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Sunday, April 22, 2012

America Sings Daisy

The movie 2001: a space odyssey was famous for its special effects and sci-fi predictions of the technologies that would allow man to travel in space, conquer zero gravity and vast stretches of time without wasting away, all while enjoying a tasty meal and keeping in touch with a daughter's birthday via picture phone. The movie was about much more than special effects and space travel, though. Arthur C Clarke's book and Stanley Kubrick's film were really an allegory about the evolution of intelligence in mankind as reflected in the tools we use and the evil made possible by those tools.

The most memorable plot line in the movie involves the relationship between two astronauts on an extended mission to Jupiter with other "hibernating" astronauts all being monitored by the watchful eye of an advanced computerized control system named HAL 9000. The computer identifies a fault on hardware onboard which is subsequently found to be OK, pointing out to the two astronauts and mission control that HAL is malfunctioning and needs to have its higher level functions for mission planning relinquished to the astronauts and other systems. The computer, aware of the plan, views it as a threat to itself and launches its own plot to protect itself by killing everyone on board. It suggests a second extra-vehicular activity so it can kill Frank outside the ship, trigger Dave to temporarily go outside the ship to retrieve Frank, thus giving it time to halt all life support functions of the hibernating crew before locking Dave out of the ship as well.

After Dave recovers the body of Frank and returns to the ship, HAL's refusal to "open the pod bay doors" forces Dave to choose between holding on to the recovered body of his crewmate or abandoning the body so he can operate an emergency entrance lock. Dave opts to surrender his crewmate's body but, upon re-entering the ship, makes a beeline for the core computer room housing the memory modules and processors that make HAL's advanced "thinking" possible.

In the climactic scene of the movie, Dave enters the core computer room as the ever-watchful HAL talks to him. "Just what do you think you're doing, Dave? Dave... I really think I'm entitled to an answer to that question... Look Dave, I can see you are really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over..."

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZI_xGPrsZYc

Dave proceeds to disable one of man's most complicated tools -- a supercomputer capable of controlling an entire space ship and capable of human-like actions like planning, revenge and murder -- with one of man's most simple tools -- a screwdriver, symbolically equivalent a leg bone seeen at the beginning of the film as a caveman learns to use it as a tool to kill other cavemen. As Dave removes HAL's memory, the computer regresses to lower and lower levels of capability, symbolized by its lower and slower speech and its eventual attempt to sing the song "Daisy Bell":

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Analogies to the battle between Dave and HAL and to HAL's progressive functional slowdown seem apropos for America right now. America exists in an extremely complex world that is tightly interconnected at economic, social and political levels. You cannot operate the world's biggest economy and the world's most costly, powerful military without relying on a multitude of organizations throughout the society to operate the physical and virtual machines of government, justice, the economy and the military.

Unfortunately, we have been bombarded since 2001 (irony?) with examples across these institutions of incompetence, outright corruption and appalling immorality:

* professional auditors who repeatedly blessed the books of publicly traded firms who were hiding billions in bogus profits and pending losses

* central bankers bailing out failed TBTF banks at the expense of the public while creating more and bigger TBTF banks

* military personnel deployed at a base specifically intended to manage the returning remains of fallen soldiers treating those remains like dinner scraps hauled away to a landfill

* military personnel generating further risk to all deployed troops by desecrating the bodies of killed enemy combatants

* corporate executives pushing profits over human and environmental safety causing a preventable oil rig disaster that poisoned hundreds of miles of coast and crippled local economies already in crisis from the 2008 economic downturn

* government accounting watchdogs operating without watchdogs on their spending that wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars PLANNING even larger conferences that wasted additional hundreds of thousands of dollars

* Secret Service personnel responsible for protecting the President and avoiding international crises by eliminating potential threats spending their time hiring hookers and breaching secured zones with "unsecure" personnel

If colossal system failures like these weren't frustrating enough, the suggestion that we "do a Dave" and pull the plug on all of these systems and return to some prior state of uncomplicated utopia is just as frustrating.

If five percent of large public corporations are manipulating earnings and falsifying tax records to avoid $300 billion in taxes per year, will eliminating public auditing requirements make the problem better? Will ADDING more rules and formulas to the tax code make the problem better? Of course not. However, eliminating complexity and altering legal and financial incentives for auditors MIGHT improve collections and compliance without increasing private or public headcount dedicated to compliance and enforcement.

