Saturday, February 23, 2019

No s***, Sherlock!

Sent in by several readers, original post not seen:

It might indeed!


The manipulated media, and how it manipulates you

Sharyl Attkisson describes how the news media and social media are manipulated by special interests, and how they in turn try to manipulate us.  In the light of the Covington affair, the Smollett fiasco, and other recent events, this is well worth watching.

Ms. Attkisson has been independently investigating and reporting on scandals for years.  She knows whereof she speaks.


Friday, February 22, 2019

Catholic bishops and the "action plan" - wrongly focused

Yesterday Pope Francis presented an "action plan" to a summit meeting of bishops, for combating the sexual abuse of children by priests.  I find it woefully inadequate, a mere re-hash of concepts and proposals advanced many years ago, with no new thinking.  I fear it will be completely useless, because it's focused on the wrong problem.  Priests, in general, are a reflection of those who select, train and ordain them - the bishops;  and it's among the Church's bishops that the solution to the problem must be sought.

I wrote some years ago about the problem of "organization men", and how bishops were selected all too often from among such individuals.  That's not the entire problem.  The organization of the Church as such has effectively removed much of their everyday authority and responsibility from bishops, by submerging them in minutiae.  If they're trapped at their desks, reading reports, signing documents, and shuffling papers, they can't be out there among the people of God, seeing at first hand, up close and personal, how they're living and the nature of the problems that confront them.  They can't be in the trenches with their priests, seeing the difficulties they face in "tending the flock of God".  They're cut off, isolated, from that reality - and it shows in the way the clergy child sex abuse scandal has been handled.  All too often, the knee-jerk response from bishops has been to circle the wagons and defend the institution of the Church, rather than the victims of the abuse.  It's almost as if the latter had become an afterthought, a mere irritation compared to the real issue.

Until the 20th century, most bishops in most dioceses had to spend a lot of time on the road, traveling from one end of their see to the other.  In the process, they had plenty of time to spend in parish rectories and the homes of the faithful.  They couldn't help but notice what was going on there.  In the same way, they visited institutions in their diocese much more often - convents, monasteries, schools, etc.  They could keep their fingers on the pulse of activity far more routinely than they do today, where every visit is scheduled weeks or months in advance, usually highly scripted, and time-managed to such an extent that there's little or no opportunity for the bishop to "manage by walking around" and see things for himself.  The advent of technology - travel by train, car and aircraft, the telephone, fax and e-mail, business administration machines and programs - made it easier to travel, but also made such travel less necessary, in that much can be done remotely that previously had to be done in person.  It's been a two-edged sword.

Because of their more office-bound, sedentary, "managed" day-to-day existence, bishops have in all too many cases lost focus on the pastoral aspects of their ministry.  They're glorified (you should pardon the expression) managers rather than apostles, business executives rather than shepherds of the flock, bureaucrats rather than pastors.  They tolerate, even accept this changed role, one that many of their predecessors would regard with horror as not just un-pastoral, but actively anti-pastoral.  As a result, they don't share the day-to-day problems and burdens of their priests, and all too quickly forget what they experienced of them during their own pastoral careers.

In their famous book, "The Peter Principle", Laurence J. Peter and Raymond Hull point out:

Most hierarchies are nowadays so cumbered with rules and traditions, and so bound in by public laws, that even high employees do not have to lead anyone anywhere, in the sense of pointing out the direction and setting the pace.  They simply follow precedents, obey regulations, and move at the head of the crowd.  Such employees lead only in the sense that the carved wooden figurehead leads the ship.

In my opinion, that perfectly describes what far too many bishops had become by the time the clergy sex abuse scandal reared its evil, predatory head.  They were no longer leaders.  They had become mere figureheads - and far too many of them were content to remain figureheads.  Even worse, as has since become clear, some of them - including some in very senior positions - were active participants in that evil, even as they put on a holy public face and pretended to participate in finding remedies for it.  I honestly don't know whether that sin can be forgiven, even by God.  I suspect it cannot.

