Thursday, October 22, 2015

October 22, 2015

From John Michael Greer's latest Retropia installment (italics mine):
It was an interesting ride, in an odd way. I travel a lot, like most people in my line of work, and I’ve ridden top-of-the-line automated light rail systems in New Beijing and Brasilia. I could tell at a glance that the streetcar I was on cost a small fraction of the money that went into those high-end systems, but the ride was just as comfortable and nearly as fast. There were two employees of the streetcar system on board, a driver and a conductor, and I wondered how much of the labor cost was offset by the lower price of the hardware.
Leaving aside the argument of whether automation and technological advances are going to lead to large-scale unemployment, I'm going to focus on more practical things -- namely, traffic signals. There is a signal at an intersection on my daily commute that's not been working for, I don't know, at least a couple of years (its work is being done by its smaller sibling that is barely visible among the various obstructions that the Chennai road landscape is known for, but that's another story). The most likely reason for this organizational apathy and, possibly, lack of funds. Now things are only going to become worse from here on, with the global economy marching firmly down the deflationary path, and purse strings are unlikely to be loosened locally either, once we too are caught up in the downward spiral.

Well, what was my point? Lost sight of it there for a moment. My point is that technological solutions, automation, and in general the whole smart/intelligent movement will not solve our problems, especially in a country like India where the environment is harsh and hostile to equipment like traffic signals and other electrical equipment open to the elements (leave alone sophisticated things like automatic urinal flushes that detect that you're done with your tinkling and flush away the output of said tinkling [I've always been wary of these things; what if, due to a bit flip caused by a speck of dust in the wrong place, it decides to reverse the flow and dump on me the aggregated output from the previous four users of the system?]). In such an environment, it makes more sense to put warm bodies to work; in the case of traffic signals, this means having policemen direct the traffic manually (and intelligently to boot, using their own grey matter; I know that algorithms have shown how effective they are at achieving, ahem, globally optimal outcomes, but it's not an all-or-nothing thing; nothing precludes an intelligent program running in the protected environs of a climate-controlled data center from passing on advice to the policeman on the ground using, I don't know, a smartphone app. Note to self: fix appointment with $CLUELESS_GREEDY_VC to pitch idea for hot new traffic management startup).

Pop quiz: what's wrong with the following paragraph?
Although India was secularized at the official level, religion remained a strong force at the popular level. After 1990 some political leaders tried to benefit from popular attachment to religion by espousing support for programs and policies that appealed to the religiously inclined. Such efforts were opposed by most of the state elite, who believed that secularism was an essential principle of Nehruvian Ideology. This disinclination to appreciate religious values and beliefs gradually led to a polarization of society. The polarization became especially evident in the 2010s as a new generation of educated but religiously motivated local leaders emerged to challenge the dominance of the secularized political elite.
Well nothing in and of itself, except that I created it from another paragraph (hat tip to Mish) by replacing exactly four words (two proper nouns and two numbers). As Redditors would say, mildly interesting.