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“We work day and night and try to save for our retirement.

But we are never more than a pay check or two from the streets.”


I’ve read a couple of articles over the last few days which paint a worrying picture about the state of society and the economy at large in the US of A. First was a piece in the FT called “The crisis of middle class America“, which describes how even families with a decent annual income are caught between high healthcare costs and mortgages which are several times more expensive than the house they live in, resulting in their not having any chance of conveniently retiring or leaving their kids with a reasonable inheritance.

 

“Dubbed “median wage stagnation” by economists, the annual incomes of the bottom 90 per cent of US families have been essentially flat since 1973 […]. That means most Americans have been treading water for more than a generation. […] In the last expansion, which started in January 2002 and ended in December 2007, the median US household income dropped by $2,000 – the first ever instance where most Americans were worse off at the end of a cycle than at the start. Worse is that the long era of stagnating incomes has been accompanied by something profoundly un-American: declining income mobility.”


An strong article which paints a worrying picture, highlighted both by hard statistics and a couple of example families to drive the message home. This touches the bedrock of American society, and if it continues bodes ill for American society and its prosperity.

 

The second piece is an op-ed by Paul Krugman in the NY Times (“America Goes Dark“), in which he discusses the crumbling infrastructure and decaying education system and posits them as resulting from the government spending cuts of the last two decades, themselves in turn tied in his article to the enduring tax cuts for the American rich.

“Meanwhile, a country that once amazed the world with its visionary investments in transportation, from the Erie Canal to the Interstate Highway System, is now in the process of unpaving itself: in a number of states, local governments are breaking up roads they can no longer afford to maintain, and returning them to gravel.”

Now, I won’t go into whether his economic theory is correct or not – I’m sure that conclusion heavily depends on which side of the American political map you’re on, but there is no real argument that infrastructure and education in the states are no longer world leaders, far from it.

And combining this with the decaying middle class in the FT piece serves to paint a morbid picture on the future of “this great nation”. While America is still an innovation powerhouse which draws millions of poor and needy seeking a better life, such widespread decay of both infrastructure and socioeconomic classes is a cause for concern…of course there is no easy solution for such a huge problem. The question is, can something be done?

If you’ve been there you’ll know this, and if you’re not there yet you’ll likely find out – the strange and revealing compulsion which besets you once you become a parent to evaluate how your little prince or princess is fairing in comparison to his or her peers.

The early equivalent to “my son has just graduated from Harvard med” vs. “my daughter flunked a horticulture alternative therapy course at Yuma technical college”, parents’ psychological obligation (and I’m not excluding myself) to compare their little one to the other kids in an age group can be disturbing, amusing or just slightly bizarre if you think about it at length.

What starts “innocuously” enough with sentences like: “did you hear that the  Lowenstein’s daughter already poops solids at 8 weeks” (or in even more extreme cases “…doesn’t excrete miconium at 2 days”) rapidly becomes an overdone semi-obsessive noting of anything that your child may be “behind” on, whether it’s crawling, eating with utensils, teething etc., accompanied with the overanxious fretting whether this indicates any developmental lag or “should we think of getting help”.

Too much of this and you may find yourself at the pediatrician asking whether “it’s a serious developmental lag” that your child doesn’t yet wash his or her hands alone while the neighbors’ has done it when he/she was 13 months(!). Time to take a step back and relax.

Been there? Have similar experiences? Do share…

And now for something completely different – a “top list”, and one that I shall enjoy putting out there: my top 25 songs of all time! (quiver like you care, people – I’m doing this for me as much as for educating the world on what good musical taste is…). Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a music fanatic, and I’ve never actually sorted out what are my absolute faves. So here goes…

I did this not off the top of my head, but rather by scouring my iTunes music list systematically – though some would say the first method would have been a better reflection of what I really think rather than a rationalized consideration. Well, I’d rather do it scientifically 🙂

  1. Dire Straits – Sultans of Swing
  2. Is it Mark Knoplfer’s solid guitar? That warm bass sound? The understated overall theme? All of the above? I don’t know, but after all the ifs and buts this emerged top of the pile. Not avant-garde, not fancy, not awe inspiring, but just good, solid rock. Perhaps it’s me getting older that has softened my taste, perhaps not.

    Funnily enough, this a song I really didn’t like all that much when I first heard it all those years ago. Used to think it really lacks a chorus (duh). However, with time it has become such a staple in my playlist, that it easily tops my “most played” songs. Even more impressive is that it just does not get old or worn out (see “Stairway”, below).