This is a major reason why the problem of clergy child sex abuse became so serious.  The bishops abdicated their primary responsibility to their clergy, who are officially defined as their "co-workers" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 893).  All too often, priests were (and still are) treated not as valued co-workers, but as unruly subordinates who have to be kept under the bishop's thumb, distrusted unless they constantly "suck up" to the powers that be.  That's why so many priests, including myself, were so angry at the initial measures enacted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops to deal with the crisis.  They treated all priests with suspicion, as criminals until proven innocent.  This was completely unacceptable.  It still is.

That's why I don't believe that a conference of bishops is the right vehicle to study the problem of clergy child sex abuse, or find solutions to it.  Many of the bishops taking part in it are guilty of precisely the failings described here.  They will not be able to come up with any effective solutions, precisely because they are not effective bishops.

That's how I see it, anyway.  Others may differ.


Data: defining ourselves by what we do

A very interesting article by Jacob Ward points out that privacy, as such, is no longer the critical issue for us:  rather, it's the data about us accumulated by service providers that results in the effective demolition of any concept of "privacy" as such.

Facebook and other companies may very well be protecting your privacy — but they don’t need your personal information to determine exactly who you are and what you’ll do next.

. . .

First, understand that privacy and data are separate things. Your privacy — your first and last name, your Social Security number, your online credentials — is the unit of measure we best understand, and most actively protect ... But your data — the abstract portrait of who you are, and, more importantly, of who you are compared to other people — is your real vulnerability when it comes to the companies that make money offering ostensibly free services to millions of people. Not because your data will compromise your personal identity. But because it will compromise your personal autonomy.

"Privacy as we normally think of it doesn’t matter,” said Aza Raskin, co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. "What these companies are doing is building little models, little avatars, little voodoo dolls of you. Your doll sits in the cloud, and they'll throw 100,000 videos at it to see what’s effective to get you to stick around, or what ad with what messaging is uniquely good at getting you to do something.”

. . .

... data can predict not just which shirt you might be willing to buy, but which topics are so emotionally charged you cannot look away from them — and which pieces of propaganda will work best upon you. And that makes the platforms that collect data at scale an amazing way to influence human beings. Maybe not you. Maybe not today. But it’s enough influence, at scale, over time, that the outcomes on the whole are both overwhelmingly consistent, and yet individually invisible.

Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School, and author of The Attention Merchants, believes this makes social platforms — and Facebook in particular — a tremendous liability. "There’s an incredible concentration of power there. So much data, so much influence, makes them a target for something like Russian hackers. To influence an election, you used to have to hack hundreds of newspapers. Now there’s a single point of failure for democracy."

And the categories into which your data places you can be used for much more than just selling you stuff or determining your political preferences. Without your ever telling a company your race, or sexual orientation, your behavioral history can reveal those things.

There's more at the link.

That's a scary thought, but it makes a lot of sense.  I block advertisements on almost every electronic medium I frequent, from my cellphone, through my computers, to my refusal to have a TV at all in my home.  I'm simply not exposed to 99% of the advertising out there, and I take care to make sure of that, because I find most modern advertising incredibly intrusive and annoying.  Nevertheless, if the author's thesis is correct, advertisers don't actually need to get to me with their messages in the old-fashioned way.

For example, can simply analyze my buying patterns over time, and suggest items that might also interest me.  The company can also analyze my wife's buying patterns, be aware of the relationship between us, and correlate our mutual buying patterns to suggest things that we might find important as a family, if not as individuals.  It can share such data with other service providers who have different insights into our patterns of life, and build up a comprehensive picture of us.  In time, it can even do that for our friends, as we buy gifts for them from each other's wish lists.

I'd love to know how detailed a profile has been built up of me - or of the kind of people, the category of human, into which I fit.  I'm aware that the major political parties have invested huge sums of money and time and effort into building voter profiles, so that local activists can approach us in the "right" way to obtain our support for their candidate.  That's already common in the USA, but it's spreading fast:  recent reports from Canada and Australia highlight how it's being applied there.  Still, that's only one example of how such data is used.  In what other ways are companies and "influencers" trying to manipulate us, using data about us to target us by profile rather than by name?

