Philosophy

A neural network can be designed to provide a measure of its own confidence in a categorization, but the complexity of the mathematical calculations involved means it’s not straightforward to take the network apart to understand how it makes its decisions. This can make unintended behavior hard to predict; and if failure does occur, it can be difficult to explain why. If a system misrecognizes an object in a photo, for instance, it may be hard (though not impossible) to know what feature of the image led to the error. Similar challenges exist with other machine learning techniques.

That is from Will Knight.  This reminds me of computer chess, especially in its earlier days but still today as well.  The evaluation functions are not transparent, to say the least, and they were not designed by the conscious planning of humans.  (In the case of chess, it was a common tactic to let varied program options play millions of games against each other and simply see which evaluation functions won the most.)  So when people debate “Will you buy the Peter Singer utilitarian driverless car?” or “Will you buy the Kant categorical imperative driverless car?”, and the like, they are not paying sufficient heed to this point.  A lot of the real “action” with driverless cars will be determined by the non-transparent features of their programs.

How will regulatory systems — which typically look for some measure of verifiable ex ante safety — handle this reality?  Or might this non-transparency be precisely what enables the vehicles to be put on the road, because it will be harder to object to them?  What will happen when there is a call to “fix the software so this doesn’t happen any more”?  To be sure, adjustments will be made.

More and more of our world is becoming this way, albeit slowly.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

North Brooklin, Maine

30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society—things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,

(Signed, ‘E. B. White’)

Here is the link, via Jodi Ettenberg and Letters of Note.

Alternatively, you might try the thoughts of Langston Hughes.

…I work occasionally at the VA as a psychiatrist in both inpatient and outpatient settings. My impression is that the men going into the recent wars are far less psychologically healthy then the men who went to WWI, WWII, or Korea. The prior longitudinal studies of the wars of the first half of the 20th century, such as they are, do indeed suggest that most men exit war with similar psychological profiles as to when they entered. Could the recently documented ‘sense of loss’ so many returning veterans express reflect something similar to inner city youths and gangs, namely, that the camaraderie of combat and order of military life provided the paternal presence they lacked growing up? Military life and combat provided what communities and families had provided similar men when they returned from WWI and WWII. Take away the military life and combat, and they are left where they were prior to joining.

That is from a recent post on reading.

I will be holding a Conversations with Tyler chat with her soon, no public event, podcast only.

Most of you have read her, I suspect.

She is a lead obituary writer for The New York Times, here is her Wikipedia page.  Her background is in linguistics and classical music, but by now she has penned over 1,200 obituaries, with many links to those on the Wikipedia page.  You also can follow her obituaries and other tweets on Twitter.

Here is her Paris Review interview.  Read her also at Creative Non-Fiction.  Here is a $2.99 eBook of selected obituaries.  She is funny, that is funny ha-ha, the other funny I could not say.

She also has written two excellent books: The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, and Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind.

So what should I ask Margalit Fox?

I very much liked yesterday’s Ross Douthat piece, and I agree with most of it, and I regard him as one of the truly great columnists writing today.  Still, there was one tiny part I disagreed with, and I see the point being repeated in varying forms elsewhere, so I thought I would pull it out and add a few comments, namely:

(There is more genuine cosmopolitanism in Rudyard Kipling and T. E. Lawrence and Richard Francis Burton than in a hundred Davos sessions.)

That is Ross, do read the whole piece for context, but here are my worries.  They may be nitpicks, but actually I feel a fair amount is at stake here:

1. It seems unfair to compare Davos sessions to some rather robust, historically important, top-of-the-line explorers.  Virtually all sessions are boring, including or maybe even especially in the 19th or early 20th centuries.  How about comparing the elites of back then to the elites of today?  Then I think the Davos set would look quite good.  Or if you compare the explorers of more recent times — say Jan Morris or Louis Sarno — to the explorers of back then, still the present day looks good and possibly even considerably superior in terms of curiosity, tolerance, and a broad outlook.

