Month: July 2016

Will we understand why driverless cars do what they do?

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.

Letter from E.B. White

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.


(Signed, ‘E. B. White’)

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

Alternatively, you might try the thoughts of Langston Hughes.

From the comments, on reintegrated servicemen

…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.

The culture and polity that is Danish

Which Danish restaurant gained a third Michelin star in February 2016?

How many municipalities are there in Denmark?

In what constellation did the 16th-century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe discover a new star?

Questions such as those are part of a new Danish citizenship test so difficult that more than two-thirds of applicants who took it for the first time in June failed, the Integration Ministry confirmed this week.

Here is the NYT article, this one stumped me too:

Danish Radio recently asked the actor Morten Grunwald a question on the test: When was the premiere of the first movie about the Olsen Gang, a fictional criminal syndicate? Mr. Grunwald, a star of the film, replied, “That, I can’t even answer myself.” His memory was jogged when he was given the choices: 1968, 1970 or 1971. (It was 1968.)

I hope you have all seen the episodes of the TV show Borgen, one of my favorites.

Do we need IRBs for IRBs? And should they be for-profit?

“These are black boxes,” said Dr. Steven Joffe, a pediatric oncologist and bioethicist of the University of Pennsylvania, who serves on the FDA’s Pediatric Ethics Committee. “IRBs as a rule are incredibly difficult to study. Their processes are opaque, they don’t publicize what they do. There is no public record of their decision or deliberations, they don’t, as a rule, invite scrutiny or allow themselves to be observed. They ought to be accountable for the work they do.”

That is part of a longer and very interesting article on whether IRBs should be for-profit, or if we even at this point have a choice:

“This shift to commercial IRBs is, in effect, over,” said Caplan, who heads the division of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center. “It’s automatic and it’s not going back.”

Institutional review boards — which review all research that involves human participants — have undergone a quiet revolution in recent years, with many drug companies strongly encouraging researchers to use commercial boards, considered by many more efficient than their nonprofit counterparts.

Commercial IRBs now oversee an estimated 70 percent of US clinical trials for drugs and medical devices. The industry has also consolidated, with larger IRBs buying smaller ones, and even private equity firms coming along and buying the companies. Arsenal Capital Partners, for example, now owns WIRB-Copernicus Group.

But even if the tide has already turned, the debate over commercial review boards — and whether they can serve as human subject safety nets, responsible for protecting the hundreds of thousands of people who enroll in clinical trials each year — continues to swirl.

I am not well-informed in this area, but if you refer back to the first paragraph, perhaps nobody is.  That’s worrying.

For the pointer I thank Michelle Dawson.

Friday assorted links

1. Germany’s exporters don’t embrace the internet.

2. Is the new EU equilibrium to simply stop following the rules?

3. What is your favorite description of female beauty in literature?

4. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a deeply original movie, mostly about race, full of cinematic allusions (LOTR, First Blood, Smash Palace, classic Westerns, Butch Cassidy, Thelma and Louise, Deliverance, Mad Max, and so many more) and with Kiwi social finery as well.  None of the reviews I read seem to get it.

5. Do men or women cite themselves more?

6. Within-nation popularity of the game really matters, and the internet has not led to a convergence in chess skill across countries.

Library apartments, the culture that was New York

In the early to mid twentieth century, the majority of the city’s libraries had live-in superintendents. Like the superintendents who still live in many of the city’s residential buildings, these caretakers both worked and lived in the buildings for which they were responsible. This meant that for decades, behind the stacks, meals were cooked, baths and showers were taken, and bedtime stories were read. And yes, families living in the city’s libraries typically did have access to the stacks at night—an added bonus if they happened to need a new bedtime book after hours.

There is also this:

The family, who were joined by Rose Mary’s younger brother Terrence in 1945, lived in the library until Patrick Thornberry retired as the building’s superintendent in 1967. Their home was in what the library now refers to as the “closed stack” (a locked stack reserved for rare books). While the closed stack is currently sealed off to daylight to protect its rare contents, when the Thornberrys lived in the library, it was a light-filled and vibrant space. But the family was by no means confined to their apartment. They also enjoyed a penthouse-level garden and after hours, access to the library’s stacks and large reference rooms too.


Cait Etherington offers much more, including additional photos.  For the pointer I thank Ted Gioia.

What should I ask Margalit Fox?

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?

