Local Election Day blues

Where I live, we are just voting today for local elections.  We just have a state senator to pick and a number of county offices.  But for the last several months we have been subject to getting multiple automated phone calls a day conducting polls, demonizing opponents, and scaring us into voting for particular candidates.  Opposition research, negative campaigning, and hyperbolic rhetoric have trickled down into local elections.   (The last robocall I answered insinuated that one candidate’s support of the 2nd Amendment made him liable for the shootings at Virginia Tech.)  Apparently, local candidates are hiring out of state firms to provide these political services.   (I answered an automated call from Olympia, Washington, telling us who to vote for in a race for county sheriff!)

The theory is that local government is closer and more responsive to individual citizens, who elect their neighbors to represent them in public office.  National government, by contrast, is more remote.   Reformers are calling for a smaller central government with more power devolving to state and local governments.

But what if state and local governments are likewise dysfunctional, bound just as much to special interests and oblivious to the civic virtues?

It is true that local issues often finesse the liberal/conservative polarization that has paralyzed the national government.  The divisions in many local governments are on the order of “pro-development” (uniting free-market pro-business conservatives and pro-jobs liberals) vs. “anti-development” (uniting conservatives who want to preserve the pristine character of the community and anti-capitalist environmentalists).  Although I don’t see a civic consensus being possible with that kind of polarization either.

Perhaps this kind of political strife is intrinsic to democracy.  Still, having lived in a number of communities not all that different from where I live today, I don’t remember local elections being like this.

The genius of Steve Jobs

I was asked to write up something about the death of Steve Jobs for the Lutheran Witness website.  I’ll link to that when it goes up.  In the meantime, here is something in today’s Washington Post that I think is very telling about the man’s  genius.

It seems the public was disappointed about the unveiling of the iPhone4S.  Apparently, it didn’t look much different from the old iPhones.  People were looking for matters of appearance.  But look at the reality of what this new device can do:

The launch wasn’t really about the phone at all. It was about the software inside and possibly the kick-start of the next big revolution in how we interact with our gadgets.

That software is called Siri, but Apple would like for you to think of it as your “intelligent assistant.” And what Siri does is nothing short of amazing.

Siri can listen to your “natural language” (that is, words spoken as you would to another human, not a computer) questions or requests and respond like a digital secretary. It’s not just that Siri listens, either. The software is capable of understanding the context of what you’re talking about, so if you ask it to set an alarm on your phone, it will ask you for what time. And again, you don’t. Have. To. Talk. Really. Slowly.

If you ask Siri to schedule an appointment, it will not only check to see if it conflicts with any of your other meetings but will help you juggle the time slot until you have your day’s events mapped out. Siri will find movie theaters close to you or tell you how to get home from your current location. It can identify family members, spouses and co-workers you’re always talking to, and it knows when people’s birthdays, anniversaries or other big events are coming up.

Here’s an example of a chat I had with Siri:

Me: “Schedule an appointment with Jack for 3:30 p.m.”

Siri: “Okay, here’s your meeting. Note that you already have a meeting that overlaps with this. Should I schedule it anyway?”

Me: “Change the time.”

Siri: “Okay, Joshua, what’s the new time and date for this meeting?”

After I learned that my new time overlapped again, I asked Siri to cancel the meeting, and it asked me if I wanted it removed from my calendar. All this happened in the span of a minute or so, and all of it felt strangely normal.

More interestingly, Siri is plugged into Yelp and Wolfram Alpha (a search engine dedicated to finding facts instead of Web pages). If you ask Siri how much $45 is in British pounds, it can tell you the answer. Or how many cups are in a gallon (16, for the measurement challenged). But again, the best part of this is that you don’t have to tone down or over compensate for computer hearing. Siri listens like a person, and often responds that way, too.

via Apple Siri: the next big revolution in how we interact with gadgets? – The Washington Post.

It seems to me that Jobs and his company did not just give people what they want, following the dictates of the marketplace.  Certainly, someone who does that is likely to have great success.  Rather, he came up with things no one knew they wanted, things they never even dreamed of.  He led the marketplace.

There is a lesson here for churches that want to engage the culture and Christians who want to make an impact.   Just conforming to cultural trends and following fashions is not going to do very much.  Try addressing what the culture does NOT already have, finding something that it needs or that it doesn’t know that it needs.  Don’t just imitate the dominant styles.  Invent new styles that other people might imitate, to the point that your style might become dominant.  Don’t follow the culture.  Lead it.