Thought-provoking, indeed . . .


Thursday, February 21, 2019

And the hate crime Oscar goes to . . .

Sent in by several readers:

It'll be hard to choose from a list like that . . . they all deserve to win!  On balance, I'd say Christine Ford would get my vote.  How about you, readers?  Any other nominees to suggest?


Half cruise liner, half cargo ship

While on the subject of shipping news (see my first post this morning), I came across a travel blog report on a unique ship:  the Aranui 5, a vessel that's half luxury cruise liner and half cargo carrier.

She plies the waters of French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean.  She's almost literally the lifeline for much inter-island trade:  in many cases, if she doesn't carry it, it doesn't get there.

A travel blogger, Barbara Weibel, took a trip aboard Aranui 5 last year.  Instead of just focusing on the touristy stuff, she also studied the ship's cargo operations, and found out more about what it was like in the old days, before powered cranes and modern vessels.  Here's her video report.

Cruise ship passengers often pass through their destinations without thinking much about how ordinary people live there.  This cruise ship makes it impossible to ignore that, without her, the islands' populations would be left almost destitute.  It's an interesting combination of luxury and bare-bones necessity.

I've always said I'll never take a cruise - particularly not on the monster cruise ships that tend to frequent US harbors.  Why would I pay for the "privilege" of being crammed cheek-by-jowl into an artificial steel island, surrounded by noisy people and exposed to nasty infections?  However, something like the Aranui 5 might be a very different proposition, with far fewer people and a very interesting practical itinerary, not just a tourist trap.  Have any of my readers sailed aboard her?  If so, please let us know what you thought of her in Comments.


The resurrection of a container ship

Early in March last year, the giant container ship Maersk Honam caught fire in the Arabian Sea.  Five crew members were killed, and the rest of the crew abandoned ship.  (For larger versions of the photographs, follow the links provided.)

The vessel was later towed to the port of Jebel Ali, where her cargo was offloaded and the ship inspected.  Her bow section had been damaged beyond repair:  but the rest of the ship was still in good condition, and is almost new (delivered in 2017).  Rather than lose their investment in her, Maersk decided to cut off the ship's bow altogether, leaving the rear two-thirds of the hull and her propulsion machinery intact.

The rear portion has now been loaded onto a carrier vessel, to be returned to the South Korean shipyard where she was built.  There, an entirely new bow section will be fabricated and joined to the stern, making a complete vessel once more.

It's an expensive solution, but not as expensive as losing the whole ship - and the insurers will be paying for it all.  I bet Maersk's premiums went up, though!


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

After Covington, a helpful reminder from Mark Twain

The news media's performance over the Covington affair was so shameful as to almost defy belief . . . yet they're mostly unapologetic, and even eager to do it all over again at the earliest possible opportunity.  The truth is not in them.

In that light, this quotation from Mark Twain is worth remembering.  (A tip o' the hat to HMS Defiant, where I found the graphic.)



After 60 years, the F-4 Phantom is on the way out - but it's still very impressive

The McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II first flew 60 years ago.  It became the mainstay of the US Air Force and Navy, and was exported to countries all over the world.  It's still in front-line service in Greece, Turkey, Iran, South Korea and Japan.  However, the last-named country is about to phase it out at last, after 50 years of service.  An F-4 squadron will be converting to the F-35 later this year.

In preparation for the phase-out, aviation photographer Carl Wrightson and Rich Cooper, head of the Center of Aviation Photography, made a pilgrimage to Japan for a final photo shoot of the JASDF Phantoms.  The Aviationist has a collection of some of their beautiful images, including this one (click it for a larger view).

The article accompanying the images is well worth your time, if you're an aviation enthusiast.

For fans of the F-4 Phantom, here's a twenty-minute video showing takeoffs and landings of some JASDF aircraft early this month, in mid-winter.  There's some spectacular footage and sound, all in 4K, so watch it in full-screen mode and save a copy, if you can.