Overall, I see a lot of evidence — both cross-sectional and time series — that those qualities are what economists call normal goods rather than inferior goods, or in other words those qualities rise with income.  And do we moderns not in some ways have an overall better and more accurate perspective?  Have we not read much more, learned better social science, and developed a greater facility for spotting prejudices and logical fallacies?

2. I suspect either the elites or the explorers of today are better when it comes to understanding differing perspectives of gender, neurology, sexuality, race, age (should you beat your kids?), and a variety of other dimensions.  Maybe none of these wisdoms fall exactly under the heading of the adjective “cosmopolitan,” but still they seem relevant for whether today’s elite is wiser and broader.  How many of the earlier elite were women, and embodied that set of diverse perspectives, to pose a simple comparative question?

3. I’ve never been to Davos, but I know some people who have.  They’re weird!  And I mean that in a (mostly) good way.  I am reluctant to overgeneralize about them, and I suspect they are more diverse than is often thought to be the case.  Almost by the virtue of having been invited, they are some pretty extreme outliers, consider for instance Bill Gates or Elon Musk.  I’d also like to see data on how many of them have spent serious time in say poor rural villages in less developed nations, or had other strange or diverse experiences.  The answers might surprise us.

Who amongst us knows this about CEO and billionaire Patrick Byrne of Overstock?:

“30 years ago in China I contracted Hep C.  I got a bad head wound and a ‘barefoot doctor’ they called him, sewed me up.  I’ll give you the facts, I went stage 4 last summer, seemed to have gotten through the treatment but it’s been quite harsh on me and it’s on top of a long, I’ve actually had 106 surgeries, 51 times they stopped my heart electrically, another 50 times chemically,”

Isn’t that a kind of cosmopolitanism?  And the medical treatments also have given him some pretty novel perspectives.  Patrick by the way is fluent in Mandarin and has spent years in strange and unusual parts of China, and during a time when it was far less safe and comfortable than today.

Or how about what Jeff Sachs does?  Whether or not you agree with all of his economics, it’s not easy, and I mean on both the mind and the body.  How about those Harvard MBAs who are Mormons and have done missions in exotic locales and gone door to door for two years?

Muhammad Yunus was born in a Chittagong Muslim village into a family of nine children, circa 1940.  Later “From 1969 to 1972, Yunus was assistant professor of economics at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro.”  Isn’t that a pretty incredible diversity of life experience?

Thomas Friedman, a classic exemplar of the globalist mindset and whipping boy for many, in fact spent serious time in Beirut covering the civil war, and doing original reporting in situations of very real danger, winning Pulitzers and a National Book Award for the quality of his work.  During one later four-year period, he traveled over 500,000 miles.  Nicholas Kristof is another good example of someone who really “gets out there,” in his case often in Africa but not only.

If you are curious, here’s a basic list of Davos attendees.   Note also that the very real increase in segregation by income in America — mostly a bad development and which Ross mentions — seems to be centered around the upper middle class, not the Davos set, as the very wealthy and the elites always have lived somewhat apart.

Overall I think Ross and many others are somewhat underrating Davos.  I do understand that Davos attendees may, as a whole, suffer from excess hubris, excess complacency, or be excessively fond of technocracy.  And the fact that many (by no means all) of them have not suffered very much does limit some of their perspectives.  But are they not in fact actually about as cosmopolitan as we might hope for?

Addendum: Rob Howse offers some useful remarks, and also notes the connection of the “genuine cosmopolitan” idea — a tricky concept — to Leo Strauss.  Here is his closing bit:

Is it so that the cosmopolitans Douthat despises merely retreat into comfortable and familiar neighborhoods in global cities?…[many are] working in a combat zone with Medicins sans frontiers; or persisting as a foreign correspondent in a country where journalists’ lives are threatened; or setting up a truth commission to heal wounds in a conflict-ridden nation; or soldiering as a social entrepreneur to empower women’s small business in an African village; or confronting traditional community leaders about female genital mutilation.  These are all quintessentially cosmopolitan roles, which involve real risks, real sacrifice, and often wrenching encounters with otherness.

