Now blogging at diego's weblog. See you over there!

paraguay in trouble

Another Latin American country in trouble: State of emergency declared in Paraguay.

Given that Uruguay is also close to the brink of financial dificulties... Brazil might default by next year... and Argentina is still in the tatters... it doesn't look good at all for South America as a whole... might it finally be time for the macro-economic-oriented economists at the IMF and the World Bank (as well as the major banks, who do nothing but squeeze money out of these countries) ... maybe they will realize that caring only about high-level economic indicators is useless: the cost of credit doesn't tell you how many children starve, just as the unemployment index doesn't tell you how many people have given up trying to look for work. Outrageous...

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 10:43 PM

how low can it go?

Today most stock indices are in the red, many of them by more than 4%. How low can they go? History might provides an interesting indication.

Many of the conditions seen in the 1990s where a replica of what happened in
the 1920s:

-a technological revolution with the subsequent feeling that "everything has changed". In the 20s it was the radio, massive conversion to the Ford production system, cars, and others.
-unequal distribution of wealth and income. The inequality in wealth and income distribution seen at the end of the 90's had never been as high since the 20's
-unequal distribution of corporate power, which reduced competition through massive consolidation (usually done at extremely high prices, which later became a liability in the consolidated balance sheets).
-relaxed banking rules. In the 20s, banking regulation was low. In the 90s, even though banks where well regulated, many other entities became investment vehicles with poor or no regulation. Hedge Funds (like the Long Term Capital fund, that crashed in '98 creating a mini-crisis) are an example.
-unequal foreign balance of payments.
-overspending and low saving rates by consumers, and by corporations as well.
A great book on the crash is The Great Crash 1929 by John Kenneth Galbraith.

So, let's consider the market value for the Dow Jones Index (at the close of trading) for the period that covers the crash of '29 and and the depression.


Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 7:58 PM

minority report

Some comments on the movie I wrote down a few days ago.

Overall, very enjoyable, lots of action. Huge disappointment at the way they
ended it. I guess Cruise/Spielberg can't help being Hollywood creatures...

As an editing decision alone (ie. not involving a change in the story), I would have finished the movie when Anderton's boss shoots the gun.

Vision of the future: It thought it was very good, precisely because most of the movie is not futuristic in its environments.
Think about it: which places are "futuristic"?

-The office, at the beginning (which, together with saying "the year: 2054", creates the impression that we're going to see some weird things)

-The highways.

-Anderton's apartment. Although it's more an issue of "cool gadget
population" rather than construction. (Even today, the trend is going
towards more use of metals in construction)

Everything feels more "futuristic" because we are left with the high expectations from the office and the cool 3D interface that manages the precognitions. When the new super-futuristic environment doesn't materialize, we are slightly disapponted. The problem, IMO, is being presented with the office at the beginning. After they leave the office, the main thing that stands out is the highway. I bet that if they had started somewhere else (maybe with Anderton running and obtaining his daily drug supply), the mood would have been different.

There is very little apparent change in society. I think this is correct. To extrapolate so far into the future, the best thing to consider the past: How has the world changed in the last 100 years? the last 50?. Dramatic change usually boils down to two things:

-A need to solve a problem. Example: apartment buildings. As people arrived in cities, the situation got worse and worse. Eventually the need to provide inexpensive housing to lots of people in cities created the apartment building. Buildings were not born of innovation, but of necesity.

-A disruptive invention. For example, the car appeared at the turn of the 19th century. Still the roads used didn't differ that much from what where
used for horses. It took more than 60 years to "invent" the concept of a
highway. Ditto with airplanes, phone, even the internet...

Let's consider the second point. The main "agent for change" that we can expect in the next 50 years is molecular nanotechnology. Without it, we will be hard pressed to turn the world into something completely unrecognizable. There is an excellent split-second (on the subway) where we see on USA Today that molecular nanotechnology has just been "announced" as working. So the world we see is PRE-nanotech. They are thus taking what is considered the high end of the range for predictions that deal with "when will nanotech come about". (that is, there are people that say it will never happen. But of those that do say it will happen, nobody gives a later date than 2050). We could argue that biotechnology would change things too, but almost certainly this change would not involve cities, rather, it would mean different kinds of drugs, longer lifespans, implants... all things relatively "personal" in scale and certainly less visible.