Thursday assorted links

1. Why won’t Venezuela default?

2. Rudolf Kálmán of the Kalman filter has passed away.  And NYT appreciation of Kiarostami.

3. In which countries does being a parent most and least contribute to happiness?  Also known as “The culture that is America.”

4. An excellent economic history reading list, from Pseudoerasmus.

5. In praise of Daunt and Waterstones.

6. Can you buy a “fairly sourced” smart phone?

7. Marie Kondo and her tidying enemies: ““I was always more comfortable talking to objects than people,” she told me.” (NYT)

Universities Without Ideological Diversity

It’s well known that among college and university faculty, liberals outnumber conservatives. Sam Abrams at Heterodox Academy presents some typical data:

The liberal-conservative ratio among faculty was roughly 2 to 1 in 1995. By 2004 that figure jumped to almost 3 to 1. While seemingly insignificant, that represents a 50% decline in conservative identifiers on campuses. After 2004, the ratio changed even more dramatically and by 2010, was close to 5 to 1 nationally. This shows that political diversity declined rapidly in our nation’s centers for learning and social change.

What’s more surprising is how extreme the difference is in one part of the country: New England. For college and university faculty in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont – the liberal to conservative ratio is above 25 to 1!

In the figure below the liberal to conservative ratio is graphed for faculty in New England and in the rest of the country. The green line at the bottom graphs the ratio in the population at large. Universities everywhere are not as balanced as the general population but New England is like another country.

Do conservative professors face discrimination? Defenders of the universities have argued, sometimes quite cogently (but compare), that professors tend to be more liberal than the general population not because of discrimination but because of factors like education, income, or social class. The universities can hardly be blamed if the people who want to become professors tend to be liberal! But large geographic differences in the ratio of liberals to conservatives suggests that this may not be the full story. Somehow I suspect that conservatives professors would be quite happy to live and work in New England should they be offered jobs in that part of the country.

What I’ve been reading

1. Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.  Super short, large print, and in some places too speculative.  Still, this is one of the better books for understanding why 2016 seems to be running off the tracks.

2. Stevyn Colgan, Why Did the Policeman Cross the Road? How to Solve Problems Before They Arise.  How one very smart and analytical policeman thinks about the problems he encounters in his daily job.  No single part wowed me or revolutionized my ideas, but smart and thoughtful throughout.

3. Conversations with Roger Scruton.  A good introduction to Scruton’s overall thought, your opinion of this book will match your opinion of him.

4. Marwa Al-Sabouni, The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect.  A poignant and readable take on what has happened in the city of Homs, Syria, through the lens of how the architecture of a city shapes its politics, norms, and liberties, including how it ends up getting destroyed in wartime.

5. Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and ProphetDue out in February, the UK edition is already out.  Substantive and delightful on every page, this is one of my favorite non-fiction titles of the year so far, an excellent book all around.

6. Peter Parker, Housman Country: Into the Heart of England.  A lovely book, and what a wonderful opening summary bit: “My principal intention has been to investigate what I have called ‘Housman Country’, an English sensibility in which literature, landscape, music and emotion all play their part, and which finds one of its most perfect expressions in Housman’s poetry.”

I bought all of those in the UK.

Why a weaker pound won’t help the UK so much?

There is no question a cheaper Pound will help some companies but it depreciation is most unlikely to offset other economic problems the UK is going to encounter. Unlike the 1990s:

–   the Pound is not starting from a  chronically overvalued position

  • world trade is stagnating and there is no productivity miracle occurring, as there was then with information technology
  • China and several major emerging markets have lapsed into a growth hiatus of unknown duration, when in the earlier period they were starting to make their presence felt
  • global growth is weak and fragile, whereas it was accelerating quickly 20 years ago
  • the UK’s balance of payments deficit is a large 7 per cent of GDP, about 3 times as big as it was before the ERM debacle, and lack of confidence in the Pound could make financing the deficit more troublesome

You should note that the Pound has been falling since it reached $1.71 in July 2014, and yet the UK’s trade and external payments  position has gotten steadily worse. In the first quarter of 2016, the UK’s trade deficit was the biggest recorded since 2008. So don’t let anybody tell you that a cheaper currency, plain and simple, is a good thing for the economy. It depends.

That is from a good post by George Magnus.

