Saturday, January 31, 2015

PC World

Cardale Jones, the gifted third string quarterback who led Ohio State to whatever they call the college national championship, got a little extra fame for this tweet:

"Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL," Jones wrote. "We ain't come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS."

Naturally this was quickly condemned by all and sundry. It was not just another harmless bit of undergrad fun - the problem is that it was obviously 100% true. That, to my mind, is the essence of what is objectionable in PC. Speech or writing that challenges the official myth is aggressively punished - especially when the official myth, like the NCAA's fiction of the student athlete, is manifestly false.

A variation occurs when the forbidden speech voices an idea that is widely believed - correctly or incorrectly, or perhaps at least partially true - but contrary to the official myth. The cases of Watson and Summers come to mind. Of course it's considerably worse in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Jones kept his "scholarship," and none of them were publically beaten to death.

Krugman on Greece

Paul Krugman, who, in case anybody bothers to check, has been right, right, and right about Europe for the past several years, while the Austerians and Germany have been wrong, wrong, wrong, has a new column on Greece which has some useful facts for anyone willing to pay attention:

Or to oversimplify things a bit, you can think of European policy as involving a bailout, not of Greece, but of creditor-country banks, with the Greek government simply acting as the middleman — and with the Greek public, which has seen a catastrophic fall in living standards, required to make further sacrifices so that it, too, can contribute funds to that bailout.

The funds lent to Greece since the crisis have gone to pay interest and principal on its loans to those creditor =country banks. Because bailing out banks that have made egregiously foolish loans is not the sort of thing that's really popular, it's necessary to write the story as a myth and morality play.

Doing the right thing would, however, require that other Europeans, Germans in particular, abandon self-serving myths and stop substituting moralizing for analysis.

Can they do it? We’ll soon see.

Merkel says no. If somebody pulls the trigger, Europe could unravel rather quickly.

Friday, January 30, 2015

If You Can Keep Your Head...

...when all about you are losing theirs.... You probably just don't fully appreciate the gravity of the situation. .......................Not exactly what Kipling had in mind.

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Bill Joy are all worried about robots and AI. Maybe you should be too.

The modern surveillance state is just the tip of the iceberg.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Two Hate Crimes

The New York Times Magazine has the gripping story of a hate crime on a high school bus. Three kids on a long bus ride were joking around while a fourth boy wearing a skirt - who identifies as "agender" slept. One kid handed the other a lighter, and, and after a few tries, ignited the skirt. It burst into flames and the victim was severely burned. The perpetrator, a sixteen year old, plausibly did not believe that the skirt would do anything but smolder and be slapped out, got seven years in prison.

Go back a few years to a tony prep school in the Midwest. Another non-conformist kid in the class, who wore his hair in long blond locks, was attacked by a gang led by a popular and politically connected boy who tackled the terrified victim, held him down, and cut off his hair. The victim went on to be expelled (for smoking), while the perpetrator went on to become immensely wealthy, famous, a governor, and perennial presidential candidate. His wife remembers him as a fun loving scamp.

“There’s a wild and crazy man inside of there just waiting to come out,” Romney’s wife, Ann — a graduate of Cranbrook’s sister school, Kingswood — attested in a television interview this month, evoking what she saw as his endearing and fun-loving prep-school persona. Many of Romney’s peers from his high school days echo that version of the candidate, describing him as the humble son of an automobile executive-turned-governor who volunteered at the nearby mental hospital. They recall an infectious laugh, a characterization first documented in his senior yearbook.

A Handful of Dust

Actually more like a galaxy's worth, but either way it looks like primordial B-modes may be as dead as poor Mr. Last's son.

Peter Woit has the story:

The Planck collaboration has an inimitable way of releasing important new results, they like to do it in French (see here for instance). Tonight a French Planck website contains the long-awaited news of the results from the BICEP2/Keck/Planck collaboration to reanalyze the BICEP2 data on polarized B-modes, in a way that allows proper estimation of the contribution of dust. The bottom line is that the BICEP2 claims of seeing a primordial r=.16-.20 that got a huge amount of media attention last year have been shot down. The new analysis says that r is less than .13. I don’t see a paper yet, rumor is that the paper will be on the arXiv Monday night.

OK, maybe B-modes are not dead, but it looks like the Bicep discovery is.

Very sad.

