Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Inverse Turing Test?

The basic idea of the Turing Test is that if, after an extended (written) conversation with a human and a computer, you cannot tell which is which, you must conclude that the computer possesses human-like intelligence.

But what if you want to test a human's intelligence, by comparing with computer-generated responses? Consider the Sarah Palin interview generator and compare with her actual answers..

Monday, September 29, 2008

Markets and honesty

Recently Space Bar posted three outstanding articles by Husain (1, 2, 3) that provoked some ferocious comments. The main theme of the criticisms was that you can't blame Wall Street bankers for being selfish and greedy, if that is what works in a capitalist society. (Sample quote: "I'm amused that there are still people out there who see the fact that bankers are selfish and mean-spirited as a revelation... crises like these are not the product of some global conspiracy by evil bankers collaborating together but the logical result of really smart people working competitively in a system designed to incentivise profit that is poorly regulated.")

I didn't really have a good response to that point per se, though it bothered me: didn't companies like the Tatas earn respect from their honesty and fair treatment of employees and customers, and didn't that translate to good business? But here's an article by Will Hutton (from a British perspective, but covering both sides of the pond) that brings out this point much better than I could. Quotes:

This is not the end of capitalism, as some wildly claim; there is no intellectual, social or political challenge to a market system based on respect for private property rights, even by the Chinese Communist party. Rather, it is a crisis of a particular capitalism that has set aside respect for trust, integrity and fairness as fuddy-duddy obstacles to 'wealth generation'. What we are relearning is that without trust and fairness, capitalism risks its own sustainability, even while it unleashes forces that undermine those self-same values.... Even in the dog-eat-dog financial markets, trust and integrity are matters of self-interest. However amoral you may be, it is in your interest to care about your reputation, because if you behave badly you will not do business with me - or others - on favourable terms again.
Worse, now that the system is in trouble, financiers are turning to taxpayers in the US and Britain for help without understanding the other key principal of fairness - that we will consider helping those who for no fault of their own get into trouble, but not those who freely created their own bad circumstances.

He goes on to predict the nationalisation of several banks, as happened in Sweden in 1992. (The NYT, too, refers to the Swedish precedent and lessons for today.)

Trust is key, in business as everywhere else. As Hutton says, even if you are not inherently trustworthy, you had better make others believe you are.

Which brings me back to the Tatas. I wonder whether JRD Tata would have countenanced the state-government-assisted land-grab at Singur, and now that it has apparently backfired on them, I wonder if the Tata's fortunes will suffer -- and not just from the financial loss and the delay in the Nano car project.

(PS: a few seconds after I posted this, I got a mail from Kapil giving me the following quote, taken from here:

Companies which do not audit completed projects in order to see how accurate the original projections were, tend to get exactly the forecasts and projects that they deserve. Companies which have a culture where there are no consequences for making dishonest forecasts, get the projects they deserve. Companies which allocate blank cheques to management teams with a proven record of failure and mendacity, get what they deserve.

Maybe the sentiment will catch on.)

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who are you, and what have you done with Fox?

Even if I lived in the US, I doubt I'd ever watch Fox News; here, I only see the occasional news report about the latest outrageous example of their "fair and balanced" reporting. But some recent reports have been disconcerting:

  • A Fox reporter grilling John McCain's spokesman Tucker Bounds on how his campaign is misrepresenting Obama's tax plan.
  • Bill O'Reilly defending Barack Obama's use of the common American phrase "lipstick on a pig", saying it was obviously not about Sarah Palin, criticising the McCain campaign for making an issue of it and predicting that it will backfire on them.
  • And now, Fox News sending a cease and desist to McCain's campaign demanding that they withdraw footage of Fox correspondent Major Garrett from a campaign ad.

What's going on? Are the reported recent political preferences of the big boss really having an effect so soon?

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

RIP, Rick Wright

There will be no more Pink Floyd reunions. But let us be thankful that the full quartet did get together to play four songs in 2005, after a quarter century of acrimony.

NYT obit.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Uber Red Bull

Espresso coffee, chilled, 30 ml
Lemon juice, a few drops
Electral (ORS) salt (or sugar+salt in WHO-recommended mixture), 3 tsp
Soda water, 250 ml

Stir first three ingredients until ORS dissolves, and add the soda. Wakes you up faster than Red Bull, tastes more obnoxious, and costs much less.

More blasts

Another day, another set of bombs going off and killing the innocent: this time in Delhi. Several thoughts come to mind.

