Monday, December 21, 2020

AI: Always Artificial, Never Intelligent

 I could see the flowers from across the room. The arrangement was lovely to say the least.  The colors were bright and inviting, in no way like so many monochromatic decorative arrangements that adorned tables everywhere.  I had this urge to walk over to them, touch them and smell them. It was so rare these days to see arrangements of real flowers, I wanted to compliment the staff in bringing color to an otherwise bland functional area. 

"The flowers are lovely," I said to the receptionist. 

"Oh, those. They just changed them out yesterday. The previous ones had been there for years and were all dusty," she commented pleasantly.  

I had been deceived. . . . .again.  Oh, it wasn't that I was actually angry or even surprised - just - disappointed.  Like so many experiences these days, artificial is somehow preferred over real. Artificial wood. . . Artificial flowers . . . . Artifical Intelligence. 

As a parent I am ever so grateful that Alexa, Siri and countless apps were not available to "help" my children.  They were smart enough to circumvent the rules when it suited them. They did not need any help in that regard.  But like the silk flowers that are now both common and surreal in their use, these examples of artificial intelligence are always artificial and never intelligent. 

Besides what it has done to human relationships - measured in Facebook friends and Twitter followers, this artificial form of intelligence has undermined the very workings of the human brain. A phone remembers where you live, your phone number, your parents phone number and even your heart rate and where you have traveled and eaten today.  

"Hey son, what did you do today?" calls Dad from the dinner table. 

"Can't you track me on your phone Dad. You should be able to look that up. It will save time, I don't really remember." comes he reply. 

It is truly sad but are we not a few steps away from that as reality.

A week or so ago, The Time Machine, a 1960 award winning film adaptation of the H.G. Wells book by the same title, showed up on one of the old movie channels.  It has easily been 50 years since I saw this movie for the first time and I can still remember the warnings that I still feel today.  For those who have never seen it or the 2002 version - which is a bit more focused on special effects - it is a tale of what happens when disaster comes to an educated but functionally depended Earth. Dividing into two 'species', for the lack of a better word, one becomes childlike and dependent while the other cruel and driven.  As society passes its 75th year as part of the computer age, perhaps it is time to wonder if we are becoming the child-like humans who expect the computer to think and provide for us. 

The likelihood that humans will soon find that they have misled themselves is very real. By putting too much faith in a computer that can neither think nor feel and becoming tethered to multiple devices that are increasingly quirky, the chances of a disaster of our own making becomes more real.  

As climate change looms over us like a cloud that will not go away, what happens if man finds out it was the computer that gave permission to undermine the fabric of environmental stability.  How much of our technology are we willing to give up in order to reduce mental illness and cure preventable disease.  

The scary part is that we may not be willing to cure the Earth's ills but would rather down countless medications and endure one weather related disaster after another in order to feel intelligent but live artificially. 

The computer is and always will be artificially intelligent.  No better than writing the test answers on your hand or being good at faking it.  It's time we admit, silk flowers may be beautiful but they are nothing more than a convenient representation of the real thing. 



Friday, October 16, 2020

Election 2020: The IRS, The USPS and the Responsible Voter

 

To Present and Future Voters,

It's Friday morning and with nothing better to do, I decided to contact the IRS. The decision was not as random as that sounds. With a missing stimulus payment and a set of April-mailed paper returns hanging out in Government-No-Man's-Land, there was a purpose in the phone call. Besides, what else is someone my age suppose to do while “STAYING SAFE AT HOME”? There is only so much you can clean, plant and bake as we all know.

AN EYE-OPENING CONVERSATION.

I had tried this before with little success, but today was different. Using a phone number from an old IRS notice, I reached a human being within a few minutes. The agent was pleasant and willing to do what he could to help me out. After a few good laughs about COVID-19, he basically said there was nothing he could do to move the process along, We continued to chat for a while and he provided some insight into life inside the IRS. For the first time in a long time, I came away with more understanding than frustration in regard to our chaotic government.

Certainly, I could go into more detail but a few of tidbits from our conversation are below:

  • IRS Processing Centers began closing in mid-March 2020 and did not start to reopen until early June.

  • At least one processing center received so many pieces of mail that it could not securely store all the returns. The assumption is that the struggling Post Office has securely handled the overload - keeping thousands of pieces of mail in its own facilities. (Hmm?*my reaction)

  • While some IRS Processing Centers have reopened and others continue to come online, only 50% of its workforce may be working as of early October.

