Archive for February, 2011

‘It’s elementary, Watson. You’re not that smart’

“I never get your limits, Watson. There are unexplored possibilities about you.”

– Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes, I suspect, would have despised the computerized Watson on display this week on “Jeopardy.” The machine proved to be everything that the fictional Holmes prided himself on being — coldly calculating, decisive and unemotional — 0nly much more so.

columnAs Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most decorated human champions in “Jeopardy” history, looked on in frustration,  the IBM computer buzzed in first on question after question, answering most of them correctly and leaving millions in the television audience aghast that their fellow carbon-based life forms had been bested so easily.

It’s a funny thing: We don’t feel challenged by machines that are stronger than we are, or faster than we are. But we can get a little nervous about machines that we suspect might outsmart us.  Intelligence is supposed to define us as a species — that’s why we’ve branded ourselves “Homo …

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In Wisconsin, a bitter labor battle likely to alter national scene

Maybe it’s a hangover from the Super Bowl, but the folks up in Wisconsin have gone a little wacky on us.

Last Friday, GOP Gov. Scott Walker announced a surprise bill to immediately strip some 170,000 state and local workers — teachers, clerks, etc., — of their unionized negotiating rights as well as the right to deduct union dues from their paychecks. The legislation also mandates that unionized state workers pay significantly more for pension and health-insurance benefits. To justify the change, Walker has cited a $137 million projected deficit in the current state budget.

The announcement shocked the state labor movement, which has responded with large protests, demonstrations and sleep-ins at the Capitol.  Thousands of teachers have refused to report to class. President Obama has weighed in, saying that while pay freezes and other moves might be necessary in these times, the scale and intensity of Walker’s proposal make it look like “an assault on unions.”

And as it turns …

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The only politically feasible solution to our budget crisis

Congressional Republicans believe fervently that they have the backing of the American people to make deep cuts in federal spending. But as poll after poll indicates, they don’t. And if they remain oblivious to that fact, they’re going to end up in deep political trouble.

Ordinarily, that prospect wouldn’t exactly break my heart. However, since more important things are at stake here, such as the nation’s financial stability, I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope they come to their senses and realize that compromise — much as they hate that concept — is essential.

Last month, for example, the Harris Poll asked poll respondents which federal programs they would be willing to cut, echoing similar questions asked by Harris in 1980 and 2008. Here’s what they found:

Source: Harris Polls

Source: Harris Polls

Harris shows what every poll on the subject shows: Everybody wants to cut foreign aid and foreign military assistance. Fine. The only problem is, we’ll spend a grand total of about $40 billion on those …

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I guess I never thought of it that way

Donald Trump is flirting with the idea of running for president, but as with most men in late middle age sporting a bad comb-over, his flirting isn’t likely to get him very far. Nonetheless, The Donald is apparently serious enough about running as a Republican that he has announced a change of heart. Once pro-choice, he is now pro-life.

His special counsel, Michael Cohen, explained it this way:

“People change their positions all the time, the way they change their wives.’’

As he told Fox News, “I believe strongly in just about all conservative principles. I’m pro-life. I think that’s a big social issue.’’

The man has caught onto this political game pretty quickly, it seems.

– Jay Bookman

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Man in ‘Jeopardy’: ‘Watson’ impresses but humans rule

Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, the two most decorated champions in “Jeopardy” history, watched in barely disguised frustration last night as they got steamrolled by an opponent nicknamed “Watson.” On question after question — 25 times in all — Watson buzzed in first, answering correctly 24 times. By the end of last night’s round, Watson had won a total of $35,734, with a stunned Rutter second at $10,400 and Jennings last with $4,800,

Watson, of course, is a rather large computer system created by IBM. The final night of the taped, three-night challenge pitting man against machine will air tonight, and at this point the outcome is not in much doubt.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the Jeopardy matchup in part because back in in 1996, I covered IBM’s first attempt to beat Garry Kasparov, still acknowledged as probably the best chess player in history, during a historic six-game match in Philadelphia. The great and rather egocentric Kasparov won that particular challenge, afterward …

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Sunday liquor-sales ban: Where God and Mammon intersect

Georgia is one of only three states in the country that do not allow sales of alcohol on Sunday. If the Christian Coalition and other social conservatives get their way, that’s how things are gonna stay.