  • As I wrote a little over a month ago, preventing bombings of open markets in a free society is pretty near impossible. These particular bombings prove the cowardice of the attackers, and nothing else. But that won't stop magazines like India Today from raving about our being a "weak state", and the BJP-ites demanding draconian laws like POTA.
  • The attackers are probably a small outfit (the authorities claim they are linked to the banned SIMI). Finding them will require intelligence (in various senses of the word. What will not help is demonising the Muslim community as a whole -- most of them are as revulsed by such things as anyone else, and victimising them will only enlarge the numbers of those willing to throw bombs. (Say there are about 200 million Muslims in India. You alienate 10% of them, that's 20 million. 1% of the alienated ones become radicalised, that's 200,000. 1% of those are sufficiently radicalised to throw bombs, that's 2,000. Not nice.)
  • Everyone is agreed that this is terrorism. Why isn't everyone agreed that what has been happening recently in Orissa is also terrorism?
  • Many of the bombs are in garbage cans. I was in Paris when 9/11 happened in 2001; immediately after, the opaque metallic garbage cans in the city disappeared, to be replaced by transparent plastic bags hung from a ring. We in India have hardly begun to get used to public garbage cans, and will now be wary of them.
  • We live outside city limits in Chennai, so the municipal garbage collection service does not reach us. Rather than dump our garbage on the open mounds where the local panchayat periodically collects it, we tend to pack it in a bag and drop it in one of the garbage cans inside city limits, about 1 km away. But dropping a bag into an opaque container with unknown contents may make me nervous now. Moreover, other people seeing me drop a bag into a garbage can may get nervous too (who does that sort of thing around here?)

There are more thoughts, but I'll stop at that...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

What is poetry?

Just for fun, I tried in my previous post to respond to Kapil Sibal's poems "in kind", as it were. JF, in a comment, inserted appropriate linebreaks and asked why I "hid" my verse. I'm not sure why, but here is some of what I was thinking:

First, writing lines that rhyme and (more or less) scan is easy. As JF surmises, I took about half an hour over this. Many people can do it better and faster than me (eg, TR). Sibal wrote his Parliament poem (on whose rhyme scheme mine was modelled) on a flight, if I remember him right; at any rate, in a narrow window of time between the events in question and the publication of the book.

Second, his poems (as read out that day) seemed to lack something. I liked the Tehelka extracts, but they seemed more like light verse to me -- wry, humorous, biting comments on today's world. It turned out that his poems are meant to be more serious than that. Take the "nano" poem (which he proclaims his favourite): what was a brief and cutting verse in Tehelka turns out to be an excerpt of a much longer and rather meandering poem.

However, I did not want to be too judgmental: I have strong likes and dislikes in poetry but they may not be shared by all. I don't like a lot of "classical" poetry (an overdose of Wordsworth can get tedious), and I do like some poetry that doesn't have any traditional qualities. Also, compared to some other poetry by public figures (like a recent President), Sibal's poems were really pretty good. It was just when he tried to be very serious and philosophical that it didn't quite work out for me. I am not an expert on poetry and many people may well love his poems. Also, I didn't pick up his book that day (it was getting late for us) so I based it on what I heard; a second, third or fourth exposure to the same poems may well cause a different impact on me.

I wrote that post in verse for my own amusement, and to empirically prove the point that rhyming is the easy part about writing poetry. I've written lots of rhyming text in my time, which I would hesitate to call poetry. But I then formatted it as prose, because I didn't want to sound too snarky. Also, I thought that most people who actually read the thing will immediately spot that it's a poem. A colleague, Kapil, asked me if I was inspired by Wodehouse. It is possible. The epilogue of one of the Blandings books (Full Moon?) is a similar verse-in-prose news item. Also, Leonard Cohen's lyrics, as printed on recent CD inserts, are formatted as prose, though they rhyme and scan perfectly. So I'm not really breaking new ground here.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Mr Sibal witnesses

Tehelka reported, and briefly quoted, a book by Kapil Sibal: the science minister, and what's more sinister, a poetic-minded rebel. His poem on SMS did not seem amiss, and his ode to "nano" was fun. It seemed quite a lark: we went to Landmark to hear him read it in person. Eyes bright with passion, he bemoaned the fashion of the UPA confidence vote, which saved the government but demeaned Parliament with displays of currency note. His book, "I Witness", was already in press, but he made a poetic sprint. The ensuing verse, for better or worse, appears in the final print. His poems span themes that, it truly seems, reveal a polyglot polymath brain. Wordsworth could not have covered a lot of the topics he links like a train. No modern verse here: his metre is clear and he's meticulous with his rhymes. An orthodox pen takes, again and again, on various ills of our times. But though it's form-perfect, I feel, with regret, a lack of a deeper emotion. The rhythms may groove, but poems that move you are more than just phonemes in motion.

Update: Fixed a malapropism, and made a new post on where this came from.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Children should be neither seen nor heard

In 2005 I came across this article in the NYT, on child-free establishments, and was sufficiently provoked to write the following letter (which, of course, was not published):

I read "At Center of a Clash, Rowdy Children in Coffee Shops" (Nov 9) and the responses on the letters page (Nov 10) with disbelief. I have lived in the US and Europe and have noticed the child-unfriendliness of these places but never realised that the hostility is so institutionalised.

Here in India, such attitudes towards unhappy children would be unthinkable. A bawling child in a restaurant or cafe would very likely be comforted by strangers or given freebies by the management, certainly not given hostile stares or asked to leave.

Fortunately not all Americans react in the latter manner either. Some years ago, a few minutes into a Pete Seeger concert I attended in Bangalore, a child started crying -- mutedly but audibly. Seeger murmured "Oh, poor thing" and launched into a lullaby, and the child stopped.

In America, of course, the child would never have been allowed in.

"Unthinkable" in India? According to today's ToI, not any more.

PS - Space Bar doesn't find it unthinkable either. Odd. When I'm in a public place, it's generally the other adults whom I find annoying. An unalloyed dose of adults in all directions is not my idea of relaxation.