I agree with Ross’s description that the Davos set is very often “liberal Christianity without Christ.”  But maybe that’s the most cosmopolitan philosophy going these days.  The bigger question of course is, given slow economic growth and institutional rigidification, how much that really helps us.

That question came up briefly in my chat with Cass Sunstein, though we didn’t get much of a chance to address it.  In the Star Trek world there is virtual reality, personal replicators, powerful weapons, and, it seems, a very high standard of living for most of humanity.  The early portrayals of the planet Vulcan seem rather Spartan, but at least they might pass a basic needs test of sorts, plus there is always catch-up growth to hope for.  The bad conditions seem largely reserved for those enslaved by the bad guys, originally the Klingons and Romulans, with those stories growing more complicated as the series proceeds.

In Star Wars, the early episodes show some very prosperous societies.  Still, droids are abused, there is widespread slavery, lots of people seem to live at subsistence, and eventually much of the galaxy falls under the Jedi Reign of Terror.

Why the difference?  Should we consult Acemoglu and Robinson?  Or is it about economic geography?  I can find think of a few factors differentiating the world of Star Wars from that of Star Trek:

1. The armed forces in Star Trek seem broadly representative of society.  Compare Uhura, Chekhov, and Sulu to the Imperial Storm troopers.

2. Captains Kirk and Picard may be overly narcissistic, but they do not descend into true power madness, unlike various Sith leaders and corrupted Jedi Knights.

3. In Star Trek, any starship can lay waste to a planet, whereas in Star Wars there is a single, centralized Death Star and no way to oppose it, short of having the rebels try to blow it up.  That seems to imply stronger checks and balances in the world of Star Trek.  No single corrupt captain can easily take over the Federation, and so there are always opposing forces.

4. Star Trek embraces analytical egalitarianism, namely that all humans consider themselves part of the same broader species.  There is no special group comparable to the Jedi or the Sith, with special powers or with special whatevers in their blood.  There are various species of aliens, but they are identified as such, they are not in general going to win human elections, and furthermore humans are portrayed as a kind of galactic hegemon, a’ la the United States circa the postwar era.

5. The single individual is much more powerful in the world of Star Wars, due to Jedi and Sith powers, which seems to lower stability.  In the Star Trek world, some of the biggest trouble comes from super-human Khan and his clan, but fortunately they are put down.

6. Star Trek replicators are sufficiently powerful it seems slavery is highly inefficient in that world.  In Star Wars the underlying depreciation rate, as you would find it measured in a Solow model, seems to be higher.  More forced labor is drafted into use to repair all of that wasting capital.

What else?

Addendum: Here is Cass on Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

…the surveys also revealed a lack of enthusiasm for buying or using a driverless car programmed to avoid pedestrians at the expense of its own passengers. One question asked respondents to rate the morality of an autonomous vehicle programmed to crash and kill its own passenger to save 10 pedestrians; the rating dropped by a third when respondents considered the possibility of riding in such a car.

Similarly, people were strongly opposed to the idea of the government regulating driverless cars to ensure they would be programmed with utilitarian principles. In the survey, respondents said they were only one-third as likely to purchase a vehicle regulated this way, as opposed to an unregulated vehicle, which could presumably be programmed in any fashion.

That is from an MIT press release, here is the background:

The paper, “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles,” is being published today in the journal Science. The authors are Jean-Francois Bonnefon of the Toulouse School of Economics; Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon; and Rahwan, the AT&T Career Development Professor and an associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab.

The abstract notes that if drivers are required to purchase “utilitarian-programmed” vehicles, they may be less willing to buy at all, thus postponing the adoption of what is likely to be a much safer technology.