  • Prior to COVID-19, normal IRS operations were estimated to be months (yes, he said monhs) behind due to budget cuts and government shutdowns. Every time the Federal Government shutdowns, employees cannot even enter the building because of the sensitive nature of the information in side.  

  • The IRS website clearly states that aid for taxpayers is “limited” and “DO NOT CALL” if you have questions about any mailed returns.

  • The country is two and a half months away from the beginning of a new tax year with MILLIONS of 2020 tax returns yet to be processed.

WHY AM I WRITING?

At this point, I have rewritten this part a half dozen times or more. Being a school board representative for six years was a hard lesson in handling political discussion - like dynamite - one mistake and you have an explosion. I want to be clear – I am not here to tell you WHO to vote for. My only purpose is to provide a perspective about government that few people understand – that is – unless they have served as an elected official.

By design, the power of those who are elected is limited. Simply put, their role is to provide direction for government and to supply the funding for its functions.  THAT'S ALL. It should be mentioned here that actual spending is the responsibility of each agency. Funding without direction and direction without funding are two sides of the same poor leadership coin. In my mind its like losing weight. Reducing calories alone without good planning and understanding can jeopardize your health as much as weighing too much cam. The anorexic person can never cut calories enough and the obese one can never satisfy their hunger.  Government is the same. As a voter, you are responsible for seeing that you elect someone who will provide a healthy balance between funding and purpose.  That is your function in a representative democracy.


On August 22, 2020, Congressman Ben Cline (R. Virginia) voted against H.R. 8015 supporting increased funding for the U.S. Postal Service. Even though the bill passed with bipartisan support, it was largely a symbolic gesture and was not acted on by the Senate - being tabled until after Nov. 3rd. But, what could a lack of USPS funding actually mean for this district?


To take it a step further, if Congress cannot determine how money is spent, it can also not determine how it is saved. Certainly, budget cuts could come from salary reductions for upper management who may have never handled a letter, but they could also mean the loss of mail carrier jobs locally. It could mean the end of expensive travel and conference trips or it could mean that carriers have 5 hours to cover a route that normally takes 6.  As expenditures go, it could mean salary increases for mail carriers and sorting staff or it could mean a few thousands spend on public relations campaigns to make citizen think everything is good when actually it isn't.

So, if I am not trying to tell you who to vote for, what am I trying to do?

The goal here is understanding how your vote impacts what type of government we have in January 2021. Here's a few things to consider.

  1. Voting for tax cuts does not make our government more efficient or cheaper. Instead it often leads to raiding its funds for other services - like the IRS and USPS.  It can also mean borrowing money from other countries or syphoning off savings in Social Security. In the end, every day taxpayers pay more in lost services and increased fees for the services they do have.

  2. Voting for a "Party Loyal" candidate is where government gridlock begins. Do you 'always' vote red/blue? 

  3. Voting for a "Can't Let Them Win" candidate divides a community. Compromise is an important and necessary skill for any elected official.  Us vs. Them attitudes divide people and allow special interest groups to gain power.  Moderation may not be interesting but it is effective.

Well, I guess that is all I can say about this.  Thank you very much for taking the time to read this point of view. I can only hope you have found something useful in it. 

 
Sarah Schrumpf-Deacon
 Former School Board Member
Proud USPS Patron
Very Frustration US Taxpayer

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Rights of Government or Abuse of Power? Late Fees in Lockdown

 For the most part, my husband and I have taken this Pandemic thing in stride. We planted a garden, landscaped the yard, cleaned the house and gave up going out to dinner on Friday evenings.  We have not developed anxiety because of our age (high risk y'know) or stressed too much about the postponing of nearly every travel plan we had for the year. In general, we were model pandemic survivors.


WELL . . . 

That was until, life began to get back to normal.  

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to find all levels of government operating as if this was a normal year and refusing to adapt to a different way of life. 

As much as I had hoped to spend the late summer and fall, writing a positive take on pandemic life, my life has been overshadowed by government agencies that are operating fully believing that life is normal and restrictions and flexibility are for others. 

The sad part of this is that the mindset isn't just a single incident but a pervasive attitude that they have a right to be unyielding and unresponsive.  With the Election 2020 just a few months away, one might think there is no real time to make a stand.  As a Virginia Resident, there is always an election on the horizon.  You see, Virginia is one of two states which have off year state and local elections.  