  3. Beatles – Strawberry Fields Forever
  4. How the heck does one choose the best Beatles’ song? Very difficult. Thinking it over, Strawberry Fields shows them at their best: both a great song, including many experimental and innovative elements, and the wonderful execution which rides through all their work.  Makes me feel a bit sad for not having been around when stuff like this was released.

  5. Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film)
  6. Even without having watched the movie for which this was written (“William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” from 1996), this song just bursts with emotion, anger, tension and resentment, bubbling throughout the soft first verses and escalating until erupting wonderfully…all of these make for one amazing song. Gives me shivers every time.

  7. Neil Young – Cortez the Killer (Live/ Weld)
  8. To borrow an appropriate adjective from Almost Famous: Incendiary. Raw, powerful, unpolished sound, highlighting a great song.

  9. Nirvana – Smells like Teen Spirit
  10. I really don’t need to add much for anyone who was musically aware to any degree in the 90’s…a true modern classic. Loud. Full of angst. Uniquely powerful. Makes you want to break something and feel good about it.

  11. Leonard Cohen – Famous Blue Raincoat
  12. While there are many LC songs I like, this one I find particularly captivating: a perfect combination of sadness, love, betrayal. It gives me a feeling of a cold, rainy New York day, despite the fact that I’ve never lived there. It’s like watching a dark, bittersweet romantic movie – in 5 minutes and 13 seconds. The fact that this is not one of his “bigger” songs (e.g. Suzanne, Dance me to the end of love etc.) only makes it more special.

  13. Gerry & the Pacemakers – You’ll Never Walk Alone
  14. Not much to say – no serious Liverpool fan can leave this one out of his top 10. So many memories, so much emotion. 25/05/2005 😛

  15. Pink Floyd – Shine On You Crazy Diamond
  16. Now there are a few following songs which sit tightly on the line between absolutely awesome all-time classics and overdone, over-quoted, over-yapped-about clichés.  This is one of them. It is PF at it’s best – an atmospheric, melodic, huge piece (in two parts!) featuring a great topic (what could be better than a tribute to your lead singer who’s gone mad?) and fantastic guitar and keyboard sections. The word “classic” was penned for this type of song, and for the one following it.

  17. Led Zeppelin – Stairway to Heaven
  18. Writing many words would be in vain here – those who think it’s a classic despite everything will agree; those who think it’s the most horrible music cliché will not. Despite not being able to listen to this song very frequently due to extreme overuse during my teens and 20’s, every time it still comes on it’s still an amazing piece of rock music. There are many LZ songs which I love, but amazingly, despite everything that’s been thrown at it this one still rules.

  19. Muse – New Born
  20. In many ways the new possessor of what PF and LZ had, Muse is bombastic, loud, angst-ridden enough to make you feel unpleasant and just rocks like shit.  This is a song in which everything just works, bringing together a lot of what makes this band so big.