Civilians vs. Scientists

It's not too shocking that scientists opinions diverge from those of the general public on questions that involve science, like genetically modified food, evolution, climate, population, immunization, nuclear power, and so on. For the most part these divergences have little or no correlation with political orientation and have to do with the fact that scientists know a lot more than the public about the issues in question. Based on a Pew Research Center poll:

WASHINGTON The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about.

Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use, and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed.

In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20 percentage point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal.

Read more here:

Of course knowledge does not immunize one from being a damn fool, e.g., our old buddy.

Superbowl Predilictions

Isn't there some way that both the Seattle and New England could lose?


It's not an accident that the world's largest religions forbade the lending of money at interest. History has plenty of examples where the practice has led to societal catastrophes - some several millenia ago and plenty within the last decade. Those religions have since found workarounds or otherwise swept the prohibition under the rug, and for good reasons. Lending is one of the most efficient means for mobilizing the capital that makes economic progress possible.

One of my folk theories is that governments came into being mainly to enforce contracts. Failure to pay up was enforced with draconian penalties, including enslavement of entire families. The predictable consequence was that when a crop failure occurred, leaving many farmers bankrupt, those farmers grabbed the family livestock and headed for the hills - leaving the bankers to starve and society to collapse.

Debtors prisons have largely been abolished, but the calamitous effects of unsound lending continue to redound. The Sumerian farmer who couldn't pay would find his whole family enslaved. The modern equivalent is the pillage of whole countries based on the improvident loans of a few of their banks, as happened in Ireland and Spain.

In ordinary times, it's obvious that some forms of legal compulsion are necessary to avoid scoundrels skipping out on their debt. When systemic abuses or natural calamity provoke widespread financial collapse, what should be done? Bankers quite naturally believe that debts - or at least debts owed to them - are a moral issue, and that debtors should pay to the last drop of their blood. Since they are corporations, shielded by law, the same rules don't apply to them, of course. Many of the scoundrels who drove the banks they ran into bankruptcy retired in comfort to their own mansions. Since bankers have the money, and consequently the power, the laws tend to conform to the bankers notion of morality.

At some point the ancient Mesopotamians introduced jubilee and other forms of loan forgiveness to stabilize society. The modern equivalent is bankruptcy. Greece is a currently a bankrupt country, and German intransigence in refusing to recognize this has driven the country into deep depression. Similar thick headed insistence in imposing post WW I reparations helped provoke the great depression and WW II. Germany is now playing the opposite role in sending Europe into depression.

Can super Mario save Europe from itself (and German bankers in particular)? TBD.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Ceding Control to Machines That Can't Think

One of the more interesting contributions to this year's Edge question on machines that think comes from philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. Don't worry about the machines that can think just yet, he says, worry about ceding control to those that can't:

I think, on the contrary, that these alarm calls distract us from a more pressing problem, an impending disaster that won't need any help from Moore's Law or further breakthroughs in theory to reach its much closer tipping point: after centuries of hard-won understanding of nature that now permits us, for the first time in history, to control many aspects of our destinies, we are on the verge of abdicating this control to artificial agents that can't think, prematurely putting civilization on auto-pilot.


The real danger, then, is not machines that are more intelligent than we are usurping our role as captains of our destinies. The real danger is basically clueless machines being ceded authority far beyond their competence.

He has some examples, but my eye was caught by this Washington Post story of the Russian spy ring that just got busted. It seems that their priority target was uncovering means for:

“destabilization of the markets” and automated trading algorithms — “trading robots.”

As the story points out:

“The acceleration of Wall Street cannot be separated from the automation of Wall Street,” wrote Mother Jones’s Nick Baumann. “Since the dawn of the computer age, humans have worried about sophisticated artificial intelligence … seizing control. But traders, in their quest for that million-dollar millisecond, have willingly handed over the reins. Although humans still run the banks and write the code, algorithms now make millions of moment-to-moment calls in the global markets.”

For evidence of what can go wrong when one of these bots goes crazy, look no further than Aug. 1, 2013. That was when a mid-size trading company named Knight Capital Group lost nearly $10 million per minute over the course of 45 minutes for a total of $440 million. The managers said it was a computer glitch, a misfiring algorithm, a complex computer program gone rogue.

“The company said the problems happened because of new trading software that had been installed,” the New York Times reported. “The event was the latest to draw attention to the potentially destabilizing effect of the computerized trading that has increasingly dominated the nation’s stock markets.”