So, if the world does not yet have nanotech, then the world is almost guaranteed to be very, very close to what we have today. Given this, the main reason for change would be to solve problems. So when we see things on screen, to gauge whether they have been "properly" extrapolated, we should ask: would they need to change this today? Change comes at a price, so we need good reasons to force it. And always we should remember that things in society at large change very slowly. So now we can compare this theory with some examples from the movie:

The Office: Need to change: yes.
To handle such advanced technology (interfacing with the precogs and such), you need an environment that is also advanced. (We get the hint that a lot of the technology used in the precrime unit is custom made, so it's really bleeding edge). The new UIs are cool, but they are MDM (Movie Designer Masturbation) if you ask me. It's all very impressive but it doesn't seem to be very practical, and it has many flaws (for example, when the Justice Dept. agent comes in, Anderton has the rig on and he turns to shake the guy's hand, swatting away all the images with the movement. CONTEXT-AWARENESS PEOPLE!! (that's me screaming at the designers). It's done more and more and everybody knows that it's the key to more natural interfaces. Also, suppose you have to work with that a couple of hours; what about RSS? I mean, you'd have to be Muscle Tom there to now get tired by flapping your arms about all the time... And then to transfer images from one interface to the other they have to use this kind of "transparent floppy disk"... did networking technology disappear by 2050?
So that particular design for a VR-interaction system is in many ways utterly ridiculous and stupid. I'd like one if they are selling them though. It does look really cool. Some points to the MIT Media Lab people (who did consulting) on that level at least. :)

The Highway: Need to change: Yes.
Transportation is a huge problem today and it is angling up to be one of the
biggest problems of the next few decades. Responsible for pollution, the collapse of infrastructures, city gridlock, you name it, transportation is something up for renewal and even though it implies huge costs it will definitely have to change. The solution proposed in the movie (cars that are automatically controlled while on the highway to optimize traffic, while they are autonomous while out of it, and more "3D" use of the space) is not too radical and similar systems have been discussed for several years no. And no flying cars. :)

The Mall: Need to change: No.
Malls have been around for decades. More the reason for them to change, you say! Well, maybe, maybe not. The concept of a department store has existed for more than a century largely unchanged. If you took a (rich) person from 1902 and put them in a bloomingdale's today, they wouldn't be confused at all (except for the TVs and such :)). Department stores have been slowly pushed to the fringe, but they're still around. So it's not ridiculous at all to think that a mall would survive largely unchanged, specially when considering that the alternative is the internet, and that's not a full replacement for the "mall experience". Now, you might say, well but something should have changed.
But what? Malls are places for shopping, period, and quite well "evolved" as such. There aren't many ways to do a mall... Think back. 40 years ago, people went to malls and bought things, just like today. They didn't have email. They didn't have mass air travel. The mall looked the same though. It's so bland, so devoid of feeling, that it can't easily change. Now there is something interesting that happened to me in that scene. When I go to a Mall today, I don't particularly like it: it's too artificial in a bad way, pretentious and cheap at the same time. Now in the movie scene, I felt the same thing, but for different reasons (ie because the contrast with our expectations for the future is too great), and I think that it was done on purpose:
you see the mall there... in 2054... just like today. You think "oh how sad
and depressing". And yet, it's just like today. So it is sad and depressing
today, no? If it's not intended, it's a nice side-effect.

Anderton's Apartment: Need to change: Not necessarily. But it makes sense. The same logic of why the Mall shouldn't change applies to homes. Except for Anderton's apartment, which looks more "futuristic". Reasonable, since apartments are newer than houses, they usually look more in tune with the times. They get refurbished more often. And the apartment itself doesn't look so new. You could almost have an apartment like that today. Use of metal is more pervasive, but that's a a current trend as I mentioned before.

Miscelaneous Good moments/things:

- Anderton trying to turn off the commercial in the cereal box. Hilarious. And very plausible!

- The 3D extrapolation of the video of Anderton's wife/kid.

- The "spiders" (cool) and Anderton's solution to them (COLD!!)

- Jetpacks. Weeee!

- The people in the "VR-o-rama". "I want to kill my boss". Reminded me of "Strange Days".

- The plants in the house of the woman that "invented" the precogs. Very creepy.

Miscelaneous Disappointments:

- no fat people, which is ridiculous, considering current US
statistics (or maybe they assumed they'd all be dead by then?). But then this is a problem with hollywood movies in general.

- the whole precog theme is hanging by a thread. I mean, how can you "go
national" with just three precogs? Hundreds of murders a day....
plus, why they detect muders within a certain range is never explained, much
less how the hell that range corresponds exactly to the district covered.
Even more, they have no clue WHY they dream murders... so once they are
dead, what? You shut down the whole precrime system? No crime for the next
40 years, but then better dust off those NRA membership cards? Gross error.