For the pointer I thank Charles Klingman.

Here is from MIT Technology Review, surveying research on chess blunders and cognition by Ashton Anderson at Microsoft Research in New York City, Jon Kleinberg of Cornell, and Sendhil Mullainathan:

…Anderson and co have found evidence of an entirely counterintuitive phenomenon in which skill levels play the opposite role, so that skillful players are more likely to make an error than their lower-ranked counterparts. The team call these “skill anomalous positions.”

That’s an extraordinary discovery which will need some teasing apart in future work. “The existence of skill-anomalous positions is surprising, since there is a no a priori reason to believe that chess as a domain should contain common situations in which stronger players make more errors than weaker players,” say Anderson and co. Just why this happens isn’t clear.

I don’t, by the way, find the concept of skill anomalous positions to be so surprising.  Better chess players have more “chunking” and more intuitions.  Usually that knowledge adds value, but in a variety of counterintuitive positions it can lead players down the wrong paths.  For instance a beginner probably does not know that on average a Queen and Knight working together are more effective than a Queen and Bishop, yet this is not always true and the less tutored intuition will sometimes prove correct.  Similarly, the better player may think that an endgame of Bishops of opposite color is more likely to be drawn, and often that is true.  Yet in other situations those ill-matched Bishops can yield an attacking advantage to the player with the better command of space, and so on.

I believe there are analogous concepts for economics and also philosophy, probably for other disciplines too.  For instance in economics I wonder if a person with less knowledge of open economy macroeconomics might sometimes end up making better forecasts.  Many anti-elitist theories of politics imply these phenomena can be true in a broad range of situations, Brexit for instance according to some.

Here is David Goodhart writing about the UK:

…while many people in the top 20 or 30 per cent of the educational and economic hierarchy have become less attached to national social contracts in the past couple of generations, most people have actually become MORE attached to them. There are several reasons for this. The welfare state has been expanding not contracting in recent decades—think tax credits and the rise of housing benefit—and although state employment overall has been in decline, if you live in some of the most run down parts of Britain you are more likely than ever to be employed by the state. The fragmentation and disappearance of a once familiar industrial working class culture and the declining status of much non-graduate employment may also have contributed to a greater attachment to the symbols and benefits of national citizenship. The loss of tight local communities may have produced a stronger attachment to the imagined community of the nation. And the benefits of national belonging CAN be diminished by European integration and rapid, large scale immigration: this is not merely false consciousness.

The article is of more interest generally, and for the pointer I thank Alex X.

Risen:

Scots

Those predicting Irish unity within a generation

The Irish

David Goodhart

Pollsters

Fallen:

David Cameron and Co.

Angela Merkel

Jeremy Corbyn

The Governor of Gibraltar

Advocates of economic self-interest theories of voting

Julien Benda

Those who pooh-poohed “backlash” objections to open borders

Those long the zloty

Prime Minister Abe

Old people

People

Still unknown

Boris Johnson

Central bankers

Vladimir Putin

Zhou En-Lai

There is audio, video, and transcript at the link.  I introduced Cass like this:

The Force is strong with this one. Cass is by far the most widely cited legal scholar of his generation. His older book, Nudge, and his new book on Star Wars are both best sellers, and he was head of OIRA [Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs] under President Obama from 2009 to 2013. Powerful, you have become.

So tonight I’d like to start with a survey of Cass’s thought. We’re going to look at legal theory and then go to Nudge and then consider Star Wars, how it all ties together, and then we’re going to talk about everything.

On every point Cass responded clearly and without evasion.  We talked about judicial minimalism, Bob Dylan’s best album, the metaphysics of nudging, Possession, the ideal size of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of Yoda, Hayek, why people should choose their own path, the merits of a banned products store, James Joyce, why the prequels are underrated, and which of the first six movies is the worst of the lot.  Here is one bit:

COWEN: Let’s take a concrete example from real life: Jedi mind tricks. Obi-Wan comes along and says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And what does the stormtroooper do? He goes away. Now, is that a nudge?