This applies also to technology, business, and the arts.

Predator drones for bad guys

A predator drone killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaida leader, propagandist, and recruiter.  Complicating the matter is that he and one of his minions also killed in the Yemen attack were  American citizens.   Some are concerned that executing an American like this is a violation of our constitutional rights for due process and a fair trial.  Others say that al-Awlaki is a textbook example of a traitor who is fighting on the side of his country’s enemies and that being killed in this quasi-military operation is what happens in war.  It has nothing to do with the legal system.

Some of you have already been arguing about this is another post (rather than staying on topic), but let’s take this in another direction.  Do you think predators should be used in law enforcement?

In which of these cases would you support their use?

(1)  Against the Mexican drug lords who are terrorizing Mexico (in consultation with that country’s authorities)?

(2)  Against domestic organized crime leaders?

(3)  In situations that call for deadly force, such as against snipers or holed-up killers, as another weapon in the arsenal of SWAT teams?

(4)  To patrol dangerous neighborhoods?

(5)  As a high tech cop on the beat, used mostly for surveillance but carrying a weapon?

(6)  Used for surveillance but without the Hellfire missile?

How would you handle the constitutional issues?  Is this just another weapon or just another tool, or are there particular legal or moral problems with it?

Help us draw some lines.

via Anwar al-Awlaki: Is killing US-born terror suspects legal? – CSMonitor.com.

Watch out for falling satellite

If you see this thing plummeting down on you Friday afternoon, we’ll help you account for it:

 

 

Here is the forecast as of Thursday evening:

While North America appears to be off the hook, scientists are scrambling to pinpoint exactly where and when a dead NASA climate satellite will plummet back to Earth on Friday. The 6-ton, bus-sized satellite is expected to break into more than a hundred pieces as it plunges through the atmosphere, most of it burning up.

But if you’re hoping for a glimpse, the odds are slim. Most sightings occur by chance because the re-entry path can’t be predicted early enough to alert people, said Canadian Ted Molczan, who tracks satellites for a hobby. . . .

The best guess so far is that the 20-year-old Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite will hit sometime on Friday afternoon Eastern time. The latest calculations indicate that it will not be over the United States, Canada and Mexico during that time. Until Thursday, every continent but Antarctic was a potential target. Predicting where and when the freefalling satellite will land is an imprecise science, but officials should be able to narrow it down a few hours ahead.

While most of the satellite pieces will disintegrate, 26 large metal chunks – the largest about 300 pounds – are expected to survive, hit and scatter somewhere on the planet. With nearly three-quarters of the world covered in water, chances are that it will be a splashdown. . . .

The odds of someone somewhere on Earth getting struck by the NASA satellite are 1 in 3,200. But any one person’s odds are astronomically lower – 1 in 21 trillion.

via Falling satellite likely to miss North America – CBS News.

UPDATE:  The satellite apparently came down in the Pacific Ocean, near the west coast. See. Once again you worried about something but nothing happened.

Drones that kill on their own

On the horizon of military technology:  Drones that “decide” on their own whom to kill:

One afternoon last fall at Fort Benning, Ga., two model-size planes took off, climbed to 800 and 1,000 feet, and began criss-crossing the military base in search of an orange, green and blue tarp.

The automated, unpiloted planes worked on their own, with no human guidance, no hand on any control.

After 20 minutes, one of the aircraft, carrying a computer that processed images from an onboard camera, zeroed in on the tarp and contacted the second plane, which flew nearby and used its own sensors to examine the colorful object. Then one of the aircraft signaled to an unmanned car on the ground so it could take a final, close-up look.

Target confirmed.

This successful exercise in autonomous robotics could presage the future of the American way of war: a day when drones hunt, identify and kill the enemy based on calculations made by software, not decisions made by humans. Imagine aerial “Terminators,” minus beefcake and time travel.

The Fort Benning tarp “is a rather simple target, but think of it as a surrogate,” said Charles E. Pippin, a scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, which developed the software to run the demonstration. “You can imagine real-time scenarios where you have 10 of these things up in the air and something is happening on the ground and you don’t have time for a human to say, ‘I need you to do these tasks.’ It needs to happen faster than that.”