Of course the idea of rogue trading programs ravaging the markets is really the same story of unintended consequences as Skynet.

I think, though, that the problem is not so much that the machines don't think, as that they don't think like us.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

What's The Matter With Kansas?

Getting Outside the Beltway.

It's a commonplace that people in Washington are out of touch with the real America, middle America. Maybe it's time to move our capital to someplace more "middle American" - specifically to Lebanon, Kansas, the geographic center of the continental United States. Or if you want to include 49 and 50 in the geo-weighting, to Belle Fourche, South Dakota, not so far from the Black Hills and the stony visages of some of our more noted leaders.

This capital moving might be disruptive, it's true, but it would create more jobs than a thousand Keystone pipelines and might shake our government out of its beltway mindset. Spain and Brazil got into the capital moving a bit earlier, not too mention many earlier such ventures, so we could learn from their mistakes. Flyover country would suddenly become flyto country. Congressional commutes would become shorter for the average Senator, not to mention the numerous minions frequently summoned to headquarters.

The need for transition would require a lot of commuting, so the country might finally get the stimulus needed to connect NY, DC and LA to the new capital by ultra high speed train - so why not throw in Chicago, Dallas and Houston too. Location on the prairie would facilitate installation of an up-to-date metro system, which, suitably augmented, could serve as very serviceable bomb shelters connected to the deep underground salt mines. There is also lots of space for some decent airports.

And, ultimately, it would turn Kansas (or South Dakota) blue.

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Netanyahu Wedge

In one of their endless attempts to find wedge issues - issues that pit Americans against each other - Congressional Republicans have invited Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address a special session of Congress, and Netanyahu has accepted. The point, it seems, is to embarrass Obama. Many US and Israeli observers think that Netanyahu in particular is playing with fire. Support for Israel has always been a nonpartisan policy in the US, but if Boehner and Netanyahu make it a partisan issue that could all change. American Jews are a tiny minority of the population, about 2%, and have traditionally voted Democratic, so they represent a small but influential voting block. That said, Netanyahu is a polarizing figure among Jews both in Israel and the US, so it's far from obvious that Republicans gain much electorally.

What they do have to gain is the Adelson primary. Sheldon Adelson, the Casino multi-billionaire, has been dumping huge sums into US politics and is a major sponsor of Netanyahu. If a lot of Americans are offended by Israeli interference in US politics, however, Israel stands to be the loser. The Constitution entrusts US foreign policy to the President, and even if Obama can set aside personal pique, if he judges Israel to be an unreliable ally and enemy of US interests in the world, he might feel obliged to act accordingly. In particular, if, as seems likely, Netanyahu is coming here to sabotage US Iran talks and gin up a US attack against Iran, how many Americans are going to stand with him on that?

From The Jewish Daily Forward

The astonishment didn’t stop at Pennsylvania Avenue but moved from there to Capitol Hill. Even Democratic lawmakers who intend to go against the administration and support new sanctions taken aback by the Boehner-Bibi move. “Netanyahu is shooting himself in the foot,” one of them said, “because by turning this into a partisan issue, he may be forcing some Democratic members to choose between Boehner and Obama, which, for them, is no choice at all.” Minority leader Nancy Pelosi, quickly shot down claims coming from both Boehner and Netanyahu that the invitation to address Congress was “bipartisan”. No one consulted with me, Pelosi said, and the invitation is “inappropriate.”

Even the leaders of mainstream Jewish groups who normally and reflexively support Netanyahu were dumbfounded: no one informed them and no one had asked their opinion. “I was literally sick to my stomach when I heard about it,” one of them told me. J-Street criticized the move, of course, but even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman called on Netanyahu and Boehner to come down from the high tree they had climbed. I support new sanctions, Foxman told Ron Kampeas at JTA, but this is “ill-advised.”

The warnings and protests started pouring into the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, which finally opted to move Netanyahu’s speaking engagement from February 11 to March 3, when it could be linked to the annual AIPAC conference. Of course, if the Prime Minister’s speech had been portrayed from the outset as an outgrowth of his wish to participate at the AIPAC get-together, much of the damage and its resonance could have been avoided. But we have this tendency to try and close the barn doors after the horses have bolted, and to stub a toe or sprain a leg in the process. Accordingly, Israel’s good name was sullied just a little bit more, it became a partisan punching bag and distanced itself further from the Democrats, it wasted far too much of the far too little credit it has left at the White House and it did a disservice to the cause which allegedly motivates Netanyahu in the first place: increasing the pressure on Iran by means of new sanctions legislation.