  21. Doors – The End: another classic favourite, not least because it features in Apocalypse Now which I love. Psychedelic, totally stoned and out-there, but ambient, atmospheric and dark – dragging you into the trip these guys had when writing this (not a good one I imagine).The Doors at their most profound and complete ability.
  22. Janis Joplin – Me and Bobby McGee: recorded by Janis Joplin a few days before her death, and her only #1 single, this is a simple and wonderful piece of blues/rock music.
  23. Jimi Hendrix – All along the watchtower: an iconic piece of the one of the original guitar hero’s musical legacy. A contributing factor is this song’s unforgettable appearance in one of my favourite movies (it all ties together, you see…), Withnail and I.
  24. Metallica – Dyers Eve: Metallica at their peak, before the went all pop and soggy. Raw, powerful, totally angst-filled feeling and lyrics, exactly as it should be.
  25. Radiohead – There There (The Boney King Of Nowhere): Radiohead at one of the closest songs to being a bona-fide chart hit. Not overly complicated, but superbly executed, rhythmic, and wonderfully catchy.
  26. Bob Marley – Punky Reggae Party: beyond all the rasta and weed jive, which is what people in the west so often identify with Jamaican music, Marley was a tremendous musician. Once one peels away the scent of MJ and the superficial one-love-let’s-get-together-and-feel-alright singles, one can discover a body of work which rivals any American or British musician of recent decades in its quality, inventiveness, and great musicianship. And the lesser known songs are where the real gems lie, not in the “greatest hits’ catalog.
  27. Leonard Cohen – Le Chant des Partisans: a song which I liked so much it made me want to learn French. And now I actually am, funnily enough – and can understand the lyrics. Yay.
  28. Jethro Tull – Heavy Horses: ah, JT and prog rock, music of my youth. This is one of those songs that flies me straight back to high school, and is one of the best which came from the veteran British group. A combination of strong folk elements, an earthy, “nature” theme and lyrics, and violins and electric guitar. Folk/rock at its best, though some may argue whether this category is apt for JT.
  29. Sting – Englishman in NY: Nothing Like the Sun is my favourite Sting album – he was really at his creative and musical peak IMO, and the musical style he showed was (and still, amazingly, is) so fresh – and EINY, while a bit poppy, is a wonderful song. Light, atmospheric, imbued with jazz influences, it really ties well with the lyrics and message. The no. 2 song in here was the title track, which is equally wonderful but with a much darker feel – not much between these two.
  30. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody: another one of the mega-classics, not much needs to be added about this song, which is quintessential Queen – melodic, powerful, bombastic at times and understated at others, and features Freddy Mercury’s singing and Brian May’s guitar – what else can you ask for. Above all – it rocks! 🙂
  31. Rolling stones – Satisfaction: and yet another classic, this time a very early one. Beyond the historical significance this song has (came at #2 on Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs list), the vibrancy, the youthful exuberant and down-with-the-old attitude emanating from the lyrics, and of course the unforgettable guitar riff make this a song not to be left out from any rock lover’s list.
  32. Chuck Berry – Johnny B. Goode: a classic among rock’n’roll classics, one of the first great rock hits – while this is very evident in the lyrics and music, it just goes to prove what an immense talent Check Berry had.
  33. Simon and Garfunkel – America: many are the more popular and successful Simon and Garfunkel songs, and many of these defined the 60’s generation. This one I like more because it’s not one of the more played, more profound-in-meaning or more pompous. It’s low key, but the topic of searching for America together with S&G’s trademark melodic harmony, full of youth and naivety, makes for a wonderful song.
  34. Louis Armstrong – What a Wonderful World: another oldie, but one so warm, soft and mushy than in the right circumstances you just cannot avoid going all *whimper* and soft at the knees. On a particularly cynical or nasty day I may view it as horribly kitsch, but those are far and few between…
  35. David Bowie – Space Oddity: Bowie is a strange one with me, I really think the songs are great, and this one is monumental, but they somehow don’t speak that much to me personally. Still, a place on the list is well deserved. I’m sure Bowie will be appreciative 🙂

Also rans – those who didn’t make it but are still worth mentioning:

  • Beatles – Yesterday;  In My Life
  • Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick
  • Beach Boys – Good Vibrations
  • Beastie Boys – Sabotage
  • Billy Joel – NY state of mind
  • Bob Dylan – Hurricane
  • Boston – More Than a Feeling
  • Springsteen – The River
  • Coldplay – Clocks
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival – Bad Moon Rising
  • Deep Purple – Smoke on the water
  • Dire Straits – Telegraph Road
  • Eagles – Hotel California
  • Frank Sinatra – My Way
  • John Lee Hooker – The Healer
  • John Lennon – Imagine
  • Johnny Cash – Ghost Riders in the Sky
  • Kansas – Dust in the Wind
  • Little Peggy March – I will Follow Him
  • Paul Simon – Hearts and Bones
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-7NoOhmVMac

From so many posts about the future, here’s one about the past…

I’ve been watching and listening a lot to material regarding the American civil war lately. It is a part of history which perhaps does not receive that much attention outside the States, but is absolutely fascinating from a historical perspective: militarily, politically, concerning human rights and the very nature of America, which indeed went on to determine the course of the 20th century.

The magnitude of this war; the staggering losses inflicted on both sides; the clear direction and standing with which the US came out of it, propelled forward towards the coming 20th century as a world power; the fate of Lincoln and many other factors make it a highly interesting subject, with many lessons which are still relevant in our times.