- The span of precognitions. With most precognitions we see, they seem to
cover quite a while after and before the crime. In the case of Anderton's
murder, we only see exactly the moment where he pulls the trigger. If we'd
seen just 2 seconds BEFORE that, there'd be no movie, since the "set up"
would be spelled out. Mmmmm....

- The doctor that changes Anderton's eyes. If I understood correctly,
Anderton had put him away for a while. Him repaying Anderton with great
service and lots of help is an insult to my intelligence and to any good writer that ever lived.

- Anderton had to remove the bandage of one eye before time and was flashed with an intense light. AND? Nothing? No blindness?

- The car factory. Apparently a "smart factory". However, if two 180-pound
loads (Anderton and the Justice Dept guy) suddenly fall in the center of the car-in-progress, nothing happens. No sensors go off. Good! For example, the roof could be falling down, and the robots would go on merrily building. Yes, and the factory is unlocked. Kids can go play in there. No problem. Enough said.

- And what was up with the wife suddenly turning into sherlock-holmes-lady-in-shining-armor-point-a-gun-at-warden and saying "I'd like to talk to my husband". Pffft. Besides, what husband? weren't they divorced? Maybe it's a new, mid-21st century kind of divorce.

- The ending, which I've already mentioned. I would have liked the bad guy to win, Tom Crooze to end up in prison rotting for ever and the wife taking up drugs ("continuing her husband's life work"). At a minimum, don't give me that "everybody was happy everafter" crap... Probably the single biggest problem with the whole movie.

The movie is certainly good enough to be analyzed at this level... but it remains less impressive (in all levels: consistency, plot, characters, etc) than Bladerunner. Hopefully Spielberg will continue in this direction...

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 2:52 PM

china unplugged

An article in Time Asia about China's recent crackdown on illegal Internet cafes.

From the article:

In late May, [Chen] spent 32 hours straight in the illegal Internet café, working his way through six packs of Double Happiness cigarettes and relieving himself in a bucket by the stairs. "When our parents were young, they spent their spare time in Communist Youth League meetings," says Chen, eyelids puffy from lack of sleep. "We fill our emptiness by living in another world."

Incredible. 32 hours straight? Doing what exactly?

Another strange thing is the incredible amount of "unlicensed" Internet cafes: 150,000. It really puts into doubt how much "control" the Chinese government is really excercising over the Internet... since somebody must be selling Internet access to all of these illegal Internet cafes. It seems that this is another case where the Chinese government leaves the illegal activity largely untouched to help it relieve "social pressures," while doing the occasional crackdown to appear in control.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 1:46 PM

from the radio

Q: If you believe that the Bible is the word of God, explain this one to me:

"It is better to dwell on the corner of a housetop than with a brawling woman ... in a wide house."

A: God said it, I believe it, and that settles that.

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 12:58 PM

The BBC and Homer's DVD Q&A

The BBC has arrived at a ridiculous conclusion regarding Homer's "comments" on DVD on a Simpsons FOX UK website." In one part Homer advises you to "get a multiregion DVD player" (when it's studio policy that multi-region is bad. Yes, it's a stupid policy, but the whole DVD region thing is not terribly smart either.) Well, bizarrely enough, BBC concluded that "buying a multiregion DVD player" somehow qualifies as hacking your DVD player. Even more, the article has the tagline "Homer Simpson: Husband, father and cyber-anarchist."

cyber-anarchist?? For recommending a multi-region DVD player? What the hell?

As far as I can see, either the Tech writers and editors at BBC are now officially braindead, or it's an article designed to get people to the Simpsons website... neither of which speaks well about the BBC I guess. On many levels, this sort of ties in neatly with my previous post about sensationalist headlines, doesn't it?

Now, as for that website itself, sure, it's a marketing gimmick, but it's still funny. The Simpsons have always managed to use marketing tools to sell merchandise or shows while mocking the practice at the same time. Some of Homer's comments from the site:

"DVD discs are played on a DVD player, which is a very lucky coincidence."
"You don't need a widescreen TV and special audio player to benefit from DVD. In fact, you don't need a TV at all!. I Find that DVDs make excellent frisbees or coasters. And their shininess mesmerizes me."
"The most exciting thing about this technology is you don't have it. Or, if you do have it, your model's just become obsolete. If you don't get down to the nearest electronics store within the next five minutes, there's no hope for you. Really, I mean it."

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 15, 2002 at 1:07 AM

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