Month: April 2018

Derek Parfit’s photographs are going on display in London

Most of the paragraphs in this Jonathan Derbyshire FT article are excellent, here is one of them:

Sokolsky-Tifft recalls Parfit quoting a line from Homer in the middle of a talk. “He started to weep because he found it so beautiful. That was when I first started to get the idea that this was a man with a strange heart, for whom art was always bubbling beneath the surface of these logical arguments.”


Parfit attributed his obsession with a handful of places — he once said that there were only 10 things in the world he wanted to photograph — to a condition called aphantasia, the inability to form mental images. He was unable to visualise things familiar to him, even his wife’s face when they weren’t together.

Recommended, the work is first-rate, as is the article, and subscribe to the FT if you must.

Richard Baldwin on the New Globalization

To really understand how this changed the nature of globalization, consider a sports analogy. Suppose we have two football teams, one that needs a quarterback but has too many linebackers, and one that needs a linebacker but has too many quarterbacks. If they sit down and trade players, both teams win. It’s arbitrage in players. Each team gets rid of players they need less of and gets players they need more of. That’s the old globalization: exchange of goods.

Now let’s take a different kind of exchange, where the coach of the better team goes to the field of the worse team and starts training those players in the off-season. This is very good for the coach because he gets to sell his knowledge in two places. You can be sure that the quality of the league will rise, all the games will get more competitive, and the team that’s being trained up will enjoy the whole thing. But it’s not at all certain that the players of the better team will benefit from this exchange because the source of their advantage is now being traded.

In this analogy, the better team is, of course, the G7, and not surprisingly this has led to some resentment of globalization in those countries. The new globalization breaks the monopoly that G7 labor had on G7 know-how…

That’s Richard Baldwin on the new globalization. His book, The Great Convergence is very good.

The monitoring culture that is China

…the workers wear caps to monitor their brainwaves, data that management then uses to adjust the pace of production and redesign workflows, according to the company.

The company said it could increase the overall efficiency of the workers by manipulating the frequency and length of break times to reduce mental stress.

Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric is just one example of the large-scale application of brain surveillance devices to monitor people’s emotions and other mental activities in the workplace, according to scientists and companies involved in the government-backed projects.

Concealed in regular safety helmets or uniform hats, these lightweight, wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety or rage.

The technology is in widespread use around the world but China has applied it on an unprecedented scale in factories, public transport, state-owned companies and the military to increase the competitiveness of its manufacturing industry and to maintain social stability.

That is from STephen Chen at SCMP, via someone forgotten over at Twitter.

*The Mind is Flat*

The author is Nick Chater and the subtitle is The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.  I found this to be one of the most interesting books on the mind I have read.  Overall the message is that your hidden inner life ain’t what you think:

According to our common-sense view, the senses map the outer world into some kind of inner copy, so that, when perceiving a book, table or coffee cup, our minds are conjuring up a shadowy ‘mental’ book, table or coffee cup.  The mind is a ‘mirror’ of nature.  But this can’t be right.  There can’t be a 3D ‘mental copy’ of these objects — because they don’t make sense in 3D.  They are like 3D jigsaw puzzles whose pieces simply don’t fit together.  The mind-as-mirror metaphor can’t possibly be right; we need a very different viewpoint — that perception requires inference.

Take that Thomas Reid!  By the way:

This perspective has a further, intriguing and direct prediction: that we can only count colours slowly and laboriously…the apparent richness of colour is itself a trick — that our brains seem to be able to encode no more than one colour (or shape, or orientation) at a time.  But this is what the data tell us.

Here is perhaps the clincher:

…all of us perceive the world through a remarkably narrow channel — roughly a single word, object, pattern or property at a time.

So much of the rest is the top-down processing function of our minds filling in the gaps.

By the way, if you are told to shake your head up and down, nodding in agreement, while reciting a plausible argument, you will assign a higher truth value to that claim.  And emotion is more a “creation of the moment” rather than “an inner revelation.”  If you cross a dangerous bridge to meet up with a woman, thus raising your adrenalin levels, you are more likely to develop a crush on her, that sort of thing.

I cannot evaluate all of the claims in this book, and indeed I am partly skeptical in light of the rather scanty treatment given to cross-sectional variation across heterogeneous individuals.  Still, the author cites evidence for his major claims and applies reasonable and scientific arguments throughout.  I can definitely recommend this book to those interested in serious popular science treatments of the mind, and it is not simply a rehash of other popular science books on the mind.

The top link above is for U.S. Amazon orders, due out in August, I was very happy to have ordered from AmazonUK.

I believe this book was first recommended to me by Tim Harford.

Sunday assorted links

1. China honest yet untruthful job ad of the day.

2. “We thus do not find any strong support for the hypothesis that exposure to images of half-naked women impact economic preferences, but given the suggestive evidence for risk taking future studies should explore this further.

3. The last man who knew everything?  Recommended.

4. Taking religion seriously, including with Pierre Manent.

5. A long revisionist take on Captain James Tiberius Kirk, deeply wrong.

The Mirage of Data Portability

In The Facebook Trials: It’s Not “Our” Data I wrote:

Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it.