The demonstration laid the groundwork for scientific advances that would allow drones to search for a human target and then make an identification based on facial-recognition or other software. Once a match was made, a drone could launch a missile to kill the target. . . .

Research into autonomy, some of it classified, is racing ahead at universities and research centers in the United States, and that effort is beginning to be replicated in other countries, particularly China.

“Lethal autonomy is inevitable,” said Ronald C. Arkin, the author of “Governing Lethal Behavior in Autonomous Robots,” a study that was funded by the Army Research Office.

Arkin believes it is possible to build ethical military drones and robots, capable of using deadly force while programmed to adhere to international humanitarian law and the rules of engagement. He said software can be created that would lead machines to return fire with proportionality, minimize collateral damage, recognize surrender, and, in the case of uncertainty, maneuver to reassess or wait for a human assessment.

In other words, rules as understood by humans can be converted into algorithms followed by machines for all kinds of actions on the battlefield.

via A future for drones: automated killing – The Washington Post.

The article alludes to “ethical” and “legal” issues that need to be worked out with this particular technology.  Like what?  Is automating war to this extent a good idea?  Does this remove human responsibility and guilt for taking a particular human life?  Might this kind of technology develop, eventually, into a military without actual human beings in overt combat?  How could this be abused?

Mormons rule on the Web

Go to Google and type “church.”  (Go ahead.  We’ll wait.)  How close to the top of results was Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (a.k.a., the Mormons)?  Now try a search for another word like “Friend.”  Or “Old Testament.”  Note how the Mormons keep coming up towards the top of the search.  (For that matter, note how often they come up in the Google ads on this blog!  I suspect this post will attract a lot of them!)

This phenomenon is noted in a Washington Post article by Michelle Boorstein, who writes about the Mormon PR machine and the way it makes use of the internet:

In the age of the Internet, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has found a way to dominate what is arguably today’s most important information source: the search engine.

It’s all about Mormons controlling their own image, church officials say. They’ve been doing that for a century or more. And now, with two of their own vying for the Republican nomination in the 2012 presidential race, and a Broadway hit and reality television generating huge interest in the denomination, much is at stake. . . .

They have always stood apart in the religious world when it comes to marketing. Savvy and aggressive, they were among the first to have a public relations shop, run public-service announcements and have a 1-800 number. The church at one time changed its logo to highlight the words “Jesus Christ,” then shifted to “Mormon” and even tried to trademark the word once it became better known. . . .
Image experts and researchers who study how people search the Web have been impressed by the church’s powerful use of the Internet. The site lds.org is the most-visited of any faith group, and Mormon church-wide conferences sometimes rank at the top of Twitter while they’re underway.

The Mormons also are the subject of publications and conference lectures for techies who specialize in the complex business of online searching, called “SEO” or “search engine optimization.”

These SEO experts debate how the church has managed to dominate the search engine box.

“They have infused SEO into their culture,” said Justin Briggs, a consultant who wrote a well-read blog post called “Breaking Down the Mormon SEO Strategy.”The church has run multiple campaigns to educate its flock about the power of search engines, and it produces high-quality information on spiritual topics such as the New Testament, Briggs said.While the details of the church’s Web strategy are proprietary, outside experts agree that the Mormons’ success is a combination of investment, focus and an unusually tight faith community. Adherents almost always attend their assigned local church, check in with official church announcements and zap anything written about Mormons around their very own blogosphere, called the Bloggernacle.

Some SEO experts say the church and grass-roots groups of members also conduct “link-building campaigns,” rallying lots of people to click on a link, and thereby raising its placement in search-engine results.

LDS officials declined to comment on the church’s specific SEO plan, but some of its strategy is laid out on a site set up to help church members become more SEO-savvy. It asks members to help boost traffic to a different site about church teachings on self-reliance, which covers a variety of topics, such as the importance of keeping a three-month supply of food and water, creative ways to find a job and adoption services for people considering abortion.

The SEO advice site says the church is trying to snag Google users who type in general terms, such as “employment” and “debt management.” Among other things, it recommends that people write articles that can include LDS links.

But the Web has not been the sole focus of the Mormons’ image strategy. Last year, the church launched a marketing campaign called “I’m a Mormon,” using television ads, taxi and subway signs, and billboards to introduce people from a range of backgrounds as Mormons.

via Mormons using the Web to control their own image – The Washington Post.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X