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HLG Notebook | January 2016

1. Can Computers Write Political Speeches?

Goodbye Ted Sorenson. So long Peggy Noonan. The MIT Technology Review reports that a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts has created a machine learning algorithm capable of generating complete political speeches after just a few cues on topic, audience, and party affiliation of the speaker. The AI software draws on a database of 4,000 political speech segments from Congressional floor debates. Here is one result:

Mr. Speaker, for years, honest but unfortunate consumers have had the ability to plead their case to come under bankruptcy protection and have their reasonable and valid debts discharged. The way the system is supposed to work, the bankruptcy court evaluates various factors including income, assets and debt to determine what debts can be paid and how consumers can get back on their feet. Stand up for growth and opportunity. Pass this legislation.

The evidence is incontrovertible: verbose platitudes and self-righteous boilerplate can be written by both humans and computers. A dim future awaits sports reporters, stock market commentators, and newsletter writers.

2. Why the Imams Ought to Fear Chess

After the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia issued a ban on playing chess in the Kingdom, John Kay, editor of The Walrus, wrote this peerless assessment of why the country’s religious leaders are correct to be fearful:

Of course, Imams declare fatwas against all sorts of things that they perceive to be a distraction from faith – kites, video games, emoticons. But unlike simple hobbies, chess is less a distraction from religion than a full-blown replacement. True, chess supplies no God, no afterlife, no dietary restrictions. But it demands that adherents submit to a system of ancient rules – while also permitting (indeed, encouraging) them to exercise free will within dictated parameters.

3. The Autonomous Car and Cities: Opportunity or Threat

The potential long-term implications of the self-driving car continue to mount. Yet there is no consensus on whether they should be celebrated. Mother Jones predicts that self-driving cars will usher in a “new era when cities can begin dramatically reducing the amount of parking spaces”:

“Parking has been this sacred cow that we couldn’t touch – and now we can touch it,” says Gabe Klein, who has headed the transportation departments in Chicago and Washington, DC. He sees enormous potential – all that paved-over space suddenly freed up for houses and schools, plazas and playgrounds, or just about anything.

Don’t break out the urban planning champagne just yet. The Washington Post believes that self-driving cars are less likely to travel over set speed limits, therefore draining the Treasury of much-needed revenue from speeding tickets. In the District of Columbia alone, speed-trap cameras generated over $350 million in the last ten years.

4. From Defense Secretary to Developer

In his 70s, Donald Rumsfeld left his second tour as Defense Secretary. His reputation was damaged, and he was widely derided for mishandling the Iraq War. Now, in his 80s, Rummy has staged a comeback: he’s developed an app that lets you play Winston Churchill’s favorite card game. Describing the process in Medium, Rumsfeld demonstrates that he remains both a keen student of history and a shrewd publicist:

I can remember [Churchill protégé] Andre de Staercke sitting across from me on a plane somewhere over Europe playing the curious game, dizzying columns of miniature cards arrayed on the table between us. I asked him what he was playing and he proceeded to tell me the origin of the game he called Churchill Solitaire after the man we both very much admired, and the diabolical rules that make it the hardest game of solitaire – and probably the most challenging and strategic game of logic or puzzle – I’ve ever played.

5. From Money Management to Mahler

Gilbert Kaplan, who died New Year’s day, was a rare, quirky genius who straddled the worlds of money management and classical music. The obituaries in the New York Times and elsewhere are must-reads. Kaplan – the founder of Institutional Investor, and a millionaire by age 27 – went on to a second career as a renowned conductor, but only for a single piece of music: Mahler’s Second Symphony. A profile in The Economist contains this observation from famed conductor Sir George Solti:

What a pleasure it is to meet a man from Wall Street with whom I talk about music, because when I meet my colleagues, all I talk about is money.

6. The Future of Customer Service

Ron Johnson was considered the smartest man in retail when he helped Steve Jobs create the Apple store. Then he left to become the CEO of JC Penney, where he proved to be an epic failure. His new venture, Enjoy.com, is a tantalizing mix of Amazon and the Geek Squad, both delivering and setting up technology to New York and Bay Area addresses within hours. Here he is at Stanford, interviewed by Aaron Levie, celebrated founder of Box. Great insights into the logic and strategy of disruptors:

In affluent societies, service goes up. So the idea that just because the internet is growing, service doesn’t matter is crazy. Ecommerce is really great at convenience, but what else does it do?