Italian banking is the next shoe to drop

Scott Sumner refers to The Second DominoVia Kevin Drum, the WSJ reports:

In Italy, 17% of banks’ loans are sour. That is nearly 10 times the level in the U.S., where, even at the worst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, it was only 5%. Among publicly traded banks in the eurozone, Italian lenders account for nearly half of total bad loans.

This is potentially a bigger story than Brexit, as it has the potential to bring the entire eurozone to its knees.  The notion of a bail-in already has been discarded, with Merkel’s blessing, as most people realize that would lead to unmanageable runs on eurozone banks.

Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone, and so it is not so easy to bail out on a large scale.  Germany and France have elections pending, and they are not keen to put in money in any case, not after the Greek debacle.  In terms of per capita income, Italy has not seen real growth in over fifteen years, and so a bigger than expected bank bailout would be tough for them to swallow.

Here is Zero Hedge for one of the more dramatic views.

In principle an Italian wealth tax could pay off the implied debts, but that is probably unacceptable; an attempt at such a tax was repealed rather rapidly a few years ago.  Otherwise Italy is short of money and Germany doesn’t want to be left holding the bag, with that commitment being tougher to swallow once various country “exits” are on the table.  In terms of politics, Italy is possibly facing a constitutional crisis and governance vacuum of sorts, with a pending referendum and no option in sight to make the people happy.

The key is to avoid potential bank runs and Italy and elsewhere, but how?  It’s not that hard or costly to switch money from one eurozone bank to another, and the Italian government is counting on a lot of inertia here.  So this is a tough one.

Wednesday assorted links

1. The Canadian government is considering gender-neutral ID.  And Toronto is better than you think.  And “Angus is the first certified dog in Canada enlisted to detect the bacteria in hospitals.

2. Will Amazon actually move away from giving list prices? (NYT)

3. Veracities, on what gets into the top economics journals and why and how.

4. Only a few weeks ago I had indicated there were only white swans in Lake Geneva.  Since that time a black swan has been introduced, much to the consternation of some of the Swiss.

5. The culture that is Icelandic football, written before their recent upsets.

6. There are way fewer job ads post-Brexit vote.

7. And Pablo’s pet hippos are still an issue.

Robot Cars: The Case for Laissez-Faire

Very few people imagined that self-driving cars would advance so quickly or be deployed so rapidly. As a result, robot cars are largely unregulated. There is no government testing regime or pre-certification for robot cars, for example. Indeed, most states don’t even require a human driver because no one imagined that there was an alternative. Many people, however, are beginning to question laissez-faire in light of the first fatality involving a partially-autonomous car that occurred in May and became public last week. That would be a mistake. The normal system of laissez-faire is working well for robot cars.

Laissez-faire for new technologies is the norm. In the automotive world, for example, new technologies have been deployed on cars for over a hundred years without pre-certification including seatbelts, air bags, crumple zones, abs braking systems, adaptive cruise control and lane departure and collision warning systems. Some of these technologies are now regulated but regulation came after these technologies were developed and became common. Airbags began to be deployed in the 1970s, for example when they were not as safe as they are today but airbags improved over time and by the 1990s were fairly common. It was only in 1998, long after they were an option and the design had stabilized, that the Federal government required airbags in all new cars.

Lane departure and collision warning systems, among other technologies, remain largely unregulated by the Federal government today. All technologies, however, are regulated by the ordinary rules of tort (part of the laissez-faire system). The tort system is imperfect but it works tolerably well especially when it focuses on contract and disclosure. Market regulation also occurs through the insurance companies. Will insurance companies given a discount for self-driving cars? Will they charge more? Forbid the use of self-driving cars? Let the system evolve an answer.

Had burdensome regulations been imposed on airbags in the 1970s the technology would have been delayed and the net result could well have been more injury and death. We have ignored important tradeoffs in drug regulation to our detriment. Let’s avoid these errors in the regulation of other technologies.

The fatality in May was a tragedy but so were the approximately 35,000 other traffic fatalities that occurred last year without a robot at the wheel. At present, these technologies appear to be increasing safety but even more importantly what I have called the glide path of the technology looks very good. Investment is flowing into this field and we don’t want to forestall improvements by raising costs now or imposing technological “fixes” which could well be obsolete in a few years.

Laissez-faire is working well for robot cars. Let’s avoid over-regulation today so that in a dozen years we can argue about whether all cars should be required to be robot cars.