Netanyahu certainly seems to have forgotten that if he wins the elections and returns as prime minister, it is he who will then have to figure out how to survive for the next two years in the barren landscape and scorched earth that he left behind him this week.

Read more:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

More Edgerry

A disappointingly facile and unimaginative answer to this year's Edge question from a Classical Scholar:

1. "Thinking" is a word we apply with no discipline whatsoever to a huge variety of reported behaviors. "I think I'll go to the store" and "I think it's raining" and "I think therefore I am" and "I think the Yankees will win the World Series" and "I think I am Napoleon" and "I think he said he would be here, but I'm not sure," all use the same word to mean entirely different things. Which of them might a machine do someday? I think that's an important question.

2. Could a machine get confused? Experience cognitive dissonance? Dream? Wonder? Forget the name of that guy over there and at the same time know that it really knows the answer and if it just thinks about something else for a while might remember? Lose track of time? Decide to get a puppy? Have low self-esteem? Have suicidal thoughts? Get bored? Worry? Pray? I think not...

Get yourself out of the 0th Century, man!

Machines that Think

That's you and me bro, says Sean Carroll, responding to this year's Edge question.

Julien de La Mettrie would be classified as a quintessential New Atheist, except for the fact that there’s not much New about him by now. Writing in eighteenth-century France, La Mettrie was brash in his pronouncements, openly disparaging of his opponents, and boisterously assured in his anti-spiritualist convictions. His most influential work, L’homme machine (Man a Machine), derided the idea of a Cartesian non-material soul. A physician by trade, he argued that the workings and diseases of the mind were best understood as features of the body and brain.

As we all know, even today La Mettrie’s ideas aren’t universally accepted, but he was largely on the right track. Modern physics has achieved a complete list of the particles and forces that make up all the matter we directly see around us, both living and non-living, with no room left for extra-physical life forces. Neuroscience, a much more challenging field and correspondingly not nearly as far along as physics, has nevertheless made enormous strides in connecting human thoughts and behaviors with specific actions in our brains. When asked for my thoughts about machines that think, I can’t help but reply: Hey, those are my friends you’re talking about. We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Nothing there that I would find controversial.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Catcalling, MCP Response

Mark Ronson, featuring Bruno Mars.

Irony usually beats earnestness.  See, e.g., the video.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Evolutionary Value of Shyness?

Well, I expect that every shy nerd has noticed that it reduced his reproductive opportunities in high school. In extreme cases it can be a paralyzing illness that isolates to the point where drastic measures are considered. (For the original, see this.)

Apparently, though, shyness is not completely negative for evolutionary success. So, at least, argued Susan Cain in the New York Times Sunday Review (some years ago).

Yet shy and introverted people have been part of our species for a very long time, often in leadership positions. We find them in the Bible (“Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh?" asked Moses, whom the Book of Numbers describes as “very meek, above all the men which were upon the face of the earth.”) We find them in recent history, in figures like Charles Darwin, Marcel Proust and Albert Einstein, and, in contemporary times: think of Google’s Larry Page, or Harry Potter’s creator, J. K. Rowling.

In the science journalist Winifred Gallagher’s words: “The glory of the disposition that stops to consider stimuli rather than rushing to engage with them is its long association with intellectual and artistic achievement. Neither E=mc2 nor ‘Paradise Lost’ was dashed off by a party animal.”

We even find “introverts” in the animal kingdom, where 15 percent to 20 percent of many species are watchful, slow-to-warm-up types who stick to the sidelines (sometimes called “sitters”) while the other 80 percent are “rovers” who sally forth without paying much attention to their surroundings. Sitters and rovers favor different survival strategies, which could be summed up as the sitter’s “Look before you leap” versus the rover’s inclination to “Just do it!” Each strategy reaps different rewards.

Yeah, whatever. Fortunately most of us outgrow it, at least in part.

MSL - Advance Planning Required.

