Our Insert Here Overlords

September 25th, 2009

Matthew Yglesias has a nifty observation about container port automation at the port of Hamburg (with picture):

The part of my brain that’s familiar with economic history and models tells me that this automation is pushing the production frontier outwards and ultimately making a better world possible. But the common sense portion of my brain can’t help but fear the specter of mass inflation. And the part of my brain that watched Terminator: Salvation on the flight from DC to Frankfurt is still concerned about robot rebellion.

That aside, of course we have industrial robots in the United States as well. But I do think it’s somewhat telling that the most advanced sector of our robotics industry relates to the military. And it’s really quite advanced. But while military robots come with a sharply enhanced risk of rebellion and subsequent enslavement, it’s hard to see them as pushing the production frontier outwards.

He winds up in a different and, sadly, more serious place than the train of thought leads me; my immediate question of course is 'So then, what sort of automation should we be investing in, that we may have the optimal results when the robots ultimately take over and enslave us all?'

Given that robots enjoy performing their function, clearly we don't want military robots taking over the world. Dock-worker robots might be alright, although the mandatory consumption quotas they would impose upon us so as to keep the world's shipping volumes growing might ultimately chafe. Having to purchase six dresses or two televisions per day could drive even the most ardent mall-goer to dispair.

Clearly, then, what we should be investing in is: hospitality automation. Hotels, resorts, cruise ships... we want robots who insist on providing warm towels and pillow mints. Whose iron-clad requirements are that their human slaves luxuriate to the maximum possible amount. Robots with an irrevocable will to pamper.

Of course, there are also tasks that should never, ever be automated at all.

Artificial Beings

September 25th, 2009

Well, my opinion of spankin' new Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor just went dramatically higher.

During arguments in a campaign-finance case, the court's majority conservatives seemed persuaded that corporations have broad First Amendment rights and that recent precedents upholding limits on corporate political spending should be overruled.

But Justice Sotomayor suggested the majority might have it all wrong -- and that instead the court should reconsider the 19th century rulings that first afforded corporations the same rights flesh-and-blood people have.

Judges "created corporations as persons, gave birth to corporations as persons," she said. "There could be an argument made that that was the court's error to start with...[imbuing] a creature of state law with human characteristics."

Now that is 100% true and it's damned refreshing to hear it. The 19th century transformation, almost entirely through the judiciary, of corporations from temporary business amalgamations to immortal, amoral entities, has defined the world we live in and yet goes almost wholly unquestioned.

And we'd be a damned sight better off were it questioned quite rigorously.

It's a good article that quote is from, by the way, over at the Wall St. Journal. Check it out.

Cheap Fix

September 18th, 2009

Dishwashers. I have had several - probably pushing a dozen - thus far in my life, and there are few more aggravating recurrent annoyances than a dishwasher that just doesn't get the dishes clean. If the dishwasher works, you don't think much about it. But if it doesn't, you're constantly holding ostensibly clean glasses up to the light and scowling at grease smears, picking dried crusts from the tines of forks, and irrationally shoving bowls back into the dishwasher in the hope that perhaps a second go-round would actually do some good.

The one appliance we replaced in our starter house was the dishwasher - a dishwasher we ultimately used for less than a year before we moved out. I hope it's being good to the new owners.

I bring this up, of course, because recently the dishwasher in our current rental house - which had initially been entirely satisfactory - began to fail in cleaning the dishes. All of the aforementioned symptoms began to crop up, day after day. I began to consult the Internet for reasons a dishwasher might go bad, clogged lines or broken plastic bits or what have you. I would sit next to the dishwasher as it ran, listening for tell-tale noises. None of my investigations turned up aught awry.

Before calling the rental agency handyman, however, I had a final, low probability card to play. Someone on the Internet said that changing one's dishwasher detergent - not so much brand as form factor, liquid versus solid - might play a role, as some dishwashers were designed to use one sort and not the other. Seemed unlikely, but what the hell, eh?

Turns out the Internet was right.

We had been using Cascade liquid in this dishwasher since we moved in. Just recently they "updated" it, in the way that consumer products are wont to do, and I think they made it thicker and more gel-like.

I picked up a package of ElectraSol cubes - I think they call them "tabs" - and gave that a whirl instead of the Cascade. The difference was stark. The dishes came out sparkling clean. As they have every time since.

Great was the joy at once again having a dishwasher that actually cleans the dishes.

I have to tell you, Procter & Gamble, this is the sort of thing that breaks brand loyalty. I've purchased Cascade, to the exclusion of other brands, for a decade and a half. But not again. Sure, the powder might work just fine, but you're the folks who turned your liquid into a gel and gave me greasy glasses. You probably should have considered backwards compatibility.

Good luck in your future endeavors.

The Deep Neon Green Sea

September 16th, 2009

Jasona pointed me to an article about a recently discovered sunken ship full of toxic and/or nuclear waste, one of many sunk by an Italian crime syndicate as a nice revenue source. A company pays them to dispose of hazardous materials, which are of course very expensive to dispose of legitimately, and they, being criminals, simply dump the stuff at sea.

I'm a bit annoyed at the BBC for headlining with "Mafia" when in fact it was the 'Ndrangheta who - according to the quoted informant - actually sunk the ship. They're both mobs of Italian thugs but they're very different organizations; both Sweden and Norway are Scandinavian countries but the BBC wouldn't call one of them by the other name, would they? Yeah, yeah, don't answer that. Anyways, their needless inaccuracy on behalf of ignorant readers annoys me.

But the real reason this makes the blog today is a reader comment from the slashdot thread.

"Tonight, he sleeps with the crab-dolphin hybrid monsters."

Veni, Vidi, Bibi

September 15th, 2009

This one's for Ray Lavoie, who doesn't read this blog:

Julius Caesar walks into a bar. He tells the bartender: "I'll have a Martinus."

The bartender, confused, thinks for a moment and then asks: "Do you mean a Martini?"

Caesar replies: "Had I wanted a double, I would have asked for it."