Monday, July 24, 2017

Pushing the String

The Democrats have awakened to the fact that they lost the last two elections and want to do something about it by proposing a plan for the economy that would appeal to voters. From what I've heard so far I'm not terribly impressed. There are some good ideas (infrastructure spending), some not quite terrible ideas (raising the minimum wage), but I've yet to see any really good ideas.

I think that the idea that workers should make at least $15/hr is not a bad one, but the minimum wage proposal also has a major disadvantage - it increases the cost of employment. That's unlikely to be a good deal in the age of robotics. Here is an alternative - have the government directly subsidize low wages. For example: If an employer pays $10/hr, the subsidy would be $5/hr. For 8$/hr, the subsidy only $3/hr, to discourage lowballing.

Another idea. Replace employment taxes with a VAT or income tax. Not only do they increase the costs of hiring people but they are regressive and present a large paperwork burden.

Finally, institute Medicare for all. Health insurance is a major factor in employment decisions, making employers less likely to hire and potential employees less likely to take jobs without health care benefits.

Most of these ideas would cost money, taxpayer money. I don't have a problem with that. I think that many of them would also improve productivity.

Fences

I live in a small city that is growing fairly fast. Like many sun belt cities, it attracts a lot of retirees as well as others fleeing winter or California. From time to time I like to cruise the new neighborhoods, just to see what's going on.

I did this, a couple of weeks ago, on a long new street. For mile after mile it was lined with brand new gated communities. Gated communities piss me off. One very small component of this irritation is that occasionally I need to attend social events in one of them which involves hassle at the gate. Even though I have been given the gate code, I usually need to punch it in about five times to get the gate to open. Mostly, though, I hate the anti-communitarian ethos of it. There is also a racist element to it, since we are a predominantly Hispanic city and those behind the gates are mostly wealthy Anglos and Asians.

If it were up to me I would install a toll gate at each exit and make the residents pay to enter, or, at least, to leave.

I suppose the gates are a slight impediment to burglary, but we don't live in a high crime community. Anyway, come the revolution, I would just like to assure the rebels that the pickings are likely to be much richer behind those not very sturdy gates than in my neighborhood.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Riding With AI

I've been looking for a new car, and my main criteria are legroom, headroom, and all the safety features. So I was test driving a Cadillac CT-6 yesterday, and decided to test the lane keeping and auto-brake features. I was not impressed. I deliberately let the car wander across the lane line (other cars were too far away to be endangered by these maneuvers, but probably close enough to conclude that I was drunk or an idiot). The lane keeping was supposed to keep me in my lane while vibrating the seat on the side where I wandered off. Well, it did sort of keep me in my lane, meaning that it wandered drunkenly from left lane mrker to right, but it never vibrated.

The emergency auto-braking feature didn't work either, unless it planned to switch on after I got close enough to panic brake and scare the heck out of my wife.

So far, not impressed with this implementation.

Existential Threat

David Z. Morris in Fortune:

Appearing before a meeting of the National Governor’s Association on Saturday, Tesla CEO Elon Musk described artificial intelligence as “the greatest risk we face as a civilization” and called for swift and decisive government intervention to oversee the technology’s development.

“On the artificial intelligence front, I have access to the very most cutting edge AI, and I think people should be really concerned about it,” an unusually subdued Musk said in a question and answer session with Nevada governor Brian Sandoval. Musk has long been vocal about the risks of AI. But his statements before the nation’s governors were notable both for their dire severity, and his forceful call for government intervention.

“AI’s a rare case where we need to be proactive in regulation, instead of reactive. Because by the time we are reactive with AI regulation, it’s too late," he remarked. Musk then drew a contrast between AI and traditional targets for regulation, saying “AI is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization, in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs, or bad food were not.”

Those are strong words from a man occasionally associated with so-called cyberlibertarianism, a fervently anti-regulation ideology exemplified by the likes of Peter Thiel, who co-founded Paypal with Musk. Get Data Sheet, Fortune’s technology newsletter.

Musk went on to argue that broad government regulation was vital because companies are currently pressured to pursue advanced AI or risk irrelevance in the marketplace:

That’s where you need the regulators to come in and say, hey guys, you all need to just pause and make sure this is safe . . . You kind of need the regulators to do that for all the teams in the game. Otherwise the shareholders will be saying, why aren’t you developing AI faster? Because your competitor is.

Part of Musk’s worry stems from social destabilization and job loss. “When I say everything, the robots will do everything, bar nothing," he said.

But Musk's bigger concern has to do with AI that lives in the network, and which could be incentivized to harm humans. “[They] could start a war by doing fake news and spoofing email accounts and fake press releases, and just by manipulating information," he said. "The pen is mightier than the sword.”