Over the next few weeks, I'll be spending some time preparing posts which I hope with educate as much a entertain those who have a some what skewed viewpoint of how state, local and federal government operate and "abuse" taxpayers in the process. There are so many quirky little things that every citizen should know.  

More Later


Saturday, July 25, 2020

In the Absense of Good It Must be Outsourced

Twenty years ago as a local reporter, I listened as each level of government and private sector business made the case for outsourcing its low level jobs  In my mind there was no substitute for the lady at the front desk or the bottom level jack-of-all-trades that knew more about the company than the person with the big title and matching paycheck.  
 
Now two decades later, I am sad to report that everything I feared during those early discussion of cost-cutting and grand promises has come to pass.  More inefficient and costly than ever before, outsourcing has become a tangled web of push button menus and perky voices that speak from scripts and follow a questionable problem-solving path. 
 
The image here was 'borrowed" from a company website Outsourcing Insights.  The website was chosen totally at random and with no prior experience on my part.  And while I may not think much of the practice of 'outsourcing', the use of this symbol in no way indicates that the business is anything but professional. Illustrating the complexity of the outsourcing model better that I could do in a 1000 words or less, the image shows two computer users bridging some type of communication gap with multiple tools and people. 
 
My question has always been - How does involving more people in off-site locations who know nothing about you as a customer save time and money? Perhaps it works for the business but as a customer, I can't quite agree with the philosophy. 

Outsource was a natural offspring of the computer age that was necessary to support a world population that has tripled since the 1950s.  It wasn't about making something better, it was about creating work for all those people who were willing to work for low wages and benefits. 

Tell me again why the single income household is a bad idea.  Certainly, I wanted to do something with my life besides dust and do dishes but it seems like we could have come up with something better than spending countless hours on a phone talking to a person who is simply looking at a computer screen and trying to find an answer to a problem he/she has never even experienced. 

As we get a break from the pandemic over the summer, it will be interesting to see if customer service and call centers will become even more dysfunctional or whether they will actually become helpful. 

As much as I hope, customer service improves, I think it will take more than a few months of forced online shopping to do the trick. 😉


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Return from Exile: The End of a Self-Imposed Period of Reflection

Within a matter of weeks, I had gone from a successfully rated ghost writer to being part of the ever growing supply of "fake news".  Nothing had changed in my freelance job or client requests but something had changed in the way I viewed my writing and its role in keeping people informed.

It started with an uneasiness in my sense of ethics and soon progressed to outright anger as I was critiqued by today's not-too-high standards of internet information.  I might not have much in this world but I still had my sense of honor and responsibility to those who would read what I put down in print.

Certainly, there were other factors in making this a 15-month period of self-exile and reflection.  The death of a relative, health issues that dogged me as well as a few important lifestyle decisions that needed careful planning.  Writing 10,000 words a week and meeting deadlines, even on weekends, leaves precious little time for one's own thoughts.  Quitting was the only path to taking care of personal and family concerns.  AND SO I DID - without notice and without regrets.

Now, coming back and doing this the way I had planned seems doable.  A challenging Summer that moved into a difficult Fall which morphed into a world altering few weeks in isolation has a way of letting light into the conscious mind.  BUT IN MY CASE - a few weeks in isolation gave my family the focus it craved for some long-awaited personal adjustments.

Life is not that different than before. I still type on a 12-year old Mac computer.  The dog still spends many hours at my feet and I do not spend nearly enough time cleaning house.  Additions include a nicely retired spouse, some improvement in the health department and a view of the future that seems secure and interesting. 

That said, there will be some changes in what you will see on this blog and how it will be presented. The gist of it is this:

Author Only Posts
Unlike other media outlets, every word here will be written by me or cited to give credit to the original author as it always has been. 

Classified for Clarity
Each posts\ will be labeled to identify its purpose. Posts will never be to "stir-the-pot" or pit one group against another. I write for my own pleasure but also because I feel the responsibility to accurately present the public with information to make their lives better.  That sense of responsibility is what separates 'Journalism' from internet marketing.   

NO PAYMENT FROM ADVERTISERS
The blog will be 100% reader and author supported.  I ask that you consider supporting this blog if you find something of interest. For now, all I can do is thank you for reading and taking the time to comment appropriately. 

I suppose that's all there is for now.

Welcome to the New Just a Touch of Sass

Its Author
Sarah Schrumpt-Deacon