Sunday, January 20, 2019

The greatest good for the greatest number: A doctrine of acceptable losses

In 1776 philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote a phrase that continues to be central to our modern way of thinking: "[I]t is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong."

That phrase has morphed into the familiar one cited in the title of this piece. Happiness, however, has been reinterpreted first as "good" meaning something which gives pleasure, a move toward a kind of hedonism. "Good" has, however, become associated with "goods," that is, objects which consumers and businesses buy to further their personal and occupational goals.

This drift from the original meaning of what Bentham called his "fundamental axiom" is, in part, why we are addicted to economic growth and the consumerism that derives from it. We believe that "goods" are good for us and so more "goods" will always bring more good in their wake.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 20.

Sunday, January 06, 2019

Democracy, truth, fallibilism, and the tech overlords

In a recent conversation a friend of mine offered the following: "There would be no need to vote on anything if we knew the truth." That statement has such profound implications that I will only scratch the surface of it here.

First, democracy presupposes that none of us knows the truth. We have our experience, our analyses, our logic and our intuitions, but we don't have the truth with a capital "T." We may reliably report our names to bank tellers. This is a social and legal designation, a definition backed by a birth certificate, driver's license, and other official documents. Even here we are obliged to provide evidence of the truth of our identity to the teller.

But whether it is wise to subsidize electric cars, legalize gambling, or go to war are issues that are far beyond simple social and legal designations. Our information on such topics is always incomplete, conflicting and quite possibly unreliable. We have difficulty verifying through personal observation much of what we are told. And, we are prone to errors of logic and to misinterpretations.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Taking a holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, January 6.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Drones for Christmas

I'm beginning to think that unmanned aerial vehicles—usually referred to as drones—are going to be next year's must-have Christmas gift after their stunning Christmas-time performance at London's Gatwick Airport.

For those who missed the excitement, mysterious drones appeared at Gatwick last week and shut down the entire airport for three days as security officials could not be certain what threat they posed. Those officials finally deployed "unidentified military technology" to protect the airport, and they have since arrested a man and a woman, neither of whom have been identified.

We might have guessed that giving civilians access to drone technology for fun and profit would lead to problems. After all, their initial use was military for spying on enemies and then assassinating them when desired—extrajudicial killings with a Jetsons-like twist.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Artificial intelligence and the limits of the machine model

In his bestselling book, Up the Organization, former Avis president Robert Townsend captured the problem of automation precisely. Writing at a time when the vast paper systems of corporate America were being transferred to computers, he warned that it was important first to make sure that a company's paper systems are actually effective and accurate. "Otherwise," he quipped, "your new computer will just speed up the mess."

Today, we are faced with a new wave of optimism about the prospects of what is called artificial intelligence (AI). Just to be clear, here is what the originators of that term meant by it:

[T]he basis of the conjecture [about artificial intelligence is] that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.

It is important to parse these words carefully for they will tell you why artificial intelligence as it is currently conceived will very likely "just speed up the mess."

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Uber, Moore's Law and the limits of the technofix

Uber remains a darling of the tech world. It is regarded as a disruptive upstart that recognized the unused capacity of privately-owned automobiles and their owners. It unleashed that capacity on cities worldwide using cellphone technology to provide discount rides to customers, ones who might otherwise have taken traditional taxis or public transportation.

It's a truism that startups burn through money like bonfires burn through tinder. But nine years in after becoming a worldwide company, Uber is still burning cash—$1 billion in the most recent quarter and $4.5 billion altogether in 2017.

To understand how Uber continues to enchant the investment and tech worlds despite its miserable financial record requires a little background. The dominant metaphor in the tech world is Moore's Law. Moore's Law is named for Gordon Moore, a semiconductor pioneer, who noted the doubling of transistors on an integrated circuit about every two years. This rapid progress led to rapid increases in the capabilities of computers in terms of speed, memory and computational power even while prices were coming down dramatically. That progress is also seen in the capabilities of practically everything containing circuits including cellphones, cameras and other digital devices.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Bayer suffering buyer's remorse for Monsanto acquisition

If only Bayer, the German pharmaceutical and agricultural seed and chemical giant, had bothered to ask around before acquiring the American-based Monsanto Company for $63 billion in cash last June.

Two months later a jury delivered a $289 million award (later reduced to $78 million) to a groundskeeper who claimed his frequent exposure to Monsanto's Roundup weedkiller had given him cancer and that the company covered up the danger. (In 2015 the World Health Organization classified glyphosate, the name of the active ingredient in Roundup, as a probable carcinogen. Glyphosate is one of the most broadly used herbicides in the world.)

There are over 8,000 cases pending against Monsanto in the United States and many more will surely be filed. Bayer's stock has lost $38 billion in value since Bayer acquired Monsanto. The company would have done better putting its $63 billion in cash into a hole in the ground.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Taking a Thanksgiving holiday break

I'm taking a short break from posting this week. I expect to post again on Sunday, December 2.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Australia's drought, climate change and the future of food

There's a reason that few people are thinking about world grain supplies. Last year saw record worldwide production of grains and record stocks of grains left over.

But this year worldwide production slipped about 2 percent, owing in large part to the plunge in Australia's production caused by an ongoing severe drought. Production is expected to fall 23 percent. Fortunately, in our globalized grain markets, this hasn't affected overall supplies or prices very much as grain stocks are high and supplies are mobile and shipped all over the world as needed.

But Australia is the world's fifth largest wheat exporter, accounting for nearly 9 percent of the total in 2016 according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In fact, the top five wheat exporting countries account for 56 percent of world wheat exports. The rest of the world is highly dependent on these exporters to make up the difference between what they grow and what they eat.