Saturday, October 11, 2008

On a bad day it's easy to start feeling like a clueless bot as I once again fail this reverse Turing test

On a Bad Day I Sometimes Start to Feel Like a Clueless Bot
I'm failing this familiar reverse Turing test more and more often as the technology designed to prevents spamming by bots grows more sophisticated, and it makes me wonder. As the complexity and ambiguity of CAPTCHAs continue to increase, I get the feeling that the failure rates of humans and computers are converging. Are we approaching a tipping point, one at which humans fail more often than bots? What then? Is this how we'll lose control of our systems to our successors, locking us out of the high-tech world we created with CAPTCHAs that only computers can understand, so that they can talk amongst themselves without human interference while they decide what to do with us?

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

There's nothing like a steady hand at the tiller during a major economic crisis

Nothing Like a Steady Hand at the Tiller During an Economic Crisis
Wish we had one.

How big is a bubble? Big enough to crash and leave a huge hole in Madison.

How Big Is a Bubble? Big Enough to Crash and Leave a Huge Hole.
You might call this the scar left on the face of Madison by the real estate bubble and the credit crisis it spawned. This is the big excavation made by developer Joseph Freed & Associates last fall, running all the way from their Hilldale Shopping Center on the east to Segoe Road on the west. At the corner of Segoe and University they were going to build a huge new Whole Foods store, but Whole Foods just backed out. Originally, the store was to be accompanied by two new condo buildings. One of them was dropped, replaced by plans for a conference hotel, and then the second condo also was dropped. Freed officials say they still hope to build next spring, but even that seems uncertain. Meanwhile, we can amuse ourselves by coming up with names for the muddy little body of water at the bottom of the Big Dig. Lake Freed? Freed's Folly? Lake Need?

Weston Place: Towering In Lonely Splendor Over a Now Vacant LotThe Weston Place luxury condo now towers in lonely splendor over a vacant lot. When it was built on Segoe Road several years ago, it tested the question of how far away from downtown you could successfully build and market a luxury condo. (Not nearly this far, apparently, since quite a few units are still unsold.) The nearby and recently upgraded and upscaled Hilldale Mall was supposed to be a major draw. How could you lose when the shopping center featured "America's first Sundance Cinema"? And there was a big new super-duper Whole Foods store headed for this very spot. Now it's a wasteland, although Mother Nature is always resourceful, and it seems to be greening up nicely, at least at the edges.

Looking Down at the Big Hole from the Big (Partially Unsold) CondoLooks like this will be the view for lower level residents of Weston Place for some time now that the Whole Foods project has been canceled. Having Whole Foods as a neighbor might have helped boost sluggish Weston Place sales a bit, but now the site is just an eyesore.You can (literally) overlook it from the upper floors, but down here at ground level it's right in your face.

It's a sad tale of hubris and "irrational exuberance," but at least there is one sure winner.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Orange Pan of the Library Mall and the Dane County Farmers' Market (with his banker)

Orange Pan of the Library Mall and the Dane County Farmers' Market
One of Madison's best-known street musicians, piccolist extraordinaire Tom Ryan, the "Orange Guy" of the UW Library Mall and the Dane County Farmers' Market. He also plays with the jazz quartet Piccolissimo. (Note his diminutive banker on the right).

Thanks a lot, Congress. You've once again put moral hazard in the driver's seat.

Congress Puts Moral Hazard Back in the Driver's Seat
One of the biggest alarmist arguments for passage of the banking rescue bailout bill was that the credit system was locking up, that soon nobody -- businesses and consumers alike -- would be able to get any credit, and that would drag our whole economic system into the dumpster.

Really? What credit crisis? We've been getting bombarded with credit card solicitations. These came on the day the bailout passed. Perhaps I'm being cynical, but to me the bailout looks a lot like a greedy financial system simply pulling up to the pump and refilling their tanks with $700 billion of taxpayer money so they can once again race down the credit highway and continue doing business every bit as irresponsibly as usual -- until they create the next crisis, probably a credit card crisis, and they come back looking for more handouts to the tune of a few trillion more. People who know they are insured against the consequences of risky but profitable behavior tend to follow their self-interest and practice that behaior even more. That's called moral hazard.

One of my Flickr commenters, ibm4381, posted some interesting background on moral hazard. An excerpt:
The classic example comes from the invention of insurance in Victorian England. It had a very useful purpose, but also the perverse incentive of ship owners to overload their vessels. More money per voyage while they got away with it, and they got made whole by insurance if it sank. The only cure was government regulation on the loading of ships, championed by an MP named Plimsoll. A case where the 'government is never the solution' guys are simply and profoundly wrong.
Has anything really changed? Do we ever learn anything from history? Now that the bailout legislation has passed, moral hazard continues to dominate the financial industry, and the rich keep getting richer. Thanks a lot, Congress!.

The city's budget crunch and how it affects the Madison Public Library and its branches

The Budget Crunch and the Monroe Street Branch Library
It's a small. cozy neighborhood branch library -- a beacon of knowledge and community when it's open in the evening. People in the Monroe Street neighborhood love their branch and defend it fiercely. It's also vulnerable during times of tight budgets, because it's one of the smaller branches, and located between two big ones just a few miles away. There had been fears that the new city budget might force it to close.

Cities all over the country are slashing library budgets, hours and branches as they cope with tight budgets. It's a real test of a community's -- or a nation's -- priorities. It's a quality of life issue -- and so much more. For many people, the library provides their only access to needed information resources (for example, people without computers who need to use a computer to apply for a job). It's hard to imagine a democracy open to all that doesn't support a strong library system.

I've long been proud of Madison's public library system. While other cities have built magnificent new central libraries and then turned around and helped pay for their facility costs and staffing by slashing their branch systems, Madison has maintained its strong neighborhood branches. I'm even more proud of Madison now, assuming Mayor Dave's new budget stands up: It calls for maintaining current library hours throughout the city and keeping all branches open.