Rise of the machines

A very good article at The New Atlantis (via Arts and Letters Daily) on the advent of military robotics. Despite its high profile in science fiction, the reality has been rather slow in developing. As with earlier technologies, war has been the accelerator. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan on top of the existing technological base widened the scope of possible robotic applications to an extent that would have been surprising even ten years ago. It doesn’t seem to be an exaggeration to say that in coming decades the nature of war will be fundamentally transformed. This will also bring to the fore a number of emerging ethical problems: do we really want to arm fully autonomous robots with lethal force?

Random notes

Crime and non-punishment: How can prisoners improve their chances of getting back into the community? Being psychopathic seems to help. UBC psychologist Steve Porter found that in a sample of 310 prisoners those classed as psychopaths were two and a half times more likely to get early release. These offenders are typically more dangerous than ordinary parolees, and therapy may make them more dangerous still by teaching them more effectively how to pretend to be rehabilitated. Your correctional system at work.

More on fraud watch: Ontario lottery “insiders” won at least $198 million in prizes over the last 13 years. This would not even be a rounding error on Wall Street, but it is still kind of sad that so many hapless dreamers have been getting clipped for so long. The estimate, by Deloitte & Touche, is double what the foot-dragging OLG had previously estimated. Your Lottery Corporation at work.

Not getting it: Back to real fraud. The National Post’s own Pap Daffy sounds off about the Obama crackdown on executive compensation. “It’s a bad time for an exodus of talent.” Caps on executive pay will drive top talent from Wall Street at a time when they are needed most. While this site takes the view that executive pay is basically a matter for managers and shareholders to settle between themselves, in this case the government actually is a shareholder. Since they’re recapitalizing the financial loonie bins that used to be called banks they really are entitled to say how the asylums are going to be run. As for “talent” what in the world does this mean? The ability to single-handedly destroy more wealth than Hurricane Andrew? And where is all this amazing “talent” going to go anyway? The NBA?

Nobody home

What is the point of being conservative in Canada? If fiscal conservatism were a city it would look like downtown Detroit – abandoned houses, grass growing through the sidewalks, no traffic, no people. Well, there’s crazy old Andrew Coyne in the bungalow on the corner. Some evenings he’ll sit out on the front porch with his shotgun on his knees, ranting about how they needed to keep the lid on expenditure growth in 2005-2006, while the squirrels scamper over the shingles. There’s the Manning house. He kept a column going in the neighbourhood paper for a while after he moved. Until they closed down. The Harrisses used to live across the street. They split up and he retired to Hawaii to work on his golf game. But there’s still the Church of Fraserology; the new building with all the fluorescent lights down a block. They’re still going. But you never see anybody in there. And nobody knows where they get their money. Kind of creepy, really.

But sprained metaphors aside, what is there? A few cranky writers in the print media (the wave of future – 200 years ago) and a rag-bag of Internet pamphleteers who are already on the trailing edge of cyberspace. In politics, by contrast, there isn’t a single elected spokesperson for fiscal restraint or productivity growth in the whole country. The two main parties, that is, the Red-tie Party and the Blue-tie Party are for all purposes one and the same. A student of political science who had access only to the contents of the country’s budgets over the last decade but not electoral results would be hard pressed to deduce whether or when a change of government had ever taken place.

Stephen Harper’s pursuit of the political centre has been relentless. That this has cost the party whatever character it ever had as an alternative to the Liberals no longer seems to figure in the strategic formulations of Canada’s Unnatural Party of Government. When it really comes down to it, what matters is power. Naive Reformers didn’t really understand this. But they do now. Jean Chretien, Canada’s grandmaster of parochial realpolitik, must be laughing his saggy ass off.

The Conservatives could have cut corporate taxes, raised the sales tax (or at least left it alone), accelerated debt repayment, held the line on spending and simplified the tax code. Instead they ran vote-buying budgets, complicated the tax code and dragged their feet on debt. They weren’t ready to stare down a weak opposition on a single matter of fiscal principle, although the PM was willing to risk the survival of his government on the less-than-critical issue of party funding.

Now the Blue ties have passed a budget which John McCallum and Michael Ignatieff could have written, which will do nothing to remedy the macro situation (which is beyond our control), and will, at best, simply lighten the load for some (but not all) of those whose boats are in danger of being swamped by the rough tides of the next twelve to eighteen months. This at the price of wiping out the last 13 years of debt repayment and turning politics into a big-government monoculture on the eve of what may be a global debt and currency crisis.

Our fair share

A sad little milestone in the journey of this province’s decline was just passed with the introduction in the budget of a regional development agency for Southern Ontario. In an earlier day it might have been a mark of pride of some kind to be the last remaining part of the country that didn’t actually require federal assistance, but those days are clearly long gone. That this was implemented by a Conservative government means nothing, of course, other than that the last shred of content has been stripped from the brand. Well, it’s only fair. Regional development has been such a dazzling success and has delivered such undreamt-of wealth, to say nothing of a revitalized culture of self-reliance and enterprise, to all the regions in which it has been tried that it’s only right that Southern Ontario should finally be given a chance to catch up.

But not all the credit should be lavished on the “Conservatives.” The Toronto Star lauds our indomitable premier Dolton for elbowing his way to the front of the soup line, no mean feat when you think about the competition, those hardened panhandlers from Quebec and Down East who have been doing this for years. The strategy of doing nothing to improve Ontario’s productivity while loudly complaining about the unfair distribution of federal “booty,” as Jacques Parizeau so aptly termed it, is clearly starting to pay off.