The Limits of Technology

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Technology is ubiquitous and has always brought with it benefits and risks. “Sure fire is great – it keeps us warm and scares away bears but did you hear about Og? Burned out of cave and home.”

But the real problem with technology is its limitations. For a lot of people, Arthur C. Clarke’s dictum rings true. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And magic – like all supernatural things – is infallible. It always works.

This explains people who follow their GPS right off the end of wharves or who take a nap while their ‘self-driving’ car runs into a transport truck. Technology can do wonderful things but in the hands of idiots? Well, Og shouldn’t have poured mastodon grease on the fire.

Technology, to again paraphrase Clarke, is a very powerful, very fast idiot. Machines don’t really think – at least not yet. They rely on programming to do their work which means they rely on programmers. And there is the rub.

Programmers are exceptional at what they do – which is write code. However, their expertise doesn’t necessarily extend to the things they write code about. Anyone who has ever used the grammar function of word processors will know what I’m talking about.

In Ottawa right now, the new IBM developed pay system is failing to deliver pay and benefits to nearly 80,000 people. My wife is one of them. She fortunately is being overpaid and has been for nearly 3 months. Being a rational person, she hasn’t spent the surplus but has stuck it in the bank. She hopes she has put enough aside so that she can pay it back when they finally get things straight. But it is worrisome because, like the programmers who developed Phoenix, she isn’t a compensation specialist. It is notable that to fix the problem they are not only calling on programmers to write new code (at least I trust they are doing that) but are mostly relying on human experts to identify and fix the problems one by one.

That’s what happens when decision makers think they are smarter than experts and buy the bill of goods that proclaims that technology can do anything and do it cheaper and faster.

Part of this problem lies not with programmers but in the nature of expertise. When you are good at something, you generally don’t think through every step in a process. You have internalized best practices and have a hard time explaining it in clear tiny steps. Which is exactly what a programmer requires when they are writing code. Think of it this way: Wayne Gretzky was a great hockey player but when it came to coaching he struggled to impart that greatness to other players.

Most of the problems caused by inadequate technology can be resolved by the application of human expertise and hard work. Eventually the program ‘evolves’ (that is, is changed by human beings) and the initial bugs are resolved – only for new ones to be discovered.

Not a problem when all that is involved is money but I have to wonder – how far should we trust automated medical technology?

And that’s ten minutes.

Party Unity

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While it may be a consummation devoutly to be wished, the question of unity within the Democratic Party remains in doubt. Or does it? A poll released yesterday suggests that 90% of hard-core Bernie Sanders supporters intend to vote for Clinton in November. Despite protests at the Democratic convention, it turns out that just as Bernie Sanders doesn’t control or even speak for his most rabid partisans, they, in turn, don’t speak for the majority of Sanders less active supporters.

Nothing new here. People who go to conventions are not the same is ordinary voters – they have more ego invested. Having been battle tested, they are always ready for the fight even if every victory they achieve is bound to by pyrrhic.

What will happen to the Bernie or Bust people? I expect a lot of them will take their ball and go home and won’t be heard from again until after the election. Others may turn their frustrated energy towards a campaign for the Greens or, illogical as it may seem, for the right wing Libertarian Party candidate. A few may even campaign for Trump. But most of those who remain active will work to get Democrats elected – they may not support Clinton directly but will pick local candidates for Congress or Governor to try to break the Republican stranglehold on those elected bodies.

The same cannot be said for the situation in Republican Party. Whereas the second place finisher for the Democrats, Bernie Sanders, called on people to elect Clinton, Ted Cruz, who finished second for the GOP, refused to endorse Trump and was actually booed off the stage. Meanwhile, numerous Republican leaders have been lukewarm in their endorsements or are actively working for the defeat of their own candidate. How that works out on Election Day is anyone’s guess, but the same Pew poll that showed the shift in Sanders supporters found that fewer than 80% of those who worked for another GOP candidate will vote for Trump. I doubt if many of those will wind up working for Clinton but it may give the Libertarian candidate a boost. Or, more likely, it will add to the huge number of Americans who simply don’t vote.

While many progressives and independents were somewhat shocked at the rhetoric at the GOP convention, they might take comfort in the fact that most of the convention-goers there, like the Bernie or Bust folks protesting at the DNC, don’t represent anyone but themselves. Radicals make great TV but seldom deliver what they promise. Trust me, after 45 years of activism on the left, I know.

