Sunday, May 26, 2013

Five Stories Of The Week: Ending May 25, 2013


News & Commentary



Here are five stories that shaped my world this week:

Robots For The Elderly: An article, by Nick Bilton, in The New York Times says that robotic technology might serve as home aids for the elderly and others who are home-bound.

Bilton writes:
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed Cody, a robotic nurse the university says is “gentle enough to bathe elderly patients.” There is also HERB, which is short for Home Exploring Robot Butler. Made by researchers at Carnegie Mellon, it is designed to fetch household objects like cups and can even clean a kitchen. Hector, a robot that is being developed by the University of Reading in England, can remind patients to take their medicine, keep track of their eyeglasses and assist in the event of a fall.
The technology is nearly there. But some researchers worry that we are not asking a fundamental question: Should we entrust the care of people in their 70s and older to artificial assistants rather than doing it ourselves?
Sherry Turkle, a professor of science, technology and society at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” did a series of studies with Paro, a therapeutic robot that looks like a baby harp seal and is meant to have a calming effect on patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s and in health care facilities. The professor said she was troubled when she saw a 76-year-old woman share stories about her life with the robot.
“I felt like this isn’t amazing; this is sad. We have been reduced to spectators of a conversation that has no meaning,” she said. “Giving old people robots to talk to is a dystopian view that is being classified as utopian.” Professor Turkle said robots did not have a capacity to listen or understand something personal, and tricking patients to think they can is unethical.
That’s the catch. Leaving the questions of ethics aside for a moment, building robots is not simply about creating smart machines; it is about making something that is not human still appear, somehow, trustworthy.
Is that possible or preferable? The answer to both questions is a qualified yes, in that  it might be better to have some presence, although non-human, than none at all. Many elderly reside alone and are lonely. Similar to the reasons that many lonely people have pets as companions, robots can serve the dual purpose as companion and helper. It’s not an ideal solution, but one of many in today’s modern age.

Rules For The Wealthy: An article, by George Packer, in The New Yorker says that although much has been gained in the United States in the way of advanced technologies and the giving of more social rights to what were once considered marginal groups, including gays and women, the recent economic inequalities have made life more unfair and painful for a whole class of individuals.

Packer writes:
But when the results are distributed as unequally as they are at this moment, when the gap between promise and reality grows so wide, when elites can fail repeatedly and never lose their perches of privilege while ordinary people can never work their way out of debt, equal opportunity becomes a dream. We measure inequality in numbers—quintiles, average and median incomes, percentages of national wealth, unemployment statistics, economic growth rates—but the damage it is doing to our national life today defies quantification. It is killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise—their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance.That’s where things have unquestionably deteriorated over the past generation. The game seems rigged—and if it is, following the rules is for suckers.
We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation. Like almost everything else, the new inclusiveness divides the country into winners and losers. It’s been good for those with the education, talent, and luck to benefit from it; for others—in urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa—inclusiveness remains mostly theoretical. It gives an idea of equality, which makes the reality of inequality even more painful.
This is one of the largest problems plaguing America. And Canada, France, England, etc. You get the picture. When governments and corporations collude, conspire, co-operate together—you pick your word of action—in such a manner as to rig the economic playing field in their favour to such a degree that we are witnessing today, it makes following the rules less of an attractive option.

Reform Stalled In Iran: An article, by Thomas Erdbrink, in The New York Times says that two candidates from the scheduled June 14 presidential elections have been disallowed by the clerics, who essentially conform to the wishes of Iran's Supreme Leader.

Erdbrink writes:
The exclusion of Mr. Rafsanjani and another thorn in the conservatives’ side, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, could foreshadow even greater repercussions, analysts and commentators said. Since its founding in 1979, the Islamic republic has been characterized by opposing power centers competing constantly and often publicly, a back-and-forth that gave ordinary citizens and private business owners the ability to navigate between the groups.
Barring further surprises, the winner of the June election will now be drawn from a slate of conservative candidates in Iran’s ruling camp, a loose alliance of Shiite Muslim clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders. That would put the last major state institution under their control — the first time since the 1979 revolution that all state institutions were under the firm control of one faction.
Analysts have long speculated — and some conservative clerics have confirmed — that the ruling faction is determined to abolish the office of president, which has served as a locus of opposition under the populist incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and before him the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who pushed for more personal freedoms. While by no means certain, it is now a greater possibility.
At the very least, the anti-climactic election campaign seems likely to further reinforce the alienation of the urban classes, which make up a large portion of the electorate and mostly gave up on politics after the suppression of the 2009 uprising following Mr. Ahmadinejad’s re-election, widely dismissed as fraudulent. A major boycott of the vote could further undercut the government’s already diminished legitimacy.
That well might take place as the people of Iran have grown weary and have become frustrated by the leader's archaic policies of repression and isolation. The clerics might wield some power, for now; but it won't and can't last indefinitely when the will of the people are not with them.