Mean Sea Level seems to have increased by about ten inches (250 mm) since 1870 - 3.5 inches of that in the last thirty years. The rest of the century will probably see something like another 1 to 3 feet of sea level rise, enough to seriously threaten or destroy many low-lying islands and ocean front areas. Endangered cities will cost many billion, or perhaps trillions of dollars to defend or relocate. There is every prospect that sea level rise will continue long after CO2 additions to the atmosphere stop.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

An Intelligence Greater Than Human

The Internet is the Borg. You have been assimilated.

There is an important sense in which an ant colony is "smarter" than any individual ant. It's also true that in many ways a society, in the wide sense (civilization, tribe, corporation, social club or scientific society) is smarter than any of the individual members. These collectives, working together, have information and algorithms that no individual member has, and can solve problems that no one member can. There is a fair amount of evidence that much of the evolutionary development between us and the remote ancestor we shared with chimpanzees was devoted to making us better at cooperating with each other.

From that point of view our first ventures in Artificial Intelligence was the creation of progressively more elaborate societies for sharing information, technology and algorithms.

Once the computer was created, our ability to store, manipulate, and compute was multiplied by an enormous factor. Today the internet links most of the computers and people of the planet. Together, we constitute an enormously greater intelligence than any individual human or pre-computer society.

Stop worrying about when AI will exceed human intelligence - it already happened. The only question is how long the meat part of this intelligence will remain necessary.

Friday, January 09, 2015

Hating on English

Katy Waldman has a nice piece on Minae Mizumura and her screed against the English language, just recently translated into English: The Fall of Language in the Age of English. Minura moved to New York with her parents at age 12, and though educated in English, still resents it.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English, by the Japanese novelist and scholar Minae Mizumura, has all the ingredients of a rage-read. Indeed, when it was published in Japan in 2008, it infuriated commentators, who dismissed Mizumura as “reactionary,” “jingoistic,” or “elitist” and swarmed across Amazon deleting positive reviews. More than 65,000 copies have sold since then—which suggests the slender work’s declinist soothsaying continues to touch a nerve. The book appears this month in English (enemy territory!), where—if we Yanks could be trusted to read something first penned in a non-Western tongue—it would likely inspire more umbrage, more name-calling, more amorphous unease. The book’s basic premise, developed in a sinuous line through seven chapters, is that every language creates and nourishes untranslatable truths. Dominant languages infuse their verities into the wider world, crowding out alternative visions from more minor tongues. Linguistic asymmetry isn’t new—over the past two centuries, Latin, classical Chinese, and French each took a turn in the sun—but never has one language so completely eclipsed the rest, Mizumura says, as today, in the age of the Internet, with English.

And have you heard? English is a tuneless, careless juggernaut! English has a tendency to favor science over art, sound over image, market value over intrinsic cultural worth. (For Chrissake, English spawned Harry Potter, which Mizumura clearly wants to assign to everlasting torment in its own circle of hell.) Her disdain—mostly implied, but sometimes explicit, as when she describes Americans as “grown tall and stout on too many hamburgers and French fries”—might lose Mizumura some Anglophone readers. But it shouldn’t. Every writer need not love English, or English speakers. And we might benefit from attending to the critiques of someone who refuses to kiss the ring.

You can find reasons to jump on the angry bandwagon: Mizumura’s tone can sound disagreeably peevish, bitter, or despairing; she doesn’t bother disguising her scorn for the United States; nor does she shrink from dismissing the entire contemporary fiction scene in Japan as “just juvenile.” (That last is what set off the initial batch of protests.) But these critiques come to feel superficial in the face of the book’s lucidity, erudition, and force.

No doubt Mizumura's complaint will find plenty of sympathy from others whose first language is not English. English remains the cutting edge of Euro-American cultural imperialism, threatening to sweep all other cultures away before it. Of course monolingual Anglophones, like your humble correspondent, will disagree, but do please read Katy's take on it.

Toleration vs. Terror

Given that religion has frequently been the rationale for war, toleration has always been something of a delicate flower. Toleration of religious differences in Christian Europe and the Americas was hard won, but has become something of a central principle. The idea of separation of church and state was central to that, and overall it has been an amazing success, permitting the growth of a vibrant and largely tolerant society in the US and seemingly bringing the end - or nearly the end - of the long series of intra European wars.

Most large scale civilizations have managed to achieve a degree of toleration of diversity of belief, but given that the two big religions of the world, Islam and Christianity, both have a lot of built in intolerance, that has usually been at the expense of a tolerated but disadvantaged minority, as for example, has often been the case of Jews and Christians in Muslim society.

So how does a tolerated but intolerant minority survive in an alien culture with limited tolerance? Very carefully. Violence, proselytization, and other actions deemed threatening to the dominant religion have typically been harshly repressed, often by drastic collective punishments.

Islamic terror presents a tough challenge for any tolerant society. The historically traditional responses to something like the massacres in Paris would have been mob violence, with the slaughter of hundreds of the members of the religious group from which the terrorists came. The tradition of tolerance, we can hope, is now strongly enough established that that won't happen, but some sort of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim reaction, including the possible triumph Le Pen's anti-immigrant and fascist tinged party is all too possible.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Climate Change, Natural and Un

Climate change is natural and constantly occurring.

That statement, or something like it, is frequently heard from the mouths of various proponents of the drill-baby-drill school. It has the merit of being at least partially true. It may also create the illusion that climate change, being natural, is relatively harmless.

Humans first occupied the land that is now England at least 800,000 years ago. More than once since then, climate change has completely scoured that country of humans. Such catastrophes were common and widespread during the Pleistocene. The last 12,000 years or so, the Holocene, has been much more beneficent, with a great moderation of the rapid and drastic changes that dominated the early days of our species.

It's quite plausible that it was this moderation which permitted the development of agriculture and civilization. The Holocene, until recently, has been characterized by relative stability in the second most important regulator (after insolation) of climate, the CO2 content of the atmosphere. At the end of the Pleistocene, the atmospheric CO2 rose from about 200 ppm to 280 ppm and stayed close to that until the industrial revolution and widespread fossil fuel burning started increasing it. That increase was slow at first, reaching 300 ppm about 80 years ago, but has accelerated, and now has breached the 400 ppm level.

Current CO2 levels have not been seen in several million years - a time when the climate was much different than today - and, at present rates, seem likely to have doubled the Holocene levels by mid-century.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015


Prediction is difficult, especially if its about the future...............Niels Bohr.

Nonetheless, nature equipped us with these large brains, and they are useful mainly to the degree that they help us predict the future. Some kinds of predictions are safer than others - especially those solidly based in physics and experience. Some of the really hard ones involve politics and economics. That's mostly because those subjects are complicated and subject to large perturbations by unpredictable events.

Our predictions are all based on the idea that the future will be analogous to the past. Computers will continue to increase in power is a prediction made many decades ago and it seems certain to continue for at least a while. Sensors will continue to get better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous is a similar durable prediction. Artificial intelligence will continue to become more capable and incorporated in more and more devices.

This last prediction may be more controversial, but mostly only among those who really haven't been paying attention. It's essentially an inevitable consequence of the previous two predictions in combination with with the rapid progress being made in animal cognition.

In the past couple of decades, artificially intelligent machines have shown that they can do a number of tasks formerly considered intellectually difficult (in chess, pathology, and law, for example) better than humans. The next generation of AI will produce devices that are increasingly autonomous - capable of doing various tasks humans do without human supervision, or with minimal human supervision. Typically these tasks, from bagging groceries to shooting down fighter planes, will be tasks that formerly required not vast intellectual power but an integration of sensing and decision making of the type that now or formerly required a person.

The economic consequences of these developments have been depressing wages and employment for decades now. It seems likely that these effects will continue and be exacerbated in the future.

Nouriel Roubini, AKA Dr. Doom ever since he predicted the Great Recession, has some thoughts on technology, including some of the downsides that I see. A sample:

In my view, from the economic perspective, the technological forces driving this revolution tend to have the following three downside biases. That is, advances in technology tend to be:

capital intensive (favors those who already have money and other resources);

skills biased (favors those who already have a high level of technical skill); and

labor saving (reduces the total number of jobs in the economy).

The risk is that workers in high-skilled, blue-collar manufacturing jobs will be displaced by machines before the dust settles at the end of the Third Industrial Revolution. We may be heading toward a future where factories consist of one highly skilled engineer running hundreds of machines—with one worker left sweeping the floor.

In fact, the person who sweeps the floor may soon lose that job to a faster, better, cheaper, industrial strength Roomba Robot!

It's number 1 I worry about. The benefits of the productivity gains of the last three decades have gone overwhelmingly to the top 0.1% and especially to the top 0.01% This is not a recipe for a stable society.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Death Stars: Astro FOTD

What would happen if another star were to come fairly close to our Sun, say a trillion km away? Would that be bad? Well maybe, sorta.

