Month: June 2016

*Continental Drift*

The author is Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon and the subtitle is Britain and Europe from the End of Empire to the rise of Euroscepticism.  It is maybe the best book to read on Britain’s earlier relations with the European Union.  Here is one bit:

The vast majority of the Labour Party was anti-EEC, believing that it was a capitalist conspiracy that would undermine Britain’s control of its own industry.

That was during the 1960s.  And this:

When it awoke on the morning of 1 January 1973 as a full member of the European Economic Community (EEC), the British public was deeply ambivalent.  In a poll taken 3-7 January 1973, 36 percent of the public reported being ‘quite or very pleased’; 33 percent were ‘quite or very displeased’ and an astonishing 20 percent purported to be ‘indifferent’ (the remaining 11 p cent were undecided, but not indifferent.

By August 1973, 52 per cent were opposed and only 32 per cent still in favor.

Definitely recommended, a book for our times.

Thursday assorted links

AI Downs Fighter Pilot

Popular Science: A pilot A.I. developed by a doctoral graduate from the University of Cincinnati has shown that it can not only beat other A.I.s, but also a professional fighter pilot with decades of experience. In a series of flight combat simulations, the A.I. successfully evaded retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Gene “Geno” Lee, and shot him down every time. In a statement, Lee called it “the most aggressive, responsive, dynamic and credible A.I. I’ve seen to date.”

What’s the most important part of this paragraph? The fact that an AI downed a professional fighter pilot? Or the fact that the AI was developed by a graduate student?

In the research paper the article is based on the authors note:

…given an average human visual reaction time of 0.15 to 0.30 seconds, and an even longer time to think of optimal plans and coordinate them with friendly forces, there is a huge window of improvement that an Artificial Intelligence (AI) can capitalize upon.

The AI was running on a $35 Raspberry Pi.

AI pilots can plan and react far quicker than human pilots but that is only half the story. Once we have AI pilots, the entire plane can be redesigned. We can build planes today that are much faster and more powerful than anything that exists now but the pilots can’t take the G-forces even with g-suits, AIs can. Moreover, AI driven planes don’t need ejector seats, life-support, canopies or as much space as humans.

The military won’t hesitate to deploy these systems for battlefield dominance so now seems like a good time to recommend Concrete Problems in AI Safety, a very important paper written by some of the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence. The paper examines practical ways to design AI systems so they don’t run off the rails. In the Terminator movie, for example, Skynet goes wrong because it concludes that the best way to fulfill its function to safeguard the world is to eliminate all humans–this is an extreme example of one type of problem, reward hacking.

Imagine that an agent discovers a buffer overflow in its reward function: it may then use this to get extremely high reward in an unintended way. From the agent’s point of view, this is not a bug, but simply how the environment works, and is thus a valid strategy like any other for achieving reward. For example, if our cleaning robot is set up to earn reward for not seeing any messes, it might simply close its eyes rather than ever cleaning anything up. Or if the robot is rewarded for cleaning messes, it may intentionally create work so it can earn more reward. More broadly, formal rewards or objective functions are an attempt to capture the designer’s informal intent, and sometimes these objective functions, or their implementation, can be “gamed” by solutions that are valid in some literal sense but don’t meet the designer’s intent. Pursuit of these “reward hacks” can lead to coherent but unanticipated behavior, and has the potential for harmful impacts in real-world systems. For example, it has been shown that genetic algorithms can often output unexpected but formally correct solutions to problems [155, 22], such as a circuit tasked to keep time which instead developed into a radio that picked up the regular RF emissions of a nearby PC.

Concrete Problems in AI Safety asks what kind of general solutions might exist to prevent or ameliorate reward hacking when we can never know all the variables that might be hacked? (The paper looks at many other issues as well.)

Competitive pressures on the battlefield and in the market mean that AI adoption will be rapid and AIs will be placed in greater and greater positions of responsibility. Firms and governments, however, have an incentive to write piecemeal solutions to AI control for each new domain but that is unlikely to be optimal. We need general solutions so that every AI benefits from the best thinking across a wide range of domains. Incentive design is hard enough when applied to humans. It will take a significant research effort combining ideas from computer science, mathematics and economics to design the right kind of incentive and learning structures for super-human AIs.

Greece fact of the day

The combination of mass joblessness, wage cuts, and higher taxes means disposable household incomes have fallen even further. To make up the difference, Greeks have been eating into their savings. In 2006-2009, the personal savings rate averaged about 6 per cent. In 2015, the rate was -6 per cent.

The total amount of dis-saving since mid-2011 implies Greek households have eaten into €19bn worth of savings even as their living standards have cratered. For comparison, the financial accounts published by the Bank of Greece indicate €36bn in household bank deposits and cash, including deposits in non-Greek banks and foreign currency, disappeared over the same period…

Greek households have cut their investment spending even further, from about a fifth of disposable income in 2007 to just 2 per cent in 2015.

