Archive

  • Here's Why One Day You Will Probably Fall In Love With a Robot

    Vincent Desailly for SoftBank
    Vincent Desailly for SoftBank SoftBank's NAO robots. The company describes its "companion" robot this way: "NAO is a 58-cm tall humanoid robot. He is small, cute and round. You can't help but love him! NAO is intended to be a friendly companion around the house. He moves, recognises you, hears you and even talks to you!" I n the mid-1960s, a computer scientist named Joseph Weizenbaum wrote a program called ELIZA , which was meant to simulate a kind of psychotherapist that essentially repeats back everything the patient says. (The patient says, "I'm feeling depressed," and the therapist responds, "You're feeling depressed? Tell me more.") To his surprise, despite the simplicity of the program, people who interacted with it ended up telling it all kinds of secrets and couldn't tear themselves away; they were so eager to be listened to that they were happy to open their hearts to a computer. The more modern versions of ELIZA (whom you can talk to here if you like) are chatbots, one of...
  • Chris Christie Suddenly Suffers the Unbearable Specificity of Running for President

    Flickr/Bob Jagendorf
    Chris Christie went to Iowa this week, bringing what reporters inevitably call his "trademark New Jersey style" to the heartland, where he could mix and mingle with the small number of Republican voters who have the power, a year and a half hence, to either elevate him or crush his White House dreams. And in the process he got an education in what running for president means. While we often describe candidates as having to "move to the right" in the primaries (or to the left for Democrats), what actually happens is often not a move to edge, but a descent from the general to the specific. And in practice, that can mean much the same thing. Here's a report from one of Christie's events: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Thursday that he backs the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling , after declining to give an opinion on the outcome of the case earlier this month. Christie voiced his support in response to a question from an attendee at a meet-and-greet event in Marion, Iowa, where...
  • Moral Responsibility and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

    Flickr/andlun1
    A s Israel begins a ground invasion of Gaza in which hundreds of civilians will almost certainly be killed and the endless misery of the people who live there will only intensify, we haven't actually seen much debate about the subject here in the U.S. There's plenty of news about it, but unlike most issues, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is one we don't actually argue about much. There aren't dueling op-eds in every paper the way there are when even a country Americans care far less about, like Ukraine, works its way into our attention. There are many reasons for that, not least of which is the absurdly constrained debate we have over the topic of Israel. But I suspect that the relative quiet is in part because in a debate where even casting the two sides as equivalent is portrayed as a betrayal of Israel (you'll notice, for instance, that the White House is careful to say, again and again, that Israel has a right to defend itself, but you'll hear them say that the...
  • The Continuing Agonies of the Super-Rich

    Next thing you know Harry Reid will criticize the horse, and then only the Lamborghini will be safe! (Instagram/roberthimler)
    As we well know by now, being rich in America is tough. Imagine driving your Porsche out the Goldman Sachs garage, intent on a relaxing weekend at your Hamptons retreat, only to find some wretched Occupy sympathizer giving you a dirty look through the haze of patchouli and resentment that surrounds him. Who could endure it? No wonder they keep comparing their fearful existence to that of the Jews of late-1930s Germany. But now, according to the Washington Examiner , America's plutocrats have a new worry : Democratic super PACs have outraised their Republican counterparts by millions, a factor attributed in part to GOP donors' fear of being targeted by the Internal Revenue Service —or "getting Koch'ed." Republican political operatives concede that there are multiple reasons for the Democrats' advantage in super PAC money raised. Among them: Labor unions have become among their largest and most consistent donors. But this election cycle, two new challenges have chilled GOP super PACs'...
  • Why the IRS Non-Scandal Perfectly Represents Today's GOP

    Darrell Issa by Donkey Hotey.
    When John Boehner appointed South Carolina congressman Trey Gowdy to chair a select committee on Benghazi, it was like a manager taking the ball from a struggling starting pitcher and calling in a reliever to see if he might be able to carry the team to victory. Except in this case, the starter being pummelled—Darrell Issa, chair of the House Oversight Committee—was still pitching in another couple of games, with no improvement in results. Listening to this NPR story yesterday about Issa's continued inability to get where Republicans want to go with the IRS scandalette, it occurred to me that it really is an almost perfect expression of contemporary congressional Republicanism. There's the obsession with conservative victimhood, (For the record, not one of the nonprofit groups scrutinized by the IRS for possible political activity was constrained from doing anything by having its 501(c)(4) application delayed; a group whose application is pending can operate as freely one whose...
  • Getting the Government Out of Your Wedding