And that’s ten minutes.

 

The Future of Energy

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This morning I woke up to the news that the first round-the-world flight of a solar-powered plane was completed. There were a lot of technical difficulties along the way as one might expect when something is done for the first time and I don’t expect to be flying to Yellowknife in a solar plane anytime soon. Still, it was still a remarkable achievement and a probable signpost of things to come.

On the same day, another news report talked about the dramatic decline in the number of oil rigs operating in North America. Since last year, the number has been cut in half. Despite persistently low oil prices, demand for the black goop continues to moderate. While bad news for oil producing regions, it may be excellent news for the rest of the world.

While oil is decried for its polluting qualities (250,000 liters are currently fouling the waters of northern Saskatchewan) and for its contribution to climate change, it is its impact on global politics that may be the most pernicious. Oil fuels the terrorist activities of ISIL and has led to social, political and military conflict across the globe. While North Americans haven’t actually come to blows on their own soil in recent years – they have been sent to fight in the oil wars in the Middle East for years. Conflict in the South China Sea, with Beijing ordering the construction of fake islands to spread its influence, is completely about access to oil reserves that lie under those waters.

The end of oil would create massive social disruptions (these are already occurring in Venezuela and Nigeria where falling oil prices have placed strains on governments and economies) and would undoubtedly impoverish some countries – though not Norway who cleverly banked their oil revenues. Even the Canadian economy would not be immune to the long term decline of oil prices – but we have the advantage of diversity and while some regions would lose out, others would stand to gain from shifts in energy consumption away from oil and toward solar, wind, hydro and other alternatives.

Energy use is likely to continue to grow over time and in the past that has always meant the growth in the consumption of oil. But as alternatives to oil like solar (and, by the way, you can thank Obama in large part for that) gain ground, we may be able to raise the standard of living of people across the world without the price of pollution or global conflict. After all, the sun shines and the wind blows wherever people live on this planet – with equal distribution a major irritant for global conflict will disappear. And oil will cease to be the bankroll for dictators and terrorists.

That would be a sunny future indeed. And that’s ten minutes.

Builders and Wreckers

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There are two types of people: those who separate the world into categories and those who don’t.

Seriously though, I’ve found in my years of observing them that politicians often do fall into two categories: builders and wreckers. It is not really an ideological vision – I can name plenty of conservative builders. John A. MacDonald, for example, or Robert Borden. More recently, John Diefenbaker and even Brian Mulroney (who started to look good after the wreckers took over his party). You can find conservative builders in every country. These are men and women who have a particular vision for the world that is expansive and constructive. You might not agree with their vision but you have to acknowledge that it’s there.

There are wreckers on the left as well – though they often masquerade as builders. I suspect history will judge Hugo Chavez as a wrecker, rather than a visionary. He didn’t build a true socialist society but rather squandered the nation’s resource wealth to pay for populist projects. When the money was gone, so was the state. He could have taken a more prudent approach – like Norway which has secured its long term security under both left and right wing governments.

Canada has recently changed governments and a lot of people have suggested that it has taken little time to do away with the previous PM’s legacy. I would argue that is because Mr. Harper had no real legacy. His party was a party of the small – they had no vision for the future but only a determination to tear down what previous generations had built – peacekeeping, an open society of expansive human rights, social safety nets, environmental protections. It left a lot of rubble to clean up but there was nothing there to get in the way of rebuilding.

It’s too early to judge what Mr. Trudeau will be. He is certainly an activist and seems to have a specific vision – quite clear when you wipe away the hype over selfies and public relations – of the Canada he wants to build or, at the very least, restore. But he needs to go beyond restoration of previous glories and do something new and big. Restoration is always a conservative project and often lapses into a subtle form of wrecking, called petrification.

Like making America great again. While Mr. Trump claims he wants to build a wall, it doesn’t appear that he plans to build anything else. Indeed he has all the hallmarks of a wrecker on a grand scale – certainly his legacy of corporate bankruptcies and a failed university would suggest that. But more importantly he wants to tear down social safety nets and environmental protections – elements that provide the only protection most Americans (including the vast majority of his supporters) against rapacious capitalism.

I might have some doubts about Ms. Clinton’s builder credentials – though I think they’ve improved because of a push from Mr. Sanders – but I know she will at least keep what America has built. And maybe keeping America great is better than some vague promise to make it great again.

And that’s ten minutes – back again for an indeterminate run.