SUNSTEIN: No, it’s a form of manipulation. So — .

[laughter]

COWEN: OK, but how do you draw the metaphysical categories? It seems like a nudge that just happens to work all the time.

SUNSTEIN: OK. I’ll give you a quick and dirty way of getting at that…

Here is another:

COWEN: If you were to pick one character from Star Wars who would nudge you — you get to elect them; you’re the only vote. Even Samantha doesn’t get a vote, just Cass — not your children — which character would you pick? Whom would you trust with that nudge? It’s a universe full of Jedi here, right?

SUNSTEIN: Yoda.

COWEN: Yoda?

SUNSTEIN: I trust that guy.

COWEN: But I worry about Yoda.

SUNSTEIN: I trust him.

Finally:

SUNSTEIN: Thank God for libertarian paternalism, that Luke has a choice. The Sith, by the way, like the Jedi, respect freedom of choice. In the crucial scene in Episode III where the question is whether Anakin is going to save the person who would be emperor, he says, “You must choose.” And so there’s full respect for freedom of choice. Nudgers have that. Good for them.

COWEN: Bad guys always tell you the deal, and then they say, “Choose evil.” It seems the good guys always mislead you.

There’s this funny tension. Star Wars makes me more nervous about nudge. I’m not like this huge anti-nudge guy, but when I look at Obi-Wan and Yoda lying to Luke — “Ben, Ben, Ben, why didn’t you tell me?” How many times have I heard that in these movies?

SUNSTEIN: It’s fair to ask whether Obi-Wan and Yoda had it right.

There is much, more more…self-recommending!

View story at Medium.com

The robot administers a small pin prick at random to certain people of its choosing.

The tiny injury pierces the flesh and draws blood.

Mr Reben has nicknamed it ‘The First Law’ after a set of rules devised by sci-fi author Isaac Asimov.

He created it to generate discussion around our fear of man made machines. He says his latest device shows we need to prepare for the worst

‘Obviously, a needle is a minimum amount of injury, however – now that this class of robot exists, it will have to be confronted,’ Mr Reben said on his website.

Here is more, with pictures of (slightly) injured humans, via the excellent Mark Thorson.

A reader has been asking me this question, and my answer is…no!

Don’t get me wrong, I still think it is a stimulating and wonderful book.  And if you don’t believe me, here is The Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Hanson’s book is comprehensive and not put-downable.

But it is best not read as a predictive text, much as Robin might disagree with that assessment.  Why not?  I have three main reasons, all of which are a sort of punting, nonetheless on topics outside one’s areas of expertise deference is very often the correct response.  Here goes:

1. I know a few people who have expertise in neuroscience, and they have never mentioned to me that things might turn out this way (brain scans uploaded into computers to create actual beings and furthermore as the dominant form of civilization).  Maybe they’re just holding back, but I don’t think so.  The neuroscience profession as a whole seems to be unconvinced and for the most part not even pondering this scenario.

2. The people who predict “the age of Em” claim expertise in a variety of fields surrounding neuroscience, including computer science and physics, and thus they might believe they are broader and thus superior experts.  But in general claiming expertise in “more” fields is not correlated with finding the truth, unless you can convince people in the connected specialized fields you are writing about.  I don’t see this happening, nor do I believe that neuroscience is somehow hopelessly corrupt or politicized.  What I do see the “Em partisans” sharing is an early love of science fiction, a very valuable enterprise I might add.

3. Robin seems to think the age of Em could come about reasonably soon (sorry, I am in Geneva and don’t have the book with me for an exact quotation).  Yet I don’t see any sign of such a radical transformation in market prices.  Even with positive discounting, I would expect backwards induction to mean that an eventual “Em scenario” would affect lots of prices now.  There are for instance a variety of 100-year bonds, but Em scenarios do not seem to be a factor in their pricing.