Brutality In Britain: The savagery shown in London by two men with declared Islamists views on a British soldier, 25-year-old Lee Rigbyis beyond the parameters of a hate crime or of criminal activity. That the two men were under surveillance by British security officials, and yet were allowed to continue on their merry way, is sad news indeed and shows a weakness in its intelligence services.

John F. Burns and Alan Cowell of The New York Times report.
New details of the attack in the southeast London neighborhood of Woolwich on Wednesday compounded the sense of outrage felt in Britain at its savagery.
The killers were described as having rained blows on the inert soldier before dragging his corpse into the street, roaming around and waving off would-be helpers with bloodied hands, cleavers still in their grasp, apparently intent on keeping the body on public display until the police arrived. One of the two men was caught on cellphone video warning bystanders that they would not be safe either until British soldiers were withdrawn from all Muslim lands.
One witness who spoke to the BBC said that the police had opened fire when one of the two attackers, cleaver still in hand, appeared to rush the officers. The episode appeared to bear some of the hallmarks of “lone wolf” terrorist attacks like the one last month at the Boston Marathon. Involving low-tech weapons and a spontaneity aimed at foiling pre-emptive discovery, they have been propagated in recent years by an array of Islamic militant Web sites that Western security experts have linked to Al Qaeda.
Such attacks have been urged as a means of striking back at Western nations, particularly Britain and the United States, in the face of their success in disrupting terrorist networks with high-technology tools, including drones and satellite- and computer-aided surveillance systems.
After hurrying back to London overnight from a European tour, Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in a statement to reporters that the country should emulate the example of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, 48, a French-born Cub Scout leader whose actions at the site of the killing earned her hero’s plaudits in the morning newspapers. In broadcast interviews, Ms. Loyau-Kennett said she had gotten off a passing bus when she saw a body lying in the street, intending to offer first aid. Instead, she said, she came face to face with one of the killers, and kept him discussing motives in a successful bid to distract him until the police arrived.
“When told by the attacker that he wanted to start a war in London, she replied, ‘You’re going to lose. It’s only you versus many,’ ” Mr. Cameron said. He added, “She spoke for us all.”
Such includes me; the extremists can never win, because their religious ideology is based on hate alone. This brutality is a crime dictated solely by religious views, namely political Islam, and this should never be under-emphasized or swept under the rug. Britain, like other nations, has find a way to effectively deal with this brand of internal terrorism within its midst without derailing its Constitution—no easy task.

Yet, new problems demand new original solutions. At the very least, such extremist websites, which hold totalitarian ideological views, should be assiduously monitored and barred entry into all western democracies, using available means and laws, effectively cutting off the head of extremism. The technology exists; the political will to do so has to now follow.

Rioting In Sweden: An article, by Carolina Jemsby and David Bartal, in USA Today say riots, chiefly from unemployed immigrant youths, has continued since last Sunday in Stockholm’s immigrant suburbs. The rioting began after police shot and killed a 69-year-old mentally ill man.

Jemsby and Bartal write:
Since Sunday, hundreds of young residents of the suburbs of Husby, Jakobsberg, Hagsatra, Skarholmenset and others set dozens of cars on fire, damaged buildings — including schools and a police station — and battled with police. There were about 10 arrests, and one police officer was reported injured. Police spokesman Kjell Lindgren says at least 30 cars were set ablaze across western and southern Stockholm early Thursday. Firefighters said they have "never before seen so many fires raging at the same time."
Fire also destroyed a restaurant in Skogas, south of Stockholm. Government officials have called for calm while the rioters say they won't stop until there is a full investigation into the shooting death of a 69-year-old mentally ill Husby man last week who, police say, was swinging a machete as police attempted a house search. "Everyone must work to restore calm," said Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.
On Wednesday night and into Thursday, hundreds of residents walked the streets to answer the appeal for calm. The unrest in poor, immigrant suburbs is only the latest to break out in Europe over the past decade following riots in Paris in 2005 and in London in 2011. But it has shocked both locals and those outside the rich northern country famous for its tolerance and generous welfare system known as the 'Swedish model,' a country also synonymous for its commitment to societal equality and justice.
Now, locals are wondering if Sweden has done any better than its European neighbors in assimilating its immigrant population, especially as administrations in the past two decades have been slowly dismantling the cradle-to-grave welfare benefits. That has led to rising income inequality that has hit the young and immigrants the hardest with unemployment running at 7% for the general population, and 16% among residents of foreign origin.
Economic inequality poses a problem not only in Sweden but elsewhere. While rioting is a useless exercise in unrestrained freedom—accomplishing little than destroying the neighborhoods in which the immigrants themselves reside—it does in the end raise both questions and awareness of problems that newcomers to an old, existing culture face.

That the unemployment rate for newcomers is double that of the general population is an important number, and it ought not be dismissed out of hand. Whether it’s discrimination or a lack of skills and education, such areas need be looked at more carefully by the government. Social peace is closely linked to employment, since employed persons generally want to keep working and ensuring the stability of social, political and economic infrastructures. The short answer to the problem in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe and North America are jobs, and preferably well-paying and satisfying ones.