A few interesting points to mention:

  • It is a testament to the period that many men on both sides found little trouble with the common military attack tactics – walking line abreast towards the enemy lines while being shot at by artillery and muskets (the most extreme and well know example of which is of course Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, but there having been too many examples of senseless frontal assaults by both sides). Flanking movements aside (and there were plenty of those), it’s just baffling how people did not flinch at certain death.
  • Even more astounding are the numerous  instances of blatant indifferent and incompetent field command by officers, which sent thousands and thousands to their death and serve as an eerie prelude to the horrors of the catastrophic World War I no-mans’-land frontal assaults.
  • As in any war, the “what ifs” are easy to fall into.
    • How many lives would have been saved if George Mclellan had been as good a field commander as he was an organizer and/or possessed some more will to actually put his army to use? It is quite ironic that he was hesitant in being more aggressive with his forces “out of concern for their well-being”, in that if perhaps he had used his overwhelming numerical superiority the war may have been shortened saving many lives, notably from the Army of the Potomac.

     

    • There seem to have been so many pivotal points in the war, in which had a certain battle not gone one way the war would have ended otherwise, that it makes you wonder how things did come out as they did. A few notable examples are the near breakthrough which the Confederate army neared on the second day at Gettyburg; how Lincoln’s re-election looked exceedingly unlikely until Mobile, and then Atlanta fell several weeks before the election; how close were the European powers to recognizing the Confederacy; and so on and so forth. History.
  • It is really striking to me how long the Confederacy managed to last in the face of overwhelming hardships and an inherent inferiority in industrial production and manpower. While Union military command ineptitude coupled with Confederate military brilliance in the East seems to have contributed to this prolonged time span, the part which staunch resistance to the threat of a dramatic imposed change to a society and way of life (as misguided and abusive as it was) is clearly major and impressively so at that, especially when contrasted with the large mood swings and wavering in the North.

However, in the end history went the way it did: the South surrendered, reconstruction begun with all its problems, and of course Lincoln was assasinated. A dark and terrible portion of American history was done, one that can teach a lesson or two to any country in which the values and ideals of a minority become so detached from the majority to lead to talk of separation (…).

And to wrap up, a great on-topic song from the Band:

If you’ve read my previous posts and the two singularity articles I’ve added to the site, you will know that in my opinion (and many others) there are two main avenues through which the singularity will emerge, when it does.

The first, and most widely considered (both scientifically and in the public/media view), will follow the development of what is known as “Strong AI” or “artificial general intelligence”. That is, the generation of an artificial intelligence which exceeds human intelligence,  coupled with this entity acquiring the ability to improve itself or develop an improved iteration of strong AI.

singularityThe route generally postulated in this case is that this AI and the ones it begets recursively improve themselves, rapidly reaching levels of intelligence ungraspable by us one-human-brain-power beings. Following this Singularity event, they either vanish into another dimension, build killer robots and destroy humanity, harvest humans as batteries and employ multiple copies of Hugo Weaving as unsuccessful agents or perhaps other realistic scenarios.

The slightly less well-covered route, though, is that prior to machines achieving supra-human intelligence, a way is found to link the human brain to machine components, followed by integrating the two – machines in the human body and multitudes of bodies and minds in a global cyborg consciousness. Thus, effectively rendering “us” and “them” inseparable. As a result, when strong AI does emerge, any advance made in intelligence levels will directly affect humans too. In effect, we will become part of the machine, able ultimately to transfer our consciousness to digital form and achieve the same leaps in intelligence levels as they emerge from the self-improving machines, or indeed be part of these improvements.

So which of these two possibilities (which are by no means categorically the only way things are set to pan out – there could be many variations in between, or completely different outcomes – remember, this is conjecture!)  is more likely? Which is better for humanity’s future?singluarity

Unfortunately, the advance rate in the bio and medical sciences naturally lags that in AI and related fields, due to the inherent restrictions on research in humans. Thus, one is forced to take a pessimistic outlook with regard to the likely sequence of events.  Ultimately an effective permanent link between man and machine will be made, but the question is whether it will still be relevant by the time it is established.

It must be remembered, though, that technological breakthroughs do happen. Should the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) and the multitude of technologies which comprise and surround it receive sufficient attention and funding, the chances of a beneficial sequence can increase profoundly, increasing the chance of the survival of humanity…or should I say, post-humanity.

It is clear, though, that making the connection to machine intelligences will radically change humanity. Thus, the question of which route is more preferable depends on your outlook: do you want to see humanity evolve, or are you content with us staying just the way we are, even if this renders us evolutionarily irrelevant? Are bacteria disappointed not to have evolved?

So, if you are of the belief that we must and will evolve – make a contribution: donate, write to your congressman, or just become a researcher! The future is almost here… 🙂