Stellar density is our neighborhood is about 0.1 stars pc^-3 (1 parsec is about 30 trillion km). The nearest stars are about a parsec and a half from us. So one would expect considerably closer encounters from time to time. Is anybody headed our way right now?

Well, yes. It seems that the catchily named HIP 85605 might have our name on it.

The latest study was conducted by Coryn Bailer-Jones of Germany's Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, and accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. He used Monte Carlo statistical simulations to analyze the galactic orbits of tens of thousands of stars tracked by the European Space Agency's Hipparchos satellite. Bailer-Jones wanted to find out how many of those stars could conceivably come within 2 parsecs (6.5 light-years) of our own sun.

The answer to the question was 42.

Out of those 42 alien suns, HIP 85605 appeared likely to have the closest encounter. Today the star is 4.9 parsecs (16 light-years) away, but hundreds of thousands of years from now, it's judged to have a 90 percent probability of passing through at a distance of 0.04 to 0.2 parsecs (767 billion to 3.8 trillion miles).

That may not sound all that close, but it's close enough to disrupt the vast repository of comets in the solar system's Oort Cloud, which is thought to extend about 0.5 parsecs (1.6 light-years) from the sun. "That would really tear it up, and I'm guessing you would have a pretty big comet shower, potentially pretty disastrous," Adrian Melott, a physicist at the University of Kansas, told NBC News.

Don't panic, though. We should have a few hundred thousand years to think about it. And:

"If I were a gambling man, I would bet that we'd still be safe, or that a comet shower caused by this star would not be the reason why we're not around," Bochanski said. "Global warming or a world war would probably knock us out a lot sooner than that."

Carbon Tax

With oil prices at their lowest point in years, this would be a good time to introduce a carbon tax. In the US we face a crumbling highway infrastructure and our current gas tax can't afford to pay for maintaining and upgrading it. Larry Summers, writing in the Washington Post, joins the chorus:

The case for carbon taxes has long been compelling. With the recent steep fall in oil prices and associated declines in other energy prices, it has become overwhelming. There is room for debate about the size of the tax and about how the proceeds should be deployed. But there should be no doubt that, given the current zero tax rate on carbon, increased taxation would be desirable.

The core of the case for taxation is the recognition that those who use carbon-based fuels or products do not bear all the costs of their actions. Carbon emissions exacerbate global climate change. In many cases, they contribute to local pollution problems that harm human health. Getting fossil fuels out of the ground involves both accident risks and environmental challenges. And even with the substantial recent increases in U.S. oil production, we remain a net importer. Any increase in our consumption raises our dependence on Middle East producers.

All of us, when we drive our cars, heat our homes or use fossil fuels in more indirect ways, create these costs without paying for them. It follows that we overuse these fuels. Advocating a carbon tax is not some kind of argument for government planning; it is the logic of the market: That which is not paid for is overused. Even if the government had no need or use for revenue, it could make the economy function better by levying carbon taxes and rebating the money to taxpayers.

Might it happen? Surely you jest. We just elected a hard-core anti-tax, drill-baby-drill Congress and Senate, owned entirely by the Koch machine and Exxon Mobile. Forget about it.

XVIII Century Fact

Ancien régime Europe certainly spent heavily on its armies and navies, and their use in war accounted for some 54 per cent of public spending in the European monarchies during the eighteenth century.

Darwin, John (2010-08-08). After Tamerlane (p. 114). Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. Kindle Edition.

For comparison, the US in 2015 is expected to spend about $0.8 trillion of its total public spending of $6.1 trillion on defense (13 %). That spending is not quite half of the total world defense spending ($1.7 trillion).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Predictions: Kevin Drum

Kevin has predictions for 2015 and beyond - mostly way beyond. Number one on his list:

AI and robotics will continue to improve rapidly. We'll have useful AI by 2025 and full AI by 2045. This will either transform the world or destroy it. Flip a coin. However, regardless of how the end point turns out, the transition period is going to be pretty brutal for the 90 percent of the population that occupies the middle classes and below. Note that this prediction is #1 on my list for a reason. The rest are randomly placed.

I suspect that some of his predictions (maybe not that one) will come true a lot sooner than he thinks.