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Juggling

I used to be able to juggle a little bit, by which I mean I could do a few simple tricks with three balls and with three clubs. I could also sort of keep four balls in the air for a little bit.

Anyway, I recently took out some juggling balls and quickly proved that my nervous system has declined quite a lot. After a bit of practice, can sort of do three balls, but just barely. I can't quite do two balls in one hand yet and the clubs seem to present an insuperable air traffic control problem. That may be partly because practicing requires picking up the clubs, and my back doesn't like bending over much. Also, kick-ups are beyond me - too stiff and too clumsy.

Thank You for Your Service

A group of us were discussing a small town in Arizona and I happened to mention that I had been stationed near there when I was in the Army. Somebody I had just met said "Thank you for your service." I was a bit flabbergasted, but since it was the first and only time anyone had said that to me in the half century since I got out of the Army, I was OK with it, though I have to admit that it did remind me of the fact that my service was so much less heroic than that of all the men and women of the military going in serious harm's way, then and since, and of my childhood friend who died in Vietnam, and the other guys I went through basic with, almost all of them destined for Vietnam.

Nobody was thanking guys in uniform for their service back in 1967, but I never got any grief about it either. Apparently some who serve now are finding our current fixation with it a nuisance. From a letter to Dear Prudence:

I am a career senior military officer stationed in a U.S. city with a small but bustling base. When I’m in civilian clothes, I read as just another 40-something dad, but in uniform I’m the BIG DAMN HERO. I get thanked for my service to the point of distraction. I’ve had parents force their kids to come up to me to thank me in front of my own kids at school drop-off. People try to bring up the details of combat, which I’m not interested in talking about. The worst is at the grocery store. I often stop by on my way home to pick up ingredients for dinner, and for whatever reason the produce aisle seems to bring out the most obsessed veteran-hunters. Handshakes. Bro-fists and chest bumps. Crazy-uncle jingoism. And so many uninvited hugs.

Recently, while I was grabbing some produce off the shelves, a woman came up to me from behind and initiated a hug completely out of nowhere. A lost-in-thought combat veteran is not a good person to surprise. I spun around, took a step back, and asked the lady not to touch me. She backed away with tears in her eyes, and another woman who’d seen what happened gave me a dirty look. I told her that I was just as entitled to my personal space as she was and that my clothes weren’t an invitation for physical contact. Yesterday in the checkout line a woman approached me, looking nervous, then handed me a $100 gift card for the grocery store. I told her I didn’t want it and she should give it to someone who needs it (I get paid plenty), but she insisted. (I took the card and donated it to a local charity that serves refugees.)

It probably beats getting spit on, but people are hard to please.

Short People

This new paper in Nature looks at a study in Bangladesh funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.

In the late 1960s, a team of researchers began doling out a nutritional supplement to families with young children in rural Guatemala. They were testing the assumption that providing enough protein in the first few years of life would reduce the incidence of stunted growth.

It did. Children who got supplements grew 1 to 2 centimetres taller than those in a control group. But the benefits didn't stop there. The children who received added nutrition went on to score higher on reading and knowledge tests as adolescents, and when researchers returned in the early 2000s, women who had received the supplements in the first three years of life completed more years of schooling and men had higher incomes...

A picture slowly emerged that being too short early in life is a sign of adverse conditions — such as poor diet and regular bouts of diarrhoeal disease — and a predictor for intellectual deficits and mortality. But not all stunted growth, which affects an estimated 160 million children worldwide, is connected with these bad outcomes. Now, researchers are trying to untangle the links between growth and neurological development. Is bad nutrition alone the culprit? What about emotional neglect, infectious disease or other challenges?

Shahria Hafiz Kakon is at the front line trying to answer these questions in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh, where about 40% of children have stunted growth by the age of two. As a medical officer at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) in Dhaka, she is leading the first-ever brain-imaging study of children with stunted growth. “It is a very new idea in Bangladesh to do brain-imaging studies,” says Kakon.

Nutritional interventions are known to reduce the growth and other deficits by about 1/3, but disease and other concomitants of poverty are thought to be responsible for the rest. Other interventions are being tested, but cost is a huge factor in poor countries.

Economic development is probably the best long term cure, but starting with healthier bodies and brains has got to help.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different

I decided to read another "important" novel. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. So far, I'm not impressed. Overblown prose, a tedious plot, and, most irritating to me, an implausible seeming post-apocalypse.

It's early, and the novel is widely praised, so I figure I better give it another 50 pages or so, but back to the post-apocalypse. Some cataclysm has smoked the country, apparently killing off most plant and animal life, but leaving a number of humans - implausible. Worse, everything is covered with ash from the fires, and clouds of ash fill the atmosphere, five years post-A. Meanwhile it rains and snows frequently.