If we can't be bothered training military commanders to more effectively recognize the psychological incapacitation of the young men and women we've sent into 24x7x365 war zones with repeated tours with a mission of "drive around and avoid the bombs and snipers", maybe we should we just "outsource" our wars to the private sector. Oh wait, we did that in Iraq. Didn't work out too well. The word Blackwater rings a bell for some reason.

On the April 22, 2012 edition of This Week (see #1), ABC commentator George Will opined:

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It is unfair to blame Barack Obama for the GSA or any of these things because although people THINK he controls the executive branch, NO ONE controls the executive branch, that's part of the problem with big government -- there's no leash strong enough to hold it. But beyond that, this is going to have a political ramification because the party in power believes that the federal government needs more money, should control our lives more, should be trusted with more and more of the gross national product of the country whereas what you see with the GSA is that there is few pleasures as intense as spending other people's money, that's why people run for Congress.
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The first flaw in Will's argument involves the straw man of the executive branch controlling all spending (check your Constitution, all bills to appropriate funds for expenditures must originate in the House) while ending his comment by pointing out the attraction of people running for Congress, not taking up careers as regulatory bureaucrats. The second flaw is more hyperbolic. Is Will recommending we downsize the Secret Service and simply pack the President and White House senior staff on a corporate Gulf Stream and let the President "stand his ground"?

Will's cohort in conservative commentary, Peggy Noonan, got a bit closer to the truth earlier in the discussion with this comment

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You look at the stories of the last week, the GSA, You have to wonder what is going on with those adults in serious, responsible, publicly paid for positions who have, it seems to me, less and less of a sense of probity, responsibility, the sort of basic adultness, the maintaining of standards that we ought to be used to. It seems to me we have big slip going on there and these two stories are part of it.
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but she still fouled off the pitch. Does anyone think this deficit in professional decency has only affected public sector workers? It seems crystal clear that professionals in the private sector have rubber-stamped trillions of dollars in fraud which continued for YEARS solely because of those "certifications" from would-be professionals who were, in reality, no less bought-and-paid-for than the hookers in Columbia.

The overly simplistic and cynical philosophies espoused by columnists like Will and Noonan which either prescribe a solution of just eliminating the machine entirely or limiting their consternation to narrow ranges of politically expedient bogeymen (incompetent regulators, teachers, firemen, policemen) is leading the country to cripple or dismantle entirely critical functions within our collective "machine" proven to prevent the very problems we are encountering. By fixating on the conflicts of interest, incompetence and corruption of people operating in the public sector, we are abandoning huge swaths of the gross national product George Will worries about so much to the conflicts of interest, incompetence and corruption of mega-millionaires and billionaires in the private sector.

The results of this cynical strategy are already readily apparent:

* citizens frustrated by local crime putting themselves in the position of local sheriff with zero appreciation of the adrenaline rush and panic officers are trained to manage while performing their duties

* regulatory bodies staffed with industry insiders to provide the illusion of "regulation" while in fact providing NO regulation thus missing billions in fraud while giving "regulation" a bad name when in fact there WAS no actual regulation being performed

* billion dollar corporations complaining of a lack of engineers and manufacturing expertise while dodging hundreds of billions in earnings taxes that could better fund the education of the next generation of chemists, biologists, computer scientists and engineers that could make tomorrow's products here in America

It's like listening to the same machine that built Hooover Dam, designed the 747, put men on the moon and put a telescope into space capable of looking at echoes from the Big Bang suddenly crawling to a halt while singing...

Daaiiiiissssyyy, Daaaaiiiiiisssssyyyy
Giiivvvveeee mmmeeee yoooouuur annnsssswwwwer, doooo
I'mmmm haaaalllllf crrrrraaaaazzzzzzy, all foooorrrrr the loooovvvve offff yoooouuu
It wooonnnn't beeeee a styyyyyyliiiiiish maaaaarrrrrrriaaaaaage
I caaaaaan't affoooorrrrrrd a caaaarrrrrriaaaaaage
But yooooouuuuu'llllll looooooook sweeeeeeeet upoooooon the seeeeeeeaaaaat
Of a bicyyyyyclllle buuuuillllllt fooooor twoooooo


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#1) http://abcnews.go.com/ThisWeek/video/roundtable-secret-service-scandal-16189791?tab=9482931