Sacrifice and Propitiation

One of the peculiar practices of human society is that of sacrifice. Humans perform sacrifices, we hear, because the gods need or demand it. The most repugnant sacrifices, those of adults and children, have nearly vanished, or at least been banished to lunatics and the most benighted corners of the world, but there is plenty of evidence that such sacrifices were practiced all over the world, in the early civilizations - in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, the Americas, and Asia. See, e.g., Wikipedia here.

As civilizations advance, they mostly turned away from human sacrifice, and it became a badge of barbarism, awarded fairly or unfairly to one's opponents. In the versions of the tales that have come down to us, the sacrifices of Isaac and Iphigenia were aborted by divine intervention, but it's easy to believe that those sacrifices were quite real in some original versions.

Many major religions of today, including Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Judaism preserve remnant sacrificial processes, though in many cases the sacrifices have been reduced to symbolic rituals.

The idea of voluntary self-sacrifice found its apotheosis in the self-sacrifice of an actual god and may have originated in the Middle East or perhaps India and became the foundation myth of Christianity. This form of human sacrifice has proved more durable. The gods, it seems, still need the lives and blood of martyrs and suicide bombers.

As always, I ask the question: what is the evolutionary rationale for this sort of thing?

Friday, January 02, 2015

Indian Literature

India has an enormous classical literature, written not only in Sanskrit but in many of the other languages of the subcontinent. Most of this has never been translated into English, and much of it, according to the New York Times,

...While the canon of surviving Greek and Roman classics is fairly small, the literature of India’s multiple classical languages includes thousands upon thousands of texts, many of which, as the writer William Dalrymple recently noted, exist only in manuscripts that are decaying before they can be translated or even cataloged.

A project to digitize and publish much of this literature has been undertaken by Sheldon Pollock:

After the Clay Library’s demise, Mr. Pollock, who had taken over as its general editor, reconceived the project to extend far beyond Sanskrit. He shopped around in India for a new benefactor, to no avail. He then brought the idea to Sharmila Sen, executive editor at large at Harvard University Press, who connected him with Rohan Murty, the son of the Indian technology billionaire N. R. Narayana Murthy. (The two men spell their surnames differently.)

The younger Mr. Murty, at the time a 26-year-old doctoral student in computer science at Harvard, put up $5.2 million to endow the new library, which will eventually be digitized, in perpetuity.

The project has a controversial aspect, thanks to it's inclusion of literature other than Sanskrit, it may collide with India's long running language wars.

The library, which will be celebrated late this month at the Jaipur Literary Festival, arrives at a fraught moment in India’s long-running battles over language and national identity. Last month the country’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, declared that the Bhagavad Gita, a Sanskrit religious text, should be designated a “national scripture.” In November, efforts to make the teaching of Sanskrit essentially mandatory in schools for the children of government employees prompted an outcry.

Activists, meanwhile, have sought “classical” status for other languages, including Tamil, Kannada, Telugu and Malayalam, even as once-vibrant Indian scholarship in the older literature of those languages has withered away.

Bot Baddies


By Daniel Rivero

Maybe it’s a sign that robots are growing up, and thus hitting the rebellious stage.

The Random Darknet Shopper, an automated online shopping bot with a budget of $100 a week in Bitcoin, is programmed to do a very specific task: go to one particular marketplace on the Deep Web and make one random purchase a week with the provided allowance. The purchases have all been compiled for an art show in Zurich, Switzerland titled The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland, which runs through January 11.

The concept would be all gravy if not for one thing: the programmers came home one day to find a shipment of 10 ecstasy pills, followed by an apparently very legit falsified Hungarian passport– developments which have left some observers of the bot’s blog a little uneasy.

If this bot was shipping to the U.S., asks Forbes contributor and University of Washington law professor contributor Ryan Calo, who would be legally responsible for purchasing the goodies? The coders? Or the bot itself?

The robot takeover won't be planned - it will be an accident or an unintended consequence, just like Skynet.

Stupidest Headlines of 2015

It's early, but we're off to a promising start:

From the Washington Post: This year, let’s stop telling women to stay safe. Let’s tell men not to assault us. Because that's really the problem. Nobody has ever told men that sexual assault is bad.

UPDATE: The competition heats up. From Slate: FSU's Rose Bowl Loss Was Not a Victory for Rape Victims Even if the victorious Ducks did chant "No means No" to Jameis Winston afterwards.