Robin himself believes that market prices are the best arbiter of truth.  But which market prices today show a realistic probability for an “Age of Em”?  Are there pending price bubbles in Em-producing firms, or energy companies, just as internet grocery delivery was the object of lots of speculation in 1999-2000?  I don’t see it.

The one market price that has changed is the “shadow value of Robin Hanson,” because he has finished and published a very good and very successful book.  And that pleases me greatly, no matter which version of Robin is hanging around fifty years hence.

Addendum: Robin Hanson responds.  I enjoyed this line: “Tyler has spent too much time around media pundits if he thinks he should be hearing a buzz about anything big that might happen in the next few centuries!”

Very often they are passed down father to son.  Here is a recent paper by Avdeenko and Siedler:

This study analyzes the importance of parental socialization on the development of children’s far right-wing preferences and attitudes towards immigration. Using longitudinal data from Germany, our intergenerational estimates suggest that the strongest and most important predictor for young people’s right-wing extremism are parents’ right-wing extremist attitudes. While intergenerational associations in attitudes towards immigration are equally high for sons and daughters, we find a positive intergenerational transmission of right-wing extremist party affinity for sons, but not for daughters. Compared to the intergenerational correlation of other party affinities, the high association between fathers’ and sons’ right-wing extremist attitudes is particularly striking.

Here is a sentence from the paper:

Young adults whose parents were very concerned about immigration to German during their childhood years have a 27 percentage point (60 percent) higher likelihood of also expressing strong concerns about immigration as young adults.

This of course should make you less confident of your anti-immigrant views, if indeed you hold them.  Similarly, the intergenerational transmission of particular religious beliefs is also a strong reason not to be very confident in them.  If you get your religious beliefs from your parents and other relatives, through whatever mechanism, rather than from God, well…why are your parents a more reliable source of knowledge about this question than anyone else’s parents?

That is a William Hazlitt essay from the Edinburgh Magazine of 1828, reprinted in Table-Talk (scroll to p.165), focusing on why the political uses of nicknames are so problematic.  It retains some relevance today:

The only meaning of these vulgar nicknames and party distinctions, where they are urged most violently and confidently, is, that others differ from you in some particular or other (whether it be opinion, dress, clime, or complexion), which you highly disapprove of, forgetting that, by the same rule, they have the very same right to be offended at you because you differ from them.  Those who have reason on their side do not make the most obstinate and grievous appeals to prejudice and abusive language.

…a nickname…is a disposable force, that is almost always perverted to mischief.  It clothes itself with all the terrors of uncertain abstraction, and there is no end of the abuse to which it is liable but the cunning of those who employ, or the credulity of those who are gulled by it.  It is a reserve of the ignorance, bigotry, and intolerance of weak and vulgar minds, brought up where reason fails, and always ready, at a moment’s warning, to be applied to any, the most absurd purposes…a nickname baffles reply.

…the passions are the most ungovernable when they are blindfolded.  That malignity is always the most implacable which is accompanied with a sense of weakness, because it is never satisfied with its own success or safety.  A nickname carries the weight of the pride, the indolence, the cowardice, the ignorance, and the ill-nature of mankind on its side.  It acts by mechanical sympathy on the nerves of society.

…”A nickname is the heaviest stone that the devil can throw at a man.”

There is more excellent analysis at the link, most of all on how the uses of nicknames avoids and runs away from the careful making and unpacking of specific charges.  Hazlitt notes the nickname can on the surface sound quite innocent yet nonetheless be a form of powerful invective.  For a while the Whigs were called “the Talents,” yet in a manner reeking of implicit scorn.

From Hazlitt, here is another scary part:

I have heard an eminent character boast that he had done more to produce the late war by nicknaming Buonaparte “the Corsican,” than all the state papers and the documents put together.

Here is a brief summary of the essay.  Hazlitt remains under-read and underappreciated.

For the pointer to this essay I thank Hollis Robbins.