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 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 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.


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….

What about St. Louis, MO?

There are probably many other cities like St. Louis that exist in middle America today, big cities that came into existence along the major waterways of country, along rivers like the Mississippi, Missouri, and the Ohio, cities that supported the industry, trade, and growth, of a nation that in those days was experiencing a grand optimism about its industrial future.

But times have changed in many ways, and the nature of many of these cities has also changed with these times.  The very nature of the commerce that sustains these places has necessarily changed, and brought with it changes in the lives of the humans who occupy these spaces.

Many of these cities are still easily recognizable by their distinct downtown areas, with their humongous skyscrapers that now support, or attempt to support in some way or another, the new kinds of businesses that have inevitably replaced the old ones.

But the people who live in these cities have for the most part left.  The office-goers scurry in from their comfortable suburbs in the mornings to earn their keep, and then depart just as quickly as they appeared, after work in the evening, leaving the cavernous spaces beneath the huge skyscrapers for the most part abandoned.  There are very few people in the streets.

Move just a little bit away physically from the downtown areas and you may see another unfortunate impact of these changes.  There are the poor and even abandoned neighborhoods – where the weeds may have taken over in some places, where the only people present, if any, are those living on the fringes.  These are places that one could justifiably feel uncomfortable wandering into, but their stories, and the stories of the people who once lived there, are no less compelling than those of the more fortunate.  These are the people and places that time has left behind.

Cities try to revive themselves, and thus does the city of St. Louis.  I think these processes can succeed only if the entirety of the spaces that they occupy become more livable places, not necessarily when they become places where there is simply a lot of commerce going on, and not necessarily when they become the places that people tend to visit (but only the “safe” sections!) to get a temporary thrill of some kind or another every once in a while, only to abandon the place when night falls.



Is Health Care a Right? | The New Yorker

This is a fairly long article, but it is a worthwhile read, especially for those of us who live in the US.   It could give you a window into viewpoints about the healthcare debate outside the bubble of our own existences and thinking.

via Is Health Care a Right? | The New Yorker

Carson City, NV

The visit to Carson City in Nevada was an afterthought that occurred only after we had already started our vacation, after we had left San Francisco on our multi-day drive through California and Nevada.  Our visit there strengthens my opinion that a vacation experience is not just about going to well known places and looking for the extraordinary.  Sometimes you can enjoy the simple experiences and things that would not be considered noteworthy in the normal course of events.

We had spent the night in Reno and were about to head south in the morning, along the eastern shore of Lake Tahoe, on our way to Mammoth Lakes for our stopover for that night.  The thought had occurred to me that it would be nice to take a short detour to Carson City if possible just for the heck of it.  After all, Carson City is the capital of the state of  Nevada.  The only other item of note as far as we were concerned was the fact that Mark Twain had spent a few years of his life there.  Still, we were curious. Perhaps there was something new to learn by visiting the town.

But a detour to Carson City from Lake Tahoe would take up additional time just for the driving even though the two places were close by, especially if we wanted to visit the entire eastern shore of the lake (which would involve driving back and forth between the two places).    We could save time visiting just the top half or the bottom half of the east shore of Lake Tahoe, while cutting east-west between the two destinations just once at the half-way mark.

We awoke to threatening skies on the morning of the drive.  This was a view from our hotel room in Reno.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASince driving on the winding roads in the area of the lake in the rain was not likely to be fun, we made a quick decision to head straight down to Carson City and to try to get to Lake Tahoe later in the day.

Carson City looked quite underwhelming when we arrived.  It looked small and unimposing.   It did not look like the capital of a state to me!  The city appeared to have one main drag, Carson Street, that went from north to south, with a few smaller streets parallel to it, and others cutting across in a grid.  I could see no big buildings typical of a big town, let alone a capital city.  The houses were modest in size and older.  There was hardly any traffic on the main road.  The place certainly looked laid back, and as if it had seen better times.

It was time for us to learn more about Carson City.  We drove down Carson Street to the Visitor Center to get information.  We learned that Carson City was named after Kit Carson, and that one of the important historical markers in town was the mint which had now been converted into a section of the Nevada State Museum.  We got a map of the city and a description of a walking tour of about 2.5 miles that covered all the noteworthy sights in town.  (Yes, the town was small enough to be covered that easily!)  The path taken during the walk was called the Kit Carson Trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe kind lady at the visitor center told us that we could park almost anywhere, except at the visitor center where the meter lady would make an occasional appearance.  There was ample parking in front of the houses on the side streets.  It was certainly a nice change to be driving in a city where one could relax and not worry about some impatient person who wanted to get in front of you, or about finding a place to park.