Great big roaring beasts, aren't they?  I understand someone once said that the F-4 is proof that, given enough thrust, you can make even a brick fly!  Despite their ungainly appearance, the Phantoms have built up an enviable combat record over the decades they've been in service, and can still draw a crowd of enthusiastic admirers whenever one shows up.  They've earned their stripes the hard way.


Your job - and what will replace you

It won't necessarily be a "machine" as such - it may be a computer program instead.  Nevertheless, a very large proportion of traditional blue-collar and white-collar jobs are, right now, being replaced by automation;  or, at the very least, their replacement is already being planned.  The threat is real, and it's immediate, not sometime in the future.

A couple of days ago, I mentioned, in passing, a New York Times article titled "The Hidden Automation Agenda of the Davos Elite".  Here's an excerpt. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

All over the world, executives are spending billions of dollars to transform their businesses into lean, digitized, highly automated operations. They crave the fat profit margins automation can deliver, and they see A.I. as a golden ticket to savings, perhaps by letting them whittle departments with thousands of workers down to just a few dozen.

“People are looking to achieve very big numbers,” said Mohit Joshi, the president of Infosys, a technology and consulting firm that helps other businesses automate their operations. “Earlier they had incremental, 5 to 10 percent goals in reducing their work force. Now they’re saying, ‘Why can’t we do it with 1 percent of the people we have?’”

. . .

A 2017 survey by Deloitte found that 53 percent of companies had already started to use machines to perform tasks previously done by humans. The figure is expected to climb to 72 percent by next year.

. . .

Kai-Fu Lee, the author of “AI Superpowers” and a longtime technology executive, predicts that artificial intelligence will eliminate 40 percent of the world’s jobs within 15 years.

. . .

For an unvarnished view of how some American leaders talk about automation in private, you have to listen to their counterparts in Asia, who often make no attempt to hide their aims. Terry Gou, the chairman of the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn, has said the company plans to replace 80 percent of its workers with robots in the next five to 10 years. Richard Liu, the founder of the Chinese e-commerce company, said at a business conference last year that “I hope my company would be 100 percent automation someday.”

. . .

There are plenty of stories of successful reskilling — optimists often cite a program in Kentucky that trained a small group of former coal miners to become computer programmers — but there is little evidence that it works at scale. A report by the World Economic Forum this month estimated that of the 1.37 million workers who are projected to be fully displaced by automation in the next decade, only one in four can be profitably reskilled by private-sector programs. The rest, presumably, will need to fend for themselves or rely on government assistance.

There's more at the link.

If you think that article is unduly alarmist, think again.  Here are a few headlines from the past week or so.  Follow the links to read them for yourself.

  • Citi Ready To Replace "Tens Of Thousands" Of Call-Center Workers With Robots (if the link leads to a paywall, see the summary here).  Money quote:  "Under pressure to bring its cost base in line with peers, Citi executives have been upfront about the impact of technology on their 209,000-strong global workforce, including last summer’s warning that as many as half of the 20,000 operations staff in its investment bank could be supplanted by machines."
  • The Most Mindnumbing of Office Tasks Made One Man $360 Million.  "Takahashi’s firm provides so-called software bots for more than 500 companies ... It helps them to automate routine tasks such as inputting data and checking invoices ... “There’s a huge market for software robots using AI technologies,” he said. “Just like industrial robots in factories, if software bots can take on the tedious routine work in offices, we can create a productivity revolution for white-collar jobs."
  • OpenAI's new multitalented AI writes, translates and slanders.  "OpenAI’s new algorithm, named GPT-2 ... excels at a task known as language modeling, which tests a program’s ability to predict the next word in a given sentence. Give it a fake headline, and it’ll write the rest of the article, complete with fake quotations and statistics. Feed it the first line of a short story, and it’ll tell you what happens to your character next. It can even write fan fiction, given the right prompt."  (Not a comforting thought for me, as a writer!)
  • China has produced another study showing the potential of AI in medical diagnosis.  "Researchers found that the AI system was able to meet or outperform two groups of junior physicians in accurately diagnosing a range of ailments, from asthma and pneumonia, to sinusitis and mouth-related diseases. The AI was also able to meet or exceed diagnostic performance with some groups of senior physicians, for instance, in the category of upper respiratory issues ... In no category did the AI model dip below a diagnostic accuracy rate of about 79%..."