This, I think, is complete BS. Ash from fires disintegrated rapidly. Ash from volcano doesn't, but it doesn't park in the atmosphere for years either. It's very hard to conjure up a cataclysm that would char the soil everywhere so deeply that buried seeds would perish yet a substantial human population be spared.

Opinions by anyone who has read this - or even seen the movie - are welcome.

A Chip Off the Old Block

Larsen C just set off for an independent career as an iceberg. Its mass is estimated at a trillion tons. It was already floating, so it won't raise ocean levels, but how much would that much ice have raised the global oceans if it had been land based, or if it is replaced by ice now on land?

The global ocean has an area of 362 trillions square meters, so Larsen C amounts to 1/362 tons per square meter, or a bit more than 2.5 mm of height increase (if it weren't already floating, but it was). Anyway, it's a bunch of ice.

Soap

I've become addicted to our national soap opera. The first thing I check every morning is the latest edition of the Trump Family Follies. A day without some Trumpian disaster is a disappointment.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Reviewing Homo Deus

I've been thinking about writing a review of Yuval Noah Harari's new book, Homo Deus, but maybe I will just link to some by the professionals:

Jennifer Senior, in the NYT:

I do not mean to knock the handiwork of a gifted thinker and a precocious mind. But I do mean to caution against the easy charms of potted history. Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has a gift for synthesizing material from a wide range of disciplines in inspired, exhilarating ways. But an argument can look seamless and still contain lots of dropped stitches.

In a nub: “Homo Deus” makes the case that we are now at a unique juncture in the story of our species. “For the first time in history,” Harari writes, “more people die today from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals combined.”

Having subdued (though by no means vanquished) famine, pestilence and war, Harari argues, we can now train our sights on higher objectives. Eternal happiness. Everlasting life. “In seeking bliss and immortality,” he writes, “humans are in fact trying to upgrade themselves into gods.”

Another NYT review, this time by Siddhartha Mukherjee, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Emperor of all maladies:

“Organisms are algorithms,” Yuval Noah Harari asserts in his provocative new book, “Homo Deus.” “Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution. . . . There is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that nonorganic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass.” In Harari’s telling, the human “algorithm” will soon be overrun and outpaced by other algorithms. It is not the specter of mass extinction that is hanging over us. It is the specter of mass obsolescence.

...

Such concerns aside, Harari’s book still remains essential reading for those who think about the future. The algorithms that Harari describes are not trying to imitate humans; they are trying to become human, and possibly exceed our abilities. One story in his book that captivated me was that of the musician and programmer David Cope, who wrote a program to imitate Bach’s compositions. Listeners described the compositions as having touched their “innermost being” — and were furious when told the music had, in fact, been created by a device whose “innermost being” happened to be a mesh of silicon and copper. Cope later wrote another program — this time to generate haikus. He then published a book in which some poems were written by the computer while others were written by “organic poets,” as Harari describes them, leaving the readers to agonize over which poem was generated by which being. This organic writer, for one, could hardly tell one from the other.

Tim Adams in The Guardian:

Yuval Noah Harari began his academic career as a researcher of medieval warfare. His early publications had titles like “Inter-frontal Cooperation in the Fourteenth Century and Edward III’s 1346 Campaign” or “The Military Role of the Frankish Turcopoles”. Then, the story goes, having won tenure at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he embarked on a crusade of his own. He was invited to teach a course that no one else in the faculty fancied – a broad-brush introduction to the whole of human activity on the planet. That course became a widely celebrated book, Sapiens, championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. It satisfied perfectly an urgent desire for grand narrative in our fragmenting Buzz-fed world. The rest is macro-history. Yuval Noah Harari: The age of the cyborg has begun – and the consequences cannot be known Read more

On almost every page of Sapiens, a bible of mankind’s cultural and economic and philosophical evolution, our millennial battles with plague and war and famine, Harari announced himself a Zen-like student of historical paradox: “We did not domesticate wheat,” he wrote, “wheat domesticated us”; or “How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined.” The most intriguing section of a wildly intriguing book was the last. Harari’s history of our 75,000 years wound up, as all bibles are apt to do, with apocalyptic prophesy, a sense of an ending.

Of course these are brief excerpts - to get the reviews, follow the links.

So what did I think?

It had plenty of fascinating bits, as well as even more where I wanted to stop the author and say "Yes, but." Overall, I don't think that it's at the level of Sapiens, a truly excellent grand synthesis, but still plenty interesting.

Get Ready for President Pence

Now that we know that the Trump Campaign did collude with the Russian government to steal the election, can Trump's impeachment be far away? At some point, Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan have to do the math on whether they want to continue with the Trump albatross around their necks or move on to Pence. Unless, of course, Pence himself is implicated, which I will guess is unlikely. My guess is that Trump would try to keep that in the family.