…Moreover, it’s the prospect of profits that has led Facebook and Google to invest in the technology and tools that have created “our data.” The more difficult it is to profit from data, the less data there will be. Proposals to require data to be “portable” miss this important point. Try making your Facebook graph portable before joining Facebook.

In an important post, Will Rinehart, adds detail:

Contrary to the claims of portability proponents, however, it isn’t data that gives Facebook power.

Facebook’s technology stack, the suite of technologies that it uses behind the scenes, clearly shows the importance of scaling, as much of the architecture was developed in-house to address the unique problems facing Facebook’s vast troves of data. Facebook created BigPipe to dynamically serve pages faster, Haystack to efficiently store billions of photos, Unicorn for searching the social graph, TAO for storing graph information, Peregrine for querying, and MysteryMachine to help with end-to-end performance analysis. Nearly all of this design is open for others to use, and has been a significant boon to programmers in the ecosystem. The company also invested billions in content delivery networks to quickly deliver video, and it split the cost of an undersea cable with Microsoft to speed up information travel.

The vast investment that Facebook has put into programs for understanding and processing its users’ data points to the fundamental flaw in the argument for data portability.

…Requiring data portability does little to deal with the very real challenges that face the competitors of Facebook, Amazon, and Google. Entrants cannot merely compete by collecting the same kind of data. They need to build better sets of tools to understand information and make it useful for consumers.

What are we learning from the Greek economic recovery?

Greece’s prospects look a lot brighter today. Gross domestic product grew by 1.4% last year, the first substantial annual rise since 2007, led by a sharp rise in investment. Business surveys show activity, new orders and hiring intentions at levels not seen for years. Economists expect around 2% growth this year.

Here is the full story (WSJ).  To the extent Greece’s problem was “demand only,” you would expect a much higher rate of bounce back.  To the extent Greece’s problem was in addition a) bad policy finally biting, interacting with the end of a boom, and b) multiple equilibria, with the world deciding Greece is a “Balkans economy” rather than a “West European” economy, you would expect growth rates of…one to two percent.

But if we start seeing 5-7 percent growth on the bounce back, that would imply a demand shortfall per se was the main culprit.  Keep in mind that (with some problematic measurement issues involved) at one point Greek per capita gdp had fallen by about 25 percent.

The reasonable yet revolutionary case for blockchain

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one central bit:

Other than using blockchains to organize cryptocurrencies, imagine using them to record and decide who can store information about you. The blockchain is thus a potential substitute for some functions of Facebook, a corporation. Or imagine using the blockchain to allocate rights to your attention in cyberspace, who can send you ads, and who can send you an actionable email or induce you to complete a task, the latter an idea from Balaji Srinivasan of Coinbase.

No, you don’t have to sit down and personally bid on all of these decisions, but your AI bots can use micropayments and trade with other AI bots, based on your initial instructions. This new method of governance holds out the promise of using market mechanisms to order your life online, rather than relying on monopolies to do it for you.

Or, say, virtual reality worlds come to pass, where people plug in to relax, to take an exciting one-hour trip to Paris from their sofa, or to have cybersex. The property rights in those worlds might be allocated by blockchains and cryptocurrencies, again assisted by AI.  That would create a parallel economy and indeed parallel legal systems, and those might spring up more rapidly than current administrative law will handle those new situations. In these new economies and legal systems that spring from blockchains, competition and rapid experimentation would be the norm.

I don’t think that all will happen, but in expected value terms it remains important.

What if you combined Robin Hanson and German higher education?

Students in Germany rated their curriculum, teaching and job prospects more highly when their universities were labeled “excellent” by the government — even though the award was unrelated to teaching, according to new research.

But this next sentence does not follow:

The results cast further doubt on the reliability of student satisfaction scores, a co-author of the study said.

Here is the full story by David Matthews.

Friday assorted links

1. “…less than 3% of statues in Britain depict real, non-royal women…

2. Armenian and Greek legacy in post-expulsion Turkey.  And seafaring Neandertals?

3. “Fitness-faking technology, which delivers the cues of status and sexual popularity, is evolving much faster than our minds can evolve to contend with them.” Link here.

4. Who’s complacent? (Germans)

5. A hypothesis.

6. Do cyberwars make it easier to de-escalate?  And Pakistan may soon have the world’s third largest nuke stockpile.

7. AlphaZero for the PC?

Josh Angrist Joins MRU!

Tyler and I are thrilled that Josh Angrist has agreed to teach a class at MRU, Mastering Econometrics! Josh will be teaching the “Furious Five” of econometrics: random assignment, regression, instrumental variables, regression discontinuity designs, and differences-in-differences methods based, of course, on his great book with Jörn-Steffen Pischke, Mastering Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect.

Josh’s course is in production and will begin later this year. Join up now to get notified as the course begins.

Modern Principles for principles of economics, Mastering Metrics for econometrics, MRU has it all!