    Awesome couple boldly goes, on the bridge of the Enterprise with Tasha Yar presiding from the captain's chair. (Flickr/Trek Radio)
    Some years ago, I officiated at a wedding. It was a Quaker wedding, and since there are no Quaker ministers, the happy couple needed a kind of master of ceremonies to keep the program moving along. They handled most everything themselves; my job was mostly to say things like, "Now we're going to do the vows" and such. I wasn't breaking any laws, but a guy in the band did ask me afterward where my congregation was located, which, as a Jewish atheist, I found amusing. I've also been to a wedding or two that was officiated by a friend of the couple's who got ordained in the Universal Life Church (only $28.99 for the Ordination Package ), which is what you do in many states if you want to perform a wedding but you aren't a member of the clergy in one of the religions your state decides is legitimate. The question people inevitably raise on these occasions is, why the heck do we have this system in 2014? If you're going to have to go to city hall and fill out a bunch of forms to be...
  • Katrina v. Border Crisis: The Trouble With 'Optics'

    AP Photo/Susan Walsh
    I've been writing about politics for a long time, and it's a tribute to the dynamism of our glorious democracy that every time I think that things couldn't get any stupider, I'm proven wrong yet again. While we face a genuine humanitarian and policy crisis on our southern border, with thousands of children making their way across hundreds of miles to wind up in the arms of the Border Patrol, the news media allowed Republicans to turn the focus to the deeply important question of whether or not President Obama would travel there to mount a photo op. Seriously. Then because it wasn't removed enough from reality already, people in the media are now talking about whether Barack Obama does photo ops and how often, because if he rejected a photo op on this particular issue but has photo-opped before, then I guess he's a hypocrite and therefore...um...therefore something. I'm not saying that "optics" are, per se, a bad thing to discuss. I certainly agree with Kevin Drum that as a general...
  • Good Obamacare News and the Republican Dilemma

    Today the Commonwealth Fund released a new survey on the performance of the Affordable Care Act, and it adds yet more data to the tide of good news on the Affordable Care Act. As a number of people have noted, the law's evident success is making it increasingly hard for Republicans to sustain their argument that Obamacare is a disaster and must be immediately repealed. But it's actually a little more complicated than that, and the ways different Republicans are changing—or not changing—their rhetoric on health care is a microcosm of the GOP's fundamental dilemma. But before we get to that, let's look at what the survey showed: The uninsured rate for people ages 19 to 64 declined from 20 percent in the July-to-September 2013 period to 15 percent in the April-to-June 2014 period. An estimated 9.5 million fewer adults were uninsured. Young men and women drove a large part of the decline: the uninsured rate for 19-to-34-year-olds declined from 28 percent to 18 percent, with an estimated 5...
  • Health Insurance Is Not a Favor Your Boss Does For You

    Flickr/Dani Armengol Garreta
    The debate over the Hobby Lobby case has been plagued by many problematic presumptions, but there's one that even many people who disliked the decision seem to sign on to without thinking about it. It's the idea that the health insurance you get through your employer is something that they do for you—not just administratively, but in a complete sense. But this is utterly wrong. You work, and in exchange for that labor you are given a compensation package that includes salary and certain benefits like a retirement account and health coverage. Like the other forms of compensation, the details of that insurance are subject to negotiation between you and your employer, and the government's involvement is to set some minimums—just as it mandates a minimum wage, it mandates certain components health insurance must include. Those who support Hobby Lobby are now talking as though mandating that insurance include preventive care is tantamount to them forcing you to make a contribution to your...
  • Why There Are No Easy Answers to the Latest Border Dilemma

    AP Photo/Eric Gay
    After the 2012 election, Republicans realized that if they were going to have any chance of winning back the White House, they'd have to stanch their electoral bleeding among Hispanic voters, and several high-profile GOP politicians suggested that passing comprehensive immigration reform was a necessary (if perhaps not sufficient) step toward doing so. Nothing happened, of course, because House Republicans have little interest in seeing comprehensive reform. So we entered a sort of holding pattern, in which Democrats criticize Republicans for their unwillingness to act on legislation, and Republicans try to argue that their refusal is really Barack Obama's fault. First they said they couldn't pass reform until Obama "secured the border" (more on that in a moment) and then they said they couldn't pass reform because Obama is so lawless and tyrannical that they didn't trust him to enforce whatever they passed. All that was fine as long as the problems of the immigration system remained...

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