…Greece’s capital stock has been shrinking by about 6 to 7 per cent of output since 2012…

In other words, the collapse of Greece is worse than we had thought.  That is from Matthew C. Klein.

What should I ask Michael Orthofer?

Soon I will be recording a podcast-only, no live attendance, no live video Conversations with Tyler with Michael Orthofer.  Michael runs the site Literary Saloon and is perhaps the world’s most productive book reviewer and book review blogger, with a focus on foreign fiction translated into English.  Michael is a deeply devoted infovore, and I expect this to be one of the most interesting conversations in the series.

Here is my short review of Michael’s big book on world literature: “If you measure book quality by the actual marginal product of the text, this is one of the best books written, ever.  Reading the manuscript in draft form induced me to a) write an enthusiastic blurb, and b) order about forty items through Amazon, mostly used of course.  The book is basically a comprehensive guide to what is valuable and interesting in recently translated world literature, a meta-book so to speak, with extensive coverage of most of the countries you might want.”

Here is the New Yorker profile of Orthofer:

“I can’t imagine not doing it,” Orthofer told me. “A day in which I don’t read or write, I have trouble falling asleep.” His goal is to read a book a day, though he confesses that this is “unrealistic.” He works on weekends, too, and has written four novels that are in the drawer. His main interests, according to the site, are inline roller-skating in Central Park and building snow sculptures, some of which are big enough that he carves staircases inside them to get to the top. When he tires of working, he steps out to a library or bookstore, “to see, be around books.” Last year, and this year, he worked through Christmas.

OK, so what should I ask Michael?  Comments are open.

Addendum: Here are previous installments of Conversations with Tyler.

Stupid is as stupid does

Speaking at the end of a summit in Brussels where EU leaders started trying to pick through the wreckage after David Cameron’s referendum defeat, Mr Hollande warned that it would be unacceptable for clearing — a crucial stage in trading of derivatives and equities — to take place in the UK.

“The City, which thanks to the EU was able to handle clearing operations for the eurozone, will not be able to do them,” he said. “It can serve as an example for those who seek the end of Europe . . . It can serve as a lesson.”

Here is the FT story.  Note that London’s financial elites don’t need such a warning, whereas to the general citizenry it confirms the portrait of the EU as an anti-British regulatory tyrant.  You may recall France already tried to take clearing rights away from the UK, and that was well before the Brexit vote, so the French don’t exactly have the moral high ground here.  Nor should Hollande pretend that he can speak for the entire EU, as that personalizes the conflict in a way which is unhelpful and takes the EU further away the idea of the rule of law.  Merkel has the better instinct of simply talking to the British calmly and trying to de-escalate the issue.

One argument against Brexit, and in favor of a literal conservatism in many spheres of life, is simply that big changes can induce a lot of stupidity from the other players in the system.  Even though Hollande’s response is in some ways understandable, to pronounce it as if he is the sultan of such matters, and at such a delicate moment, is almost certainly…stupid.

Who else might do something stupid?  Putin?  Juncker?  The Dutch or Austrians?

For many international policy issues, it is worth asking the simple question: “which action or inaction of mine is likely to induce the smallest number of stupid actions in response?”  That won’t always give you the right answer, but often it is a good place to start.

How many states require high school students to take classes in economics?

The answer seems to be twenty, seventeen for personal finance.  Here is a full report on that topic (pdf).  Most of those states are in the South, plus CA, NY, IN, and MI.  Virginia is often considered the national leader with regard to actual substance and quality.

Here is my previous post on economics education in high school.

The pointer is from Carrie Sheffield, founder of the web site Bold.

What are the other lessons of the Brexit vote?

Offhand I can think of at least four.  I would suggest these as options to consider, rather than verified:

1. The comparative advantage of the largest nations is greater than before.  The UK stands relatively powerless vis-a-vis the EU, and the EU itself may be dissolving or at least weakening.  There is talk of “Nexit” for the Netherlands, yet they are far less well equipped than is the UK to go it alone without the EU.  The larger nations have long been a mess, and still are, but the smaller nations cannot coordinate as well as we thought.

2. Brexit is another example of the 1990s unraveling or being reversed.  It is hard to imagine that Brexit would have succeeded against the EU of 1985, which among other things still had border checks, Benelux aside.  So when exactly did the EU “grow too big for its britches,” at least from an English point of view?  I believe this has to be dated back to the 1990s, under Tony Blair, with a second episode coming after the boost in Eastern European migration after 2004, but the liberation of the east was ultimately a 1990s phenomenon as well.