It used to be said that only repetitive office tasks such as basic book-keeping, order entry, etc. were at risk of automation in the short term.  However, as the links above show, that now extends deep into white-collar territory.  It also has implications for supervisory and management positions.  If the junior staff aren't there, they don't need supervisors or managers, do they?  Some expertise will have to be retained in-house, but I'll be surprised if it's as many as one in four of the numbers who used to be employed in such tasks.  I think it'll be more likely to be one-in-six, perhaps one-in-eight - and the ratio will decrease even further over time.

If you're in any job that can be handled by an automated system, whether blue-collar or white-collar, you need to be looking into re-training and re-skilling yourself, right now.  It's as critical as that.  It can no longer wait for some nebulous future date - and if you do wait, you'll be part of a flood of newly unemployed people, all trying to do the same thing.  The competition will be intense, perhaps ruinous.  Far better to beat the rush and start the process now, even (if necessary) at the cost of some short-term monetary pain.  If you work for a company such as, with its Career Choice program, your employer may pay most of the costs:  if not, sadly, you'll have to fund them yourself - but it remains a worthwhile and necessary investment.  Train for a job where you can make yourself indispensable, or where a machine or AI replacement will be difficult to accomplish.  (The skilled trades look very good right now - plumbing, HVAC, vehicle repair, etc. are unlikely to be automated anytime soon, due to non-standard conditions in the field to which a robot or AI system will find it hard to adjust.  However, I daresay their time will come.)

As for me, I'd better write better!  If an AI can produce "formulaic" fiction good enough to sell, I'd better make sure I can write to a higher standard than that, so I can continue to make a living.  Forewarned is forearmed!


Tuesday, February 19, 2019

That brings back teenage aviation memories

British Airways is marking the centenary of its founding, on August 24th, 1919, as Aircraft Transport and Travel Limited (AT&T) - an acronym familiar to US readers for rather different reasons!  You can find a condensed history of the company here.

As part of its celebrations, the airline is painting five of its fleet in historic color schemes.  This Boeing 747-400 is painted to resemble British Overseas Airways Corporation's 747-100's, the first generation of the "Jumbo Jet".  Click the image for a larger view.

Back in 1973, my father was President of the Cape Town Chamber of Commerce in South Africa.  When BOAC began its 747 service between South Africa and England, he was one of those invited to accept a complimentary ticket on the inaugural flight.  He promptly pulled every string he could get his hands on, and got a second ticket for me - my introduction to foreign countries.  Our aircraft bore the same paint scheme as that shown above, gleaming new and fresh.

We had a pleasant enough flight, stopping at Nairobi to refuel and take on additional passengers (as was common in the shorter-ranged aircraft of those days).  We spent a few days with my sister and her husband in England, then flew to Zurich aboard a BOAC Vickers VC-10 airliner (shown below), a contemporary of the Boeing 707 that my father always said was one of his favorite aircraft.  It was certainly a very smooth flight, albeit a lot more cramped than aboard the much more spacious 747.

We took a train to Lausanne, where we spent a couple of days, then took another train through the Simplon Tunnel to Rome, Italy.  A couple more days there, and then we flew back to South Africa (again via Nairobi) aboard a BOAC Boeing 707.

Seeing that vintage BOAC paint job has brought back lots of nostalgic memories . . .


Not the worst dating idea I've ever heard . . .

From The Whiteboard, one of my favorite comic strips.  Click the image to be taken to a larger view at its Web site.

The thought of an alligator as a powered surfboard gives me warm fuzzies . . . just as long as someone else is riding it!