LEGO: I wrote in January about LEGO's misogynistic latest LEGO for Girls campaign. Earlier this month I was excited to read Mary Elizabeth Williams reporting that 'Lego tires to get less sexist' on Salon but it turned out that rather than reversing course LEGO had just agreed to meet with SPARK. SPARK reports back on the meeting today with the news that LEGO has been conducting 'an internal audit of their minifigure count' and will generally be looking at their gender based marketing. Looking forward to seeing some actual results.
Legislative Service: I've been bothering people at parties about legislative service for around 20 years. Most people nod politely and back away. So I was pretty excited to read 'Fewer Voters, Better Elections' by Joshua Davis in the May 2012 issue of Wired. The thrust of the article is very similar to legislative service and highlight research from James Fishkin at Stanford (Deliberative Democracy, it looks like he's been bothering people at cocktail parties for longer than me) and David Chaum (Random-Sample Elections). Something like this has to be the solution to getting past the two-body problem of our current democracy.
Colophon: I pinched the title from the excellent Patrick Smith, although my aviation blogging is limited to bitching about British Airways. The picture comes from the Wikipedia article on go-arounds because it's hilarious in a Douglas Adamsian way - like you just couldn't understand the concept of not landing a plane without the illustration.
 Why do Americans go for LEGOS and math while the British use LEGO and maths?
I love my Kindle. Loved it since seeing the screen for the first time after bothering a Judge I shouldn't have at an arbitration hearing. These days I mostly read using the Kindle app on my phone. And there's one thing that drives me nuts.
You can sort by author and you can sort by title but you can't sort by the date you purchased a book. When I finish a book and can't quite remember what's next in the queue this makes it impossible to search for it and curse Bezos for being off hunting rocket engines while he could be knocking heads together to fix this.
I'm sure there is a brain dead reason for this. Maybe it's not exposed with the book data and fixing this is festering on someone's backlog. Maybe the fact that some items may not have a purchase date is too hard a problem to deal with (hints: put these at the top, or the bottom, or make the feature only list purchased items). Come on Amazon, I'm sure you can figure this out.
What I really want is a queue. The same way I used to stack books to read on my bedside table I want to manage my to-read list at Amazon.com and then just have a button to load the next book. But I'd settle for sorting that works.
I've just released an updated version of Cleat that supports geolocation and timestamps. Cleat is my Windows command line client for Twitter.
Absolutely no chance of scurvy tonight.
Citibank contacted us in December offering to remortgage our house. There was a reasonably steep application fee but I was promised a refund in the event that the remortgage failed. Specifically this email:
Unfortunately we cannot waive the application/appraisal fee, however I can refund it back to you in your loan is not approved.
What do you think?
Senior Lending Consultant"
So we paid the fee, filled in the paperwork and waited for the appraisal.
The appraiser came and did a lousy job. His report mixed up photos, missed salient features of the house and worst of all used ridiculous comps with what must have been distressed sales of crack dens next to the freeway instead of similar nice houses on the west slope of Bernal Hill. Apparently this isn't unusual. Chris Arnold from a recent NPR News story:
"Right. It used to be too easy. The appraisers were part of the problem, so Congress changed the law. And that's had some unintended consequences. And to make a long story short, what sometimes happens now is the lender says, OK, we need an appraiser for Robert's house. And an email goes out, blasted out to a hundred different appraisers across the entire state. And the email says something like: Hey, who wants to do this for a hundred bucks. You know, so the guy you get might be driving in from 50 miles away and really have no idea what the homes in your neighborhood are worth."
So long story short the appraisal valued our house at about $5 and the remortgage application was declined. There was an appeal process for the appraisal but it wasn't possible to complete unless a few of our neighbors happened to have sold their houses in the same week.
Given that we've never missed a mortgage payment it seems bizarre to suppose that making it lower would represent an increased risk. But it's Citibank's decision and I wouldn't be whinging about it in public if they'd refunded the application fee in January. Despite repeated emails the didn't refund it in February or March either. In fact, after declining the transaction we never heard from our friendly Senior Lending Consultant again.
I've just got off the phone with the credit card company as in the end I had to resort to challenging the transaction and getting it charged back to Citibank. I'm not sure if it's incompetence on the part of a few employees or a new scheme to defraud customers but be careful if Citibank make the same offer to you. And make sure you get the refund promise in writing.
Photo credit: Roblawol cc
A chair in our garden has produced a bumper crop of baby Cross Orbweaver spiders. Very cute.
Marcus du Sautoy, writing on BBC News, brings up Searle's Chinese Room in Can computers have true artificial intelligence?
Searle's argument is that someone who speaks no Chinese exchanges notes with a native speaker through a system that informs him which note to respond with. The Chinese speaker think's he's having a conversation but the subject of the experiment doesn't understand a word of it. It's a variant of the Turing Test and while the 'room' passes the test the lack of understanding on the part of the subject means that Artificial Intelligence is impossible. The BBC even put together a three part illustration to help you understand.
I learned about the room at university and I didn't fall for it then. Du Sautoy, to be fair, expresses some skepticism but it makes up about a third of an article on AI, which is unforgivable.
In determining if Searle's room is intelligent or not you must consider the entire system, including the note passing mechanism. The person operating the room might not understand Chinese but the room as a whole does. The Chinese room is like saying a person isn't intelligent if their elbow fails to get a joke. It's the AI equivalent of Maxwell's demon, a 19th century attempt to circumvent the second law of thermodynamics.
Every time you get a Deep Thought or a Watson the debate about the possibility of strong AI (as in just I) resurfaces. It's not a technical question, it's a religious one. If you believe we're intelligent for supernatural reasons then it's valid to wonder if AI is possible (and you might want to stop reading now). If not then the fact that we exist means that AI might be difficult, but it's not impossible and almost certainly inevitable.
The problem is that teams at IBM and Google cook up very clever solutions in a limited domain and them people get excited that a chess computer or a trivia computer can eventually 'beat' a human at one tiny thing.
Human intelligence wasn't carefully designed, it's the slow accretion of many tiny hacks, lucky accidents that made us slowly smarter over time. If we want this type of intelligence it's highly likely that we're going to have to grow it rather than invent it. And when true AI finally arrives I'll bet that we won't understand it any better than the organic kind.
Previously: At the CHM...
Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs cc
California just canceled a 2 billion dollar project to link 58 courts having spent over half a billion. In the UK half a billion pounds was wasted failing to develop software for the emergency services. A recent although controversial study estimates global IT failures cost 6 trillion dollars a year.
I've thought about this before but perhaps the time is right. It's a software system that analyzes the chances of success for any major IT project. In California in particular we could pass a ballot measure to mandate that this system is used accept or reject any software project that would cost the state more than, say, $50k. The core of the system has already been written and looks like this:
Thread.Sleep(10000); // look like you're doing something
Console.WriteLine("No! Use Google Docs instead."); // reject proposal
All it needs is a nice interface that allows you to upload documents and then show a progress bar while the in-depth 'analysis' takes place. I'd be willing to do this work for the state for no more than $200 million, plus costs and change orders. Shouldn't take more than a decade either.
Governor Brown, call me.
Image Credit: Images_of_Money cc