areas, it is mostly about attracting businesses and tourism, but not about making the place more livable.

St. Louis Union Station is an example of this approach to downtown revival.  Opened in 1894, it was at one time the largest and busiest railroad station in the country, serving as a gateway between the east and west.   But times change, and the last train departed St Louis Union Station in 1978.  Today, the space has been re-purposed for a different function, a sign of changing times.

The first sight I got of the the station during this trip was from Interstate 64. The highway is elevated at this point and as you are driving, off to the side, you can see the distinctive roof-line of the old station.  The structure is quite big, and it looks like it is in a state of disuse, like an old industrial building.  The roof looks like it is rusting and falling apart.  At that time I was told that the structure I was looking at was Union Station, but I did not know what lay under it.  I then got the opportunity to see the station from another perspective, from the road that went past its former entrance.  It did look grand, and it turned out that this was now an entrance to a hotel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was later, the day after Angela’s surgery, and she was interested in going for a walk.  We headed out to the location of the station on foot because I had expressed a curiosity about it when we had driven past earlier.  We were actually expecting it to be an Amtrak train station.  When we arrived, we found that we could not enter the building from the doors on the side.  It seemed liked they had been deliberately disabled.  The place looked shabby and I was thinking that there must be some concern about security in the area.  We went back to the front.  The signs indicated that it was an entrance to a hotel – no sign of an Amtrak railroad station.  There were attendants in front of the building waiting to help guests.  We entered one of the doors into a huge open space.  To our left, we could see the old station building.  Some of the rooms had been converted into hotel suites.   To our right were structures that looked new. This seemed to be the  space occupied by the hotel. The space where we were standing was probably near where the train tracks and the platforms terminated in the past.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The place had an empty feel about it.  We walked through the hallway hoping to find a way into the station itself, but it appeared that this was the entrance only to the hotel, and we were uncertain if we could walk into the station area that surely lay beyond the hotel.  We ended up exiting the hotel from one of the side doors (one which we had previously, unsuccessfully, tried to open from the outside).

We then walked along the outside of the station building to its other end.  There were no other people around, and the place did not look inviting.  There were extensive signs of construction work going on.

It was only then that it dawned on us that this was not a real train station any more.  We found a way to enter the premises and a surprise awaited us.  There were a couple of high end restaurants under the station area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the distance, towards the front of the station, you could see the hotel buildings, a multistory affair that fit comfortably under the roof in the cavernous space of this huge structure.  There was a big pool of water immediately in front of us where a show with music, fire, and light began just as we entered.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were fish in the pool.P8040018-1.jpgWe could feel the heat from the fires that were being lit as a part of the show, and I was wondering how all of this affected the fish.  Perhaps they were crowded to the side of the pool for reasons other than the promise of food from a tourist.  There were very few people around to watch the show.  In fact, there were very few people around at all.

You probably realize by now that there were no railway tracks left in this space.  This was how this area, the train shed, looked in the old dayshttps://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fd/Union_Station_St_Louis_diagram.jpg(Image from Wikimedia)

What a change!

There were actually a few tracks left, and they were in the space on the extreme left side of the picture above. The tracks ended on platforms without roofs. These tracks converged into a single pair that joined this section up to the mainline.  Perhaps this section was still in use for special events and occasions. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I read later that this conversion of the station into a place for tourists happened in the 1980s.  It turns out that there was even a Ferris wheel present in front of the train shed at some point in time.  It was probably taken away before the present renovation stated.

But the significant thought that I had about all of this was mainly about the incongruous nature of what I was seeing.  It all seemed quite out of place.  This was not a touristy area of town, and in fact that place looked uninviting.  The surrounding area had a gritty feel to it and there were not too many people around.  Yet, here was a very high end hotel hidden under a somewhat decrepit looking shell.  And they were seemingly in the process of reviving a concept that I was not sure had worked that well for them the first time. Based on what I saw, I guessed that there might have been a time in the past, before the reconstruction, when there had been more commercial establishments in the place, and that these had disappeared over time.  One could take a guess as to what had happened.

Here are a couple of parting shots that show elements of the structure of the roof from the outside of the station.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

While one hopes that things work out for the city of St. Louis in their attempts at urban renewal, it is my fear that making a success of this particular effort for the long run is going to be quite difficult.

And then there were the other, different, types of impressions I got on the occasions that I went to Forest Park, each time for a different purpose.  The early morning run, almost 6 miles, approximately along the perimeter of the park – past a museum, golf courses, ball fields, a zoo, etc.., and past older homes and an Interstate highway on the outsides of the park, revealed the vibrant and resilient side of the city.  They have succeeded in making this place very inviting for the locals.  There were a lot of people around early in the morning on foot and on bikes.  It was a diverse crowd.  Being in a new place, I was trying to keep to myself, but I had to respond to the many cheerful good mornings.  (Some day I would like somebody to take a picture of my face when I am running – without my being aware of the presence of the photographer!)   And then when we went to see the play in the park later in the evening, at the Muny, the crowd was quite animated.  It was a well dressed, but less diverse, crowd where we were sitting towards the front.  There was a palpable sense of pride about their town, perhaps because of the fact that the musical we were watching was about St. Louis.   If anything is going to keep the city alive it is its people, and I hope they do not simply depend only on a misplaced sense of nostalgia in what they are attempting to do.  Times change!

I hope for the best.

I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt: The Conversation

The democratization of “science” and “information” by the Internet has enabled many strange things today, including acceptance of lines of thinking that one would have expected reasonable people to scoff at in the past, and events that some people would consider quite surprising during our times, such as the results of the US presidential elections in 2016.

Despite early claims, from as far back as HG Well’s “world brain” essays in 1936, that a worldwide shared resource of knowledge such as the internet would create peace, harmony and a common interpretation of reality, it appears that quite the opposite has happened. With the increased voice afforded by social media, knowledge has been increasingly decentralised, and competing narratives have emerged.

via I watched an entire Flat Earth Convention for my research – here’s what I learnt

The Zuckerberg Strategy for Technology Development

I think I actually understand the Mark Zuckerberg strategy for developing technology and making a business of it.   It is an approach based on placing a product or a feature out there for the public with a limited understanding of its broad impact.  You learn from the responses to the features.  If changes or fixes are to be made they will be made based on feedback, and as the problems arise.  You experiment with new features.  If indeed problems arise for customers, you can respond by apologizing, and it would be an apology that could be sincere since you did not take the trouble to dig more deeply into possible problem scenarios itself.

I think this is a valid approach in some business scenarios and applications, especially if the problems that can arise are most likely to have limited impact on the customer and can be contained, and mostly if the service is free.  But Facebook has become too big for this kind of a strategy to continue to work.  If too many people are impacted, the government gets involved.

If I were to fault Facebook with regards to the problems they have been having recently, it would be for not recognizing the serious nature of the misuse of the system promptly and responding to it.  They seem to have a policy strategy of trying to buy time while not promptly addressing issues that are becoming obvious.   They allowed their system to be co-opted by others to spread misinformation as if it was the truth.  However, in this context, I am not sure what the authorities can hold them liable for.  I am not sure there is any legal basis in current law to prosecute with.

The above problem should be separated from a second one that should not have happened.  There seems to have been a breakdown in Facebook’s security process that led to private data being exposed, a breakdown that should have legal repercussions.

Meanwhile, I am highly amused at all the outrage that is being directed Facebook’s way – as if people did not understand the risks they were taking by participating on this platform.  Any sensible person should realize that when you place your life story on the Internet, and when you do so with a free service, you are taking a big risk.  It is a free service only because your information is being sold to advertisers.   You signed away your privacy.  And Facebook in particular has pushed the boundaries on how to take advantage of the information you provide.  And the platform also seems to be designed to draw out more information about you from you than you might first have been inclined to provide.  Also realize that even when you are given options for privacy from a vendor, you are still at the mercy of the vendor.  You don’t know what goes on behind the button that you have just pressed, or the data you have entered, on the screen.  You could logically believe that they will not take the risk of breaking the law, but anything beyond that is a matter of “trust”.

Would you not be naturally suspicious of a non-philanthropic private organization that provides a free service, and ask yourself how they intend to make money?  Would you not read and understand more carefully the User’s Agreement that you have with a company that is offering you the free service?

In this context, we are our own worst enemies.  We should be protecting ourselves better even without new regulations from government.  People are being manipulated very easily.

 

The Brave New World of Artificial Intelligence

Experience has taught me to be skeptical about new technology.  Many years ago I anticipated that the tools of the Internet could create a virtual world of grief similar to what we see in the real world today.  I feel that my fears have been justified.

Some of these new technologies are presented to us in a somewhat idealistic manner when they first arrive on the scene.  We were told that the Internet was going to open the world to the masses by providing universal connectivity and tools for communication, and thus even up the playing field for the everybody.  Technologies like this were going to transform the world for the better.  We just needed to let the technology loose to see all its life-changing benefits.   We are so full of ourselves that we do not even pause sufficiently to think about possible problems we may create.  This is silly.  We seem to be ignoring natural human behavior.  Human tendency is to eventually find a way to destroy every good thing.

And now there is this thing called Artificial Intelligence.

