Daily Archives: April 26, 2009

What is “Bad News”, Alex?

Computer program to take on Jeopardy, according to the NYT. This is the only thing I ever watch on television (well, some NFL playoffs are fun) and I love the show. It’s just hard enough to make you think you’re smart if you get the right answer, and just easy enough that you do get most of the answers. Perfect for every egotist, including this one. It’s no fun if a computer can beat the game designers, though. I admire IBM for coming up with the program but some mysteries are better left alone.

I.B.M. scientists previously devised a chess-playing program to run on a supercomputer called Deep Blue. That program beat the world champion Garry Kasparov in a controversial 1997 match (Mr. Kasparov called the match unfair and secured a draw in a later one against another version of the program).

But chess is a game of limits, with pieces that have clearly defined powers. “Jeopardy!” requires a program with the suppleness to weigh an almost infinite range of relationships and to make subtle comparisons and interpretations. The software must interact with humans on their own terms, and fast.

“The big goal is to get computers to be able to converse in human terms,” said the team leader, David A. Ferrucci, an I.B.M. artificial intelligence researcher. “And we’re not there yet.”

The team is aiming not at a true thinking machine but at a new class of software that can “understand” human questions and respond to them correctly. Such a program would have enormous economic implications.

Despite more than four decades of experimentation in artificial intelligence, scientists have made only modest progress until now toward building machines that can understand language and interact with humans.

[snip]

The way to deal with such problems, Dr. Ferrucci said, is to improve the program’s ability to understand the way “Jeopardy!” clues are offered. The complexity of the challenge is underscored by the subtlety involved in capturing the exact meaning of a spoken sentence. For example, the sentence “I never said she stole my money” can have seven different meanings depending on which word is stressed.

“We love those sentences,” Dr. Nyberg said. “Those are the ones we talk about when we’re sitting around having beers after work.”

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Observations on showing houses

Interesting day out there, looking at very expensive houses. The day started (last night started, actually) with two cancellations from the same seller who apparently wanted nothing to do with the evil blogger of Greenwich. Now if I owned two houses, one of which has sat empty since it was built in 2002 the other with a mortgage foreclosure pending, I think I’d overcome my distaste for a particular broker and hope and pray that he’d produce a buyer for either of my unwanted homes but that’s just me. Good luck with that foreclosure, fella, and write when you get work.

We started off looking at two superbly built houses in a row, 11 Lindsay Lane and 717 Riversville Road. I can’t say that I agree with the pricing of either house but their builders certainly put in the quality to justify it. Not a corner cut, fantastic detail, beautiful finishes and really just exceptional houses in every way. The showings were enhanced by the presence of BK Bates and Lynn Stevens who know enough to guide people through their listings, pointing out features that might be missed and otherwise skipping the damn sales spiel. My clients know what a large closet looks like, for God’s sake, and if by chance they don’t, I’ll explain it to them. These two women are fun to show houses with. Other agents, not so much.

Tried to see one piece of junk just to demonstrate the difference between quality and shoddy workmanship to my clients but the agent conducting the public open house apparently decided that two hours was enough and had yanked his sign down by the time we got there. Maybe he was just embarrassed to be seen in the place,who knows?  I waved to him through the window but he wouldn’t open for us or the other carload of would-be buyers who arrived after we did. I wonder what the seller would think about that?

Did see another open house so in we trudged and I had my opportunity to point out Home Depot wall plates, dresser drawers held together with a single screw in the corner of butt-ended sides, cheap closet fixtures, and on and on. Nothing wrong with going cheap on a $750,000 wonder but for $9 million, I expect more. I point this stuff out to my clients by the way because I try to tell them everything I know or notice about a house. It may cut down the chance of selling that particular house (ok, it kills it, sometimes) but when we find a well built house, I can tell them so and they believe me, at least until the building inspector corrects me. Everything I learned about earning trust in this business came from listening to Walter Noel. 