I should think that the main obstacle is the anticipated fury of the hard core of 36% or so of Trump true believers, who don't believe or don't care if he is selling the country out to Putin. Of course it's also not good to have to admit that the election was stolen, but Pence is almost certain to be a better president for the Republican agenda (tax cuts for rich donors, immiseration of the poor and middle class) than Trump.

If Hannity and Fox and Friends turn on Trump, it's over. Otherwise, it could be long and bloody.

I wonder how Tillerson and McMaster feel about their role in propping Trump up.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Harari Again

Never in history did a government know so much about what’s going on in the world – yet few empires have botched things up as clumsily as the contemporary United States. It’s like a poker player who knows what cards his opponents hold, yet somehow still manages to lose round after round.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 374). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

You're harshin' on us man. I can think of some previous empires that probably did a lot worse.

Assault on Liberal Humanism Continues

Harari:

Indeed, even Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and the other champions of the new scientific world view refuse to abandon liberalism. After dedicating hundreds of erudite pages to deconstructing the self and the freedom of will, they perform breathtaking intellectual somersaults that miraculously land them back in the eighteenth century, as if all the amazing discoveries of evolutionary biology and brain science have absolutely no bearing on the ethical and political ideas of Locke, Rousseau and Jefferson.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 305). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Eroding Humanism

Harari thinks science has begun eroding some of the foundations of liberal humanism:

Over the last century, as scientists opened up the Sapiens black box, they discovered there neither soul, nor free will, nor ‘self’ – but only genes, hormones and neurons that obey the same physical and chemical laws governing the rest of reality. Today when scholars ask why a man drew a knife and stabbed someone to death, answering ‘Because he chose to’ doesn’t cut the mustard. Instead, geneticists and brain scientists provide a much more detailed answer: ‘He did it due to such-and-such electrochemical processes in the brain that were shaped by a particular genetic make-up, which in turn reflect ancient evolutionary pressures coupled with chance mutations.’

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 282). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Deliberately provocative? Well duh.

Those Old Time Religions

Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
Give me that old time religion
It's good enough for me

...
It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
It was good for Hebrew children
And it's good enough for me

Read more: David Houston - Old Time Religion Lyrics | MetroLyrics

Harari is skeptical

True, hundreds of millions may nevertheless go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism. But numbers alone don’t count for much in history. History is often shaped by small groups of forward-looking innovators rather than by the backward-looking masses.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (p. 269). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Humanist Religions

Harari argues that the last 100 plus years has been dominated by what he calls the humanist religions. The Twentieth Century, in his analysis, was dominated by an epic struggle between three versions of humanism: liberalism, evolutionary humanism (culminating in Naziism), and socialist humanism, with Marxist-Leninism. He summarizes the various critiques that the warring branches leveled against each other. Here is his version of the socialist critiques of classical liberalism.

What good is the liberty to live where you want when you cannot pay the rent; to study what interests you when you cannot afford the tuition fees; and to travel where you fancy when you cannot buy a car? Under liberalism, went a famous quip, everyone is free to starve. Even worse, by encouraging people to view themselves as isolated individuals, liberalism separates them from their fellow class members and prevents them from uniting against the system that oppresses them. Liberalism thereby perpetuates inequality, condemning the masses to poverty and the elite to alienation.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (pp. 261-262). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

That's pretty much my critique of Libertarianism, an extremist version of classical liberalism. Of course we now know that socialism in general, and Marxism-Leninism in particular, have failed miserably in bringing the promised benefits to the masses. It just doesn't match up well with human nature.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Venus if You Won't

Stephen Hawking recently suggested that Trump's policies could produce a Venusian style runaway greenhouse on Earth. This produced scathing critiques from the wise and the less wise, including the Stoat and the Lumonator. Just how confident can we be that Hawking is wrong? I'm pretty confident, but not quite so confident as the w and the lw, mentioned above. Let's review some pertinent facts:

First, because Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth, it receives about 1.88 times as much solar radiation as Earth does, but the story doesn't stop there. Venus is also much shinier than Earth, with an albedo of 0.76, more than twice that of Earth (0.37) and consequently absorbs less solar radiation than Earth does (about 91% of what we do). Also, recall that the Venusian greenhouse started when the Sun was a lot cooler than it is now, quite possibly when Venus received less solar radiation than Earth does today.

Of course the chemistry of the Venusian atmosphere is much different than that of Earth, but much of that difference is due to the runaway greenhouse. For example, the enormous concentration of CO2 in the Venusian atmosphere is due to the fact that without oceans, the carbon that winds up in carbonate rocks on Earth winds up in the atmosphere, and the oceans likely disappeared due to photodissociation of water in the upper atmosphere and loss of the hydrogen to space.

My estimate: critics 0.95, Hawking 0.05. But do your own math.