We had a choice of going to the museum or taking a walk along parts of the Kit Carson trail.  We started with the walk since it was not raining at that time.  The main drag, Carson Street, was mostly empty of traffic.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany storefronts on the street looked like they were shuttered down and in a state of disuse.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked past the obligatory casino in town.  It appeared to have seen better days (and this was true of most of the casinos we saw in small towns in Nevada).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can seen the sign for an abandoned casino next to Cactus Jack’s casino in the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe following building was the only one of note in that section of the strip.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe side streets had an equally empty feel about them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou would have a hard time believing that you were in a capital city.

But in very short order we found ourselves on the grounds of the Nevada State Capitol.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe did indeed see a few people in somewhat formal clothes walk in and out of the building, indicating that some sort of business of note was taking place in these offices.  This contrasted with the feel of the rest of the town itself.  It did not seem to take itself that seriously!

Our next stop was on one of the side streets off the main road, at an art gallery that Angela had found in the city guide.  The rain was beginning to fall steadily at this point, but we were OK since we had our rain gear with us.  I saw this other art gallery on the way.  It seemed to blend in well with the “small” nature of the place.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe building pictured below was our destination for this visit.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey were having an exhibition of entries from a statewide art competition.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn our way out of the exhibition, the lady who was manning the information table (a turn of phrase that might be considered inappropriate by some :-)) noted that she spent a lot of her time giving tours at the museum.  She then gave us a strong recommendation to spend some time there.  Seeing that the rain was not slowing down, we decided that this was indeed what we would do.

We continued our walk along the Kit Carson trail (marked in blue on the sidewalk) on our way to the museum.  The skies began to clear up a little bit (temporarily, as it turned out) as we walked.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed the building where Mark Twain had lived for a few years.   (Mark Twain actually followed his brother, Orion Clemens, the first Secretary to the new government of the Territory of Nevada, to Carson City.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The building appeared to be owned by an Insurance Company!

We continued to walk the back roads of the city.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACloser to the museum, on Carson Street, we passed memorials for the Lincoln Highway, the first coast to coast highway, and the old Pony Express, the paths of both of which used to run through Carson City.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe arrived at the museum, passing by the old mint building on our way to the entrance. The visit turned out to be quite interesting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey had a big section in the museum about the minting operations that are a part of the history of the city.  This mint worked primarily with silver, and it seems that the minting operations only lasted a few years.  This is a picture of a coin press machine which is still operational and used occasionally.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThey had a reconstruction of a mine at the lowest level of the museum.  This covered all aspects of the mining process including the construction of the underground structures, the extraction and supply processes, and the safety elements of the operation.  This is a picture of a slide that was used to move material from one level to another below it within the mine.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASilver and gold were mined in these parts, and mining used  to be a significant source of employment for people.

There was a section on natural history, including displays about animals and birds, and the about the geology of the area.  The place has a history of significant volcanic activity. They tackled the more recent history of human settlement in that area.  European arrival in Nevada is actually a very recent happening (in a relative sense).   They had a separate section in the museum put together from the Native American perspective (which can be quite different than the White Man’s way of thinking).  There is some tension even today between the Native Americans and the “modern world” in many regards.  The Native Americans try to live in harmony with their surroundings whereas modern man was (and still is) more intent on taking control over and exploiting their surroundings and resources.  We found out that whereas modern man has no hesitation or compunctions about digging up ancient Indian burial sites to study and try to understand life in olden times, the Native Americans believe that their ancestors are to be left alone in their quest for eternal peace in the afterlife.  Even though I have my own scientific curiosity,  I know where my sympathies lie.

The rain had returned with a vengeance as we prepared to leave the museum.  We headed out to a cafe that had been recommended to us for lunch.  It was called the L. A. Bakery Cafe and Eatery.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe place was a delightful surprise.  The family had opened the cafe in 2012, selling healthy foods with a light Mediterranean touch. The business seemed to have caught on and become a success with the local population.  From the plaques and other hangings on the walls, I gathered that they had received recognition from the local community and accolades from the local business groups for what they was doing.  They were in the process of expanding their business.  The food was really healthy and tasty.  (I wish I had taken a picture of my salad!)

It was still raining after lunch.  Given that we had stayed longer than we had anticipated in town, and since the weather was not really cooperating, we gave up on making the side trip to Lake Tahoe and decided to take the most direct route for Mammoth Lakes.

Since we had some more time on our hands because of the change in plans, I suggested that we visit the railroad museum, one of the two more significant tourist destinations in town noted in the tour guides (the other one was the state museum).  We found out as we were driving towards  the museum that we had arrived in town on the one day of the week that it was closed. We had to satisfy ourselves with a drive past in the rain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was on to Mammoth Lakes for an earlier arrival than originally planned.  The weather kept changing during the drive.  We even saw a rainbow at some point,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbut later on, as we climbed into the mountains, we also ran into a few heavy snowstorms that came out of nowhere and presented some fairly challenging driving conditions every once in a while. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA But I will leave the stories of our further adventures during this trip for another day.