So a productive day, all in all – saw houses we liked, and I think some offers will be made, saw some houses that aren’t worth the land they stand on, and learned that one particular seller is determined to go down with the ship(s). Good for him – saved us time, and kept his blood pressure low.

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TARP – an ongoing criminal enterprise?

That’s what some people, including federal investigators, are thinking. I don’t know much about that, but I do think that all this federal bailout money is ultimately good for the Greenwich real estate market because sharp people everywhere are quickly figuring out how to make billions from this tidal wave of loose funds. And sharp financial types tend to end up buying in Greenwich. In case that’s not enough to stir up hope, consider Obama’s upcoming cap and trade system that’s going to save the world. Trillions and trillions of dollars are going to be squeezed from consumers and guess, just guess, who (besides the government) will end up with those dollars? That’s right, and they’ll be coming our way. With all that, plus the double digit inflation that will soon arrive, I thik Greenwich prices are going to start looking healthy  again in just a few more years. Of course the country will be going to hell, but do we care?

UPDATE: We have Wall Street, Italy has the Mafia, and the latter is flourishing in the midst of the financial meltdown. I’m not comparing our fiancial system with the Mafia but, they each share the sanguine attitude of Tammany Hall’s George Plunkitt, who explained, “I didn’t steal nuttin’ – I just seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

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Stock market heading up, or down?

The WSJ has a nice synopsis of the bull and bear arguments about whether we’ve hit bottom and are going up or just experiencing a bear rally. The conflicting predictions sound an awful lot like what we hear about the Greenwich real estate market. I know nothing about stocks, but I’m still feeling bearish about Greenwich. In fact, I’m with this guy:

 “It’s possible that we’re in an April 2003 kind of place and we’ll just keep steaming higher as we emerge from the bear market,” says Jason Goepfert, president of Sundial Capital Research. “I’m not comfortable betting on that possibility.”

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Pension fund crisis hits Greenwich

We’re facing at least a $40 million deficit due to the need to make up for stock market losses in our municipal pension fund.

A $10 million to $15 million spending deficit is forecast for the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to a memo recently circulated by the Budget Overview Committee of the Representative Town Meeting.

That comes on top of a projected deficit of $30 million for the remainder of the current fiscal year and the 2009-10 fiscal year, which starts on July 1.

Driving the deficit, those familiar with the budget say, is the growing burden on the town to contribute taxpayer money to its pension fund.

Preliminary estimates show a $16 million contribution to the pension fund could be required in 2010-11 to make it solvent, a 123 percent increase over the nearly $7.2 million needed for 2009-10. That is a stark contrast to a long stretch, ending just a few years ago, when taxpayers had to put very little or nothing into the fund.

“Certainly, the biggest item we’re confronted with is this contribution to the pension fund,” First Selectman Peter Tesei said. “That’s something we’re all aware of and looking for practical ways to ameliorate during the next two years.”

Beset by plunging stock values, the town’s pension fund has lost about $123 million from its high-water mark of $361 million in October 2007.

If the market continues to slump, budget officials say it could take more than a $16 million contribution in 2010-11 to make the fund, which was 98.2 percent funded as of the start of the current fiscal year, solvent.

 

“If in fact we do not address the already known large increase in pension fund liability in the 2010-11 fiscal year, then we will continue to have to decrease (other) expenses,” said Stephen Walko, chairman of the Board of Estimate and Taxation.

To get to its current budget recommendation of $340.2 million for the upcoming fiscal year, the BET was forced to close an $8.4 million spending gap attributed to shrinking revenues and increasing pension fund liabilities.

The town is facing a steep decline in revenues from conveyance tax receipts, building permit issuance and bank interest, putting budget officials under growing pressure to make cuts in services and the town’s workforce and to seek concessions from unions, as they are now trying to do.

As noted here many times before, these public pension funds are a liability that will dwarf the recent problems of our banking industry. If one of the three (?) richest towns in America, which, until the market crash, had a fully-funded pension plan, is being swamped, it’s not hard to imagine that less fortunate municipalities that have been under-funded for decades are drowning. The national news media will eventually tell us all about this – I figure in two years.

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