3. Perhaps the law is so complicated, and politics now so dysfunctional, that contemporary governments just can’t handle crises any more.  Arguably the USA and UK governments spent their political capital during the financial crisis of 2008 (“trust us on these bailouts”), and they just don’t have enough left in the trust bank.  Thus we observe a near-complete paralysis of the British government, with even — especially — the opposition in complete disarray.  The existence of party discipline often feels fruitful, but it also means the lack of party discipline can lead to a crisis too readily, unlike in the United States, where there is sometimes party unity but rarely much party discipline.

4. More generally, might the Parliamentary system be worse than many people think?  I’ve seen it praised so many times in the blogosphere for its clean, swift, up or down properties.  But when there is a leadership void, it hits the legislative and executive branches together, and either before or after the void it is possible to shift very badly off course very rapidly.  There are fewer intermediate institutions or checks and balances to set things right, and as Martin Wolf noted: “36 per cent of eligible voters have been allowed to decide “without any appropriate checks and balances””.  The suddenness of the Brexit problems could not happen easily in the United States, and along a number of fronts the American system of government is looking pretty good these days.  For now.  So many trials of endurance!

We’ll see, but those are at least worth a ponder.

Risen in status: Buchanan and Tullock for The Calculus of Consent, Ben Friedman for The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth.

Is there a market liberal case for Brexit?

Jacob Levy has a very good post on this topic, here is one bit from it:

There’s a level of popular belief that the EU enforces illiberal and market-unfriendly policies on Britain. On the fiscal side, here’s a comparison of British public spending as a share of GDP just before entry into the EU, and just before the Brexit vote:

1971: 42.0
1972: 40.8

2014: 41.8
2015: 40.8

(source)

Even when you add in the <1% of GDP that is paid to Brussels, this is just not a picture of a system that has forced Britain to become a big-spending social democracy. (Neither, of course, is it a picture of a system that has forced Britain into neoliberal austerity, a charge one hears from the left.)

Here is another:

According to the 2015 Economic Freedom of the World report’s overall measure for regulatory burden, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Ireland, and Romania are all less regulated than the UK. The most recent Heritage index of “business freedom” ranks Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Sweden ahead of the UK; for labor freedom, Denmark, Austria, and Ireland. In all these cases, these relatively-liberal EU countries compare favorably with other developed countries in or out of the EU.

Do read the whole thing, here are comments from Ilya Somin.

Canada to lift visa requirements for Mexico

The Government of Canada has made it a top priority to re-establish and strengthen our relationship with one of our most important partners, Mexico. To this end, Prime Minister Trudeau today announced Canada’s intention to lift the visa requirement for Mexican visitors to Canada beginning December 1, 2016. Lifting the visa requirement will deepen ties between Canada and Mexico and will increase the flow of travellers, ideas, and businesses between both countries.

Here is the link, via (if I recall correctly) Adam Ozimek in my Twitter feed.

Tuesday assorted links

1. Tim Taylor on BrexitBernanke on Brexit.  And Angus defends Brexit.

2. Michael Pollan defends psychedelic drugs.

3. Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld is one of the best and most revelatory exhibits I have seen.  Hardly anyone has heard of her, yet she was one of the very best nineteenth century artists.  Make sure you use the magnifying glass, from both short and long distances.

4. How can the USA get away with spending so little on long-term care?

5. On some cooperative benefits of war.

6. Is Danish mobility actually so high? (pdf)

Mahjong as signaling the culture that is Japan who needs higher ed?

Fifty Japanese graduates opted to gamble with their job prospects at a mahjong tournament set up by recruiters looking for a different way to find the next high flyer.

Held in a crammed mahjong outlet in downtown Tokyo, prospects competed against each other on Friday (June 24) to gain the chance to face recruiters from six companies in the fitness, education, technology and real estate sectors.

“Mahjong is a very strategic game, so I think people who are good at it would be good at marketing. This is a new approach and I find it really interesting,” candidate Tomoko Hasegawa, who is aspiring to become a designer, told Reuters.

Here is more, via Edward Craig.

What kind of driverless cars do people want?

…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.

The notion of a “skill anomalous position”

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.

*Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World*

That is the new book by Ben Wilson, and no it has nothing (directly) to do with Brexit.  Rather it is a survey of the technological breakthroughs of the 1850s and how they reshaped Great Britain and the globe more generally.  Here is one short bit:

Japan may have secluded itself from the rest of the world, but it had not closed itself off.  That was a distinction that people in the West were slow to grasp.  The shogun’s court subscribed to the Illustrated London News, for example, and the bakufu had acquired books and papers detailing global politics and scientific discoveries through their Dutch and Chinese trading partners.  This knowledge was strictly regulated, but the seeds of scientific enlightenment were diffused in small numbers across the archipelago.  Perry did not know it — and nor did many Japanese — but his telegraph was not the first on Japanese soil.

Other parts of this book which I enjoyed were on the Great Geomagnetic Storm of 1859, how the British saw a connection between the U.S. Civil War, and the origins of Reuters.

If you want a new Brexit-relevant title of interest, try Brendan Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation.