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Archive for December 30th, 2009

In my early discussions and presentations regarding Wolfram|Alpha I often used Computational Journalism as the initial non-engineering use case.   Most folks weren’t quite sure what I meant initially by Computational Journalism until I explained how, as a toe in the water step, one could easily and automatically enhance articles and features with generated knowledge and visuals.   It seems I won’t need to explain in great depth the utility and inevitability of computational journalism because enough conference summaries, op-eds and journalists are starting to popularize the concept.

Here’s a great piece from PBS.

A new set of tools would help reporters find patterns in otherwise unstructured or unsearchable information. For instance, the Obama administration posted letters from dozens of interest groups providing advice on issues, but the letters were not searchable. A text-extraction tool would allow reporters to feed PDF documents into a Web service and return a version that could be indexed and searched. The software might also make it easy to tag documents with metadata such as people’s names, places and dates. Another idea is to improve automatic transcription software for audio and video files, often available (but not transcribed) for government meetings and many court hearings.

Wired UK goes a bit deeper into some specific companies and projects.

And here’s a nice presentation by Kurt Cagle that gives a good overview of some of the computational foundational technology out there.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the vast majority of daily news will be completely machine generated and machine broadcast.  Journalists will be increasingly involved in bigger, deeper features and defining the computational logic to generate the news stream.

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This article on estate taxes came across my email inbox today, from WSJ:

Under current laws in effect until the end of this year, the size of the exemption is $3.5 million per individual or up to $7 million per couple. The tax is slated to disappear entirely on Jan 1.

But estate planning in 2010 will be complicated by a new twist: a complex tax on capital gains, levied at death, that will affect a broader swath of taxpayers. The estate tax is scheduled to return in 2011 at a 55% rate with an exemption of slightly more than $1 million.

The looming lapse of the estate tax is presenting some families with unprecedented ethical quandaries.

“I have two clients on life support, and the families are struggling with whether to continue heroic measures for a few more days,” says Joshua Rubenstein, a lawyer with Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP in New York. “Do they want to live for the rest of their lives having made serious medical decisions based on estate-tax law?”

Let’s change the question a bit.  Can we calculate the price of another day of life now?  How much estate cash is at risk by expiring before Jan 1?   Probably could come up with a dollar figure for the estate holder and the medical team keeping folks alive.

Where does all this fit in some bigger sense of human nature?

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This question, and its variants, might be the most common question asked in literature, storytelling, laws, history and philosophy (less so in daily conversations!).  This question defies an answer not because it is too complicated or out of our reach.  There is no such thing as Man (with a capital “M”), so the question is non-sense.

There is man – in the Linnaean taxonomy sense – you know, man is the creature with two hands, two feet, a biggish brain, two eyes and so on.  Though if we push hard enough on that – trace the evolutionary line back a couple of million years or push it forward a bit – we’ll find that pin pointing the precise animal known as “man” gets increasing hard to pin point.

This is definitely not a new idea or clever statement on my part.  I call attention to this in attempting to synthesize the impact of improving technology to augment our biological weaknesses, confusion over shifts in religious beliefs, global warming concerns, health care reform and other big things going on in our world that call into question some universal sense of Man.   My thesis is that clinging to a belief in Human Nature gets in the way of knowledge and impedes the progress of society on many fronts.  It is also can have grave consequences for each individual.

Cultures, societies, governments and various other collections of humans struggle to integrate big shifts within their lifetimes because learning is a long term exercise (some patterns of behavior take a lifetime to integrate).  The schedules we grow into throughout a lifetime are incredibly hard to change and sometimes require dramatic changes to the environment and/or our relation to it (body changes, for example).   It’s made every more difficult for most humans because our “blank slate” is so quickly filled with bad data, false assumptions, false positive patterns (aka superstition, religious dogma, good vs. evil, old wives tales, urban legends, irrational fears).   All of these things get associated with more and more behavior patterns very early and throughout life so much so that we all spend a life time UNLEARNING and DISASSOCIATING the falsehoods, inefficient behavior, and counter productive patterns.

The biggest false positive belief humans have is that there is Human Nature and definitive ideal of Man.  Our cultural narratives and norms claim that there is some Platonic form, some universal concept of Man and if we look hard enough, think deep enough, and/or believe enough we will understand Man and figure out how to really live.  This false positive concept of Man isn’t confined to religion or fading cultures – it pervades every modern institution too!   Top universities teach it (“liberal arts”).  Science chases it (google for scientific papers’ references to human nature).  Art celebrates it (the thinker!).  Churches preach it (man was made in the image of God).  Governments and courts enforce it (e.g. all men are created equal).  This belief is maintained over generations because it mostly “works” to keep people alive and procreating (at least, I think it does). A useful fiction, perhaps.  Truth, no.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

If we give up on Man what changes?  what contingencies go away?  what schedules are no longer maintained?

Does stem cell research pick up?  Do we march ever more quickly towards machine enhanced bodies and brains?  Do robots really start to pervade our workplaces? Would we really continue to worry so much about global warming destroying the sensitive environment we require?

How much does this false belief really change our behavior or is it just “exhaust” we spew out when trying to synthesize all the behavior around us?  That is, does a well defined and earnest belief in Man actually contribute to what we do or don’t do?

It’s an important discussion.

  • Health care reform tend to fall into two camps:  health care is a human right (Man is real and necessary) or health care is essentially an economic issue (Man is not relevant)
  • The penal system are built on a concept of perhaps not Universal Morality, but certainly a very strong concept of Character.
  • The debate on global warming rides on whether people believe the we should keep the earth at a stable temp for our current species biology (if we’re machines or just digitized versions or in space, global warming isn’t as concerning???)
  • Abortion rights are obviously about whether you think a bundle of cells in a woman’s body constitutes Man
  • End of Life decisions – is the life supported body still a Man when the lights have gone out?

Beyond these big issues consider many of the plots of recent pop culture smashes (all are about What is Man?):

  • Avatar
  • Terminator
  • Twilight
  • Heroes
  • Harry Potter
  • The Secret
  • Eckhart Tolle

If we lose the belief in Man (the soul, autonomous man, in God’s image, human nature) is there a negative impact personally and in society?  Do we all just become nihilists? Do we stop passionately pursuing things? do we devalue our relationships?

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