The subject of Artificial Intelligence has been a topic of research for many years.  The name seems to imply that machines can be made to think like human beings (is that even a good thing?), and eventually they should be able to behave like humans.  I have been a skeptic, although I will admit to not having spent enough time to really understand what it all means.  I think the name itself is a turnoff for me, making it sound like it is more than it really is.

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, is becoming more mainstream these days, and the definition has undergone a little bit more of a refinement in my mind.  Specifically, AI is not to be considered in too broad a sense today, but in a more focused manner.  These days one primarily thinks about AI for particular functions.  For example, AI might help to design an autonomous vehicle where the vehicle reacts as if a human were in control, but that does not mean that the same machine can climb a tree or make a good cup of coffee, or plan a vacation.  Implementations of “AI” are compartmentalized, be it  for speech recognition, image classification, autonomous vehicles,  question-answering systems, etc..

And what is basically happening is that we now have enough processing power in computing systems, and the ability to collect, store, and process (in some statistical manner), large amounts of historical data related to particular functions and features, to allow us to design systems in which decisions can be made by computers in a similar way to the human decision making process that created the data that was collected in the first place, and to do so with a fair degree of confidence.   I hear terms related to the general topic of AI – machine learning, neural networks, deep learning, data mining, pattern recognition, etc.., subjects that I know very little about, but in my mind they all seem to be about finding ways to process data to come to up with algorithms to make decisions.  (I understand that neural networks in particular are about algorithms that try to mimic the neural networks in the brain.)

So things are moving along in this field, and I think it is because of the advancement of basic technologies related to data collection and processing.  New algorithms and approaches are being invented to use all this capability.  AI is becoming more fashionable as a  technology concept.  It is so enticing a concept, and the technology is moving ahead at such a fast pace, that not many people seem to be dwelling on the possible dangers. But this may also be changing, and people like Stephen Hawkings and Elon Musk, and other experts, have spoken up on this topic in recent times.  (You can see the letter that is referred to in the previous link here.)  I myself am not sure that we can create a machine that is greater than the input that went into its design in the sense of decision making, a superintelligence if you will.  But we could sure mess up when multiple decision making processes are involved and they are not brought together properly, or if the learning processes themselves are not done properly.  The results could be unexpected.  Here are some simpler examples of unexpected results with AI in real life.

https://www.infoworld.com/article/3184205/technology-business/danger-danger-10-alarming-examples-of-ai-gone-wild.html#slide1

My concern with AI would be something similar to what has happened in the world of universal networking and the Internet.  It is about the innate human tendency to try to exploit systems for their own benefit at the expense of others.  Who would have imagined the kind of hacking that exists today on the Internet, with bad players easily being able to access, slow down, steal from, and control, systems that they do not own, for their own nefarious purposes.  We were very naive in the initial design of the Internet.  Security was not tackled as one of the fundamental requirements in the design of protocols for the Internet.   The system is deliberately quite open.  Security is only added on at the higher protocol levels when it is thought to be needed.

When it comes to AI, the one subject I have not read much about yet is the likelihood of AI design being motivated by the wrong reasons, for fundamentally bad purposes.  An extreme example would be the development of technology based on AI that could be the foundation of robot battlefields.  We seem to be part of the way there conceptually with the extensive use of remote drone technologies these days.

Since AI depends on a process where algorithms are developed based on data collection, what if some organization, or some person, decides to skew this learning process deliberately to reflect a thinking process that is geared towards destructive outcomes.  And what if this kind of technology infiltrates the mainstream in a way that is difficult to contain (just like it happens with hacking on the Internet these days).   Will human beings be then fated to try to build systems to try to contain this infestation when it would have been easier and wiser to not even let it start in the first place.   Is it possible that there are bad players who are already in the process of taking advantage of the new forces we are about to unleash with the easier availability of tools to enable AI.

I have a bad feeling about what is going to happen with the new level of technology that is being created.  And I have the sense that we will try to muddle through the new problems that we create, problems that are of our own doing. We will band-aid specific issues as they arise, when it would have been wiser to consider all the possible ramifications of what we are doing up front.

In the world of medicine and health, we always seem to be on the verge of having an epidemic of some kind that existing systems are incapable of handling, but we have been fortunate to survive through such episodes even in more recent times as a human race  for various reasons.  Sometimes, like in the case of the recent Ebola epidemic, it takes desperate measures and some luck.  Will we always be so fortunate?

I wonder if it is possible to have similar scenarios for damage and destruction to humanity and its systems with technologies like AI.

Having written all this, I am hoping that somebody who reads this will tell me that my fears are unfounded, that my ignorance of AI extends even beyond what I have noted here, and that the foundations of the technology will not allow what I have speculated about to happen.  I would love to be pleasantly surprised.  Please, please, please….