In one sense, it’s not a major issue. At least not to most of us. Sure, it would be more convenient to be able to pick up a six-pack of beer or a bottle of wine at the grocery store on Sunday, rather than having to plan ahead. And yes, it’s pretty strange to see the beer aisle at my local Publix darkened one day a week just to satisfy a state law that serves no real purpose. However, with teachers being furloughed and thousands of Georgians in danger of losing health insurance, legislators do have more important things to worry about than ending a minor inconvenience.

On the other hand, the issue seems to matter a good deal to the Christian Coalition and its social conservative allies. They see preserving the law as a way to demonstrate their continued influence at the General …

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Two budget fights loom — one that matters, and one that doesn’t

The looming budget fight in Washington has two components, the short term and the long term. And it’s important to keep that distinction in mind as events play out.

The short term is going to be brutal. House Republicans are itching for a spending fight, and they’re going to get one. The occasion might be passage of the continuing resolution needed to fund the rest of this fiscal year; it might be the debate over raising the debt ceiling; it might be both. The House GOP is proposing budget moves they know won’t be accepted — a 29 percent cut in the hated EPA, eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Americorps and slashing college tuition aid while defense spending increases — but they show every sign of stamping their feet and throwing a major hissy fit if the rest of Washington doesn’t bow to their every wish.

The damage those cuts would do is serious. But in terms of the deficit, the short-term fight will mean nothing and accomplish nothing. By …

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Do half of Republicans really think Obama is illegitimate president?

According to Public Policy Polling, 51 percent of Republican primary voters don’t believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Another 21 percent aren’t sure, and just 28 percent are willing to acknowledge that yes, Obama was born here.

I have no grounds on which to question the accuracy of the PPP numbers. But personally, I don’t believe they mean what they seem to mean. I am not willing to accept that more than half of Republican voters truly believe something that crazy.

So here’s my best alternative explanation:

When Republican voters are asked where Obama was born, many don’t approach it as a question of objective fact. They hear it as a test of tribal loyalty — do you side with Obama, or do you side with your fellow Republicans — and they answer it accordingly. Tribal loyalty trumps all, even if it means pledging loyalty to something that on its face is ridiculous.

I think that happens on a lot of issues these days. Global warming is another. In 21st …

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Justice Thomas owes some answers on ethical questions

Last month, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas took some heat when it was discovered that he had not disclosed — as required by federal law — income-producing jobs held by his wife Virginia dating back 20 years. From 1998-2003, for example, Mrs. Thomas had worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which paid her a total of $686,589. But the job was never disclosed on federal documents.

It wasn’t merely a passive oversight. Each year, when filling out the form asking for disclosure of “spousal noninvestment income,” Thomas had checked a box labeled “none.” He had also failed to disclose paid work done by his wife back in the ’90s for then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey, now a Tea Party leader.

Since then, new questions have popped up regarding Thomas’ attendance three years ago at a seminar of conservative leaders sponsored by David and Charles Koch. In one invitation to such retreats, which typically run four days, Charles Koch wrote that “twice a year our network …

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The one Republican who comes off as presidential

As I noted yesterday, I read and was not impressed by Mitt Romney’s speech over the weekend at CPAC. I’ve had the chance to speak with Romney at some length, and he’s smart and well-informed. However, at heart he is also badly out of step with the modern Republican Party, and as a result has to pretend he’s something he isn’t.

In other words, his fellow Republicans are probably right to look at him suspiciously. He doesn’t believe half the stuff he says, he doesn’t say half the stuff he believes. I guess that makes him dishonest, but in one sense there’s something honest about his dishonesty, because he just can’t hide it well. He knows all the dance moves, but he doesn’t know how to dance. Unlike Newt Gingrich, for example, Romney can’t bring himself to really believe all the things he thinks he has to say.

I came away a lot more impressed after reading the CPAC speech of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. While I disagree with a lot of what he had to say, that’s to be expected. …

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