Month: December 2018

The actuarial code of conduct, with David Wright

David posts:

While my interview guests are getting settled in I occasionally ask them to read out some of the actuarial code of conduct and we discuss it. I’m assembling those clips into some content for my paid actuarial continuing education channel which all actuaries should check out (and get those CE credits before year-end!).

When I did this with Tyler my little warmup act turned into an impromptu Conversations with Tyler where we explore what it means to be an actuary and whether he and I might start a competitor organization! We end with a discussion of fronting and I missed an opportunity to talk about fronting can enable competition among insurers but that will have to wait for another day!
Listen to the (10 min) clip here!

There is also a transcript at the link.  For some time now I’ve believed that the best podcasts would be the pre-podcast discussions held right before the podcast proper starts.

Monday assorted links

1. Henry on Tom Lehrer and IDW.

2. 536 A.D. sucked (Icelandic volcano at fault?).

3. Few people are trapped in filter bubbles.

4. The battle to control your mindfulness (WSJ).

5. “Not a single company has borrowed money through the $1.2tn US high-yield corporate bond market this month. If that drought persists, it would be the first month since November 2008 that not a single high-yield bond priced in the market…”  Here is more from the FT.

6. Why construction costs are rising.

7. Google meets Jane Jacobs.

Stunning Figures on Energy Efficiency

Over the past 60 years, the energy efficiency of ever-less expensive logic engines has improved by over one billion fold. No other machine of any kind has come remotely close to matching that throughout history.

Consider the implications even from 1980, the Apple II era. A single iPhone at 1980 energy-efficiency would require as much power as a Manhattan office building. Similarly, a single data center at circa 1980 efficiency would require as much power as the entire U.S. grid. But because of efficiency gains, the world today has billions of smartphones and thousands of datacenters.

From Mark Mills at Real Clear Energy.

Mid-level urban average is over?

Forty years ago, Nashville and Birmingham, Ala., were peers. Two hundred miles apart, the cities anchored metropolitan areas of just under one million people each and had a similar number of jobs paying similar wages.

Not anymore. The population of the Nashville area has roughly doubled, and young people have flocked there, drawn by high-paying jobs as much as its hip “Music City” reputation. Last month, the city won an important consolation prize in the competition for Amazon’s second headquarters: an operations center that will eventually employ 5,000 people at salaries averaging $150,000 a year.

Birmingham, by comparison, has steadily lost population, and while its suburbs have expanded, their growth has lagged the Nashville area’s. Once-narrow gaps in education and income have widened, and important employers like SouthTrust and Saks have moved their headquarters. Birmingham tried to lure Amazon, too, but all it is getting from the online retail giant is a warehouse and a distribution center where many jobs will pay about $15 an hour.

That is from Ben Casselman (NYT), interesting throughout.  Ben is yet another example of just how good the Times is at talent selection…

Measures of cultural distance

A new paper with many authors — most prominently Joseph Henrich — tries to measure the cultural gaps between different countries.  I am reproducing a few of their results (see pp.36-37 for more), noting that higher numbers represent higher gaps:

Distance from the U.S.

Algeria: 0.15

Australia: 0.03

Brazil: 0.07

Canada: 0.02

China: 0.17

Ecuador: 0.12

Egypt: 0.24

Ethiopia: 0.14

Georgia [the country]: 0.15

Hong Kong: 0.09

Indonesia: 0.19

Japan: 0.11

Malaysia: 0.12

Nigeria: 0.15

Switzerland: 0.06

Egypt is the most distant, then Yemen, with Canada as the closest.

As for cultural distance from China, we have:

Great Britain: 0.20

Hong Kong: 0.09

Japan: 0.14

Russia: 0.09 (not *so* far away)

Taiwan: 0.10

Vietnam: 0.06

Overall the numbers show much greater cultural distance of other nations from China than from the United States, a significant and under-discussed problem for China.  For instance, the United States is about as culturally close to Hong Kong as China is.

Sunday assorted links

1. “Our results reveal that biographies remain in our communicative memory the longest (20–30 years) and music the shortest (about 5.6 years).

2. Facial boarding.

3. Erik Torenberg free lunch list.

4. “In 2016, Marriott Hotels, which had 19 hotel brands, merged with Starwood, which had 11. They didn’t abolish any brands in the merger, and so the company faced a challenge: How to explain to customers, or even to its own employees, what makes all 30 of these brands different from each other.”  Here is more from Josh Barro.

5. New Egyptian tomb discovered, what else to come?

6. Daniel Gross podcast on Pioneer and talent discovery, with Erik Torenberg.

The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto

Tim May, physicist, libertarian-Randian, cypherpunk revolutionary, has died. Here is his Crypto-Anarchist Manifesto first published in 1992.

A specter is haunting the modern world, the specter of crypto anarchy.

Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re- routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. Reputations will be of central importance, far more important in dealings than even the credit ratings of today. These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation.

The technology for this revolution–and it surely will be both a social and economic revolution–has existed in theory for the past decade. The methods are based upon public-key encryption, zero-knowledge interactive proof systems, and various software protocols for interaction, authentication, and verification. The focus has until now been on academic conferences in Europe and the U.S., conferences monitored closely by the National Security Agency. But only recently have computer networks and personal computers attained sufficient speed to make the ideas practically realizable. And the next ten years will bring enough additional speed to make the ideas economically feasible and essentially unstoppable. High-speed networks, ISDN, tamper-proof boxes, smart cards, satellites, Ku-band transmitters, multi-MIPS personal computers, and encryption chips now under development will be some of the enabling technologies.

The State will of course try to slow or halt the spread of this technology, citing national security concerns, use of the technology by drug dealers and tax evaders, and fears of societal disintegration. Many of these concerns will be valid; crypto anarchy will allow national secrets to be trade freely and will allow illicit and stolen materials to be traded. An anonymous computerized market will even make possible abhorrent markets for assassinations and extortion. Various criminal and foreign elements will be active users of CryptoNet. But this will not halt the spread of crypto anarchy.

Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. And just as a seemingly minor invention like barbed wire made possible the fencing-off of vast ranches and farms, thus altering forever the concepts of land and property rights in the frontier West, so too will the seemingly minor discovery out of an arcane branch of mathematics come to be the wire clippers which dismantle the barbed wire around intellectual property.

Arise, you have nothing to lose but your barbed wire fences!

Addendum: Inspiring! But see my post The Demise of Crypto Anarchy from 15 years ago.

Deconstructing cultural codes

As I continue to do Conversations with Tyler, more people ask me about “the Tyler Cowen production function.”  Well, here is one piece of it I don’t think I’ve written about or talked about before.  I’m going to bring you there in slightly long-winded fashion, long-winded for a blog post that is.

I’ve long been convinced that “matters of culture” are central for understanding economic growth, but I’m also painfully aware these theories tend to lack rigor and even trying to define culture can waste people’s time for hours, with no satisfactory resolution.

So I thought I would tackle this problem sideways.  I figured the best way to understand culture was to try to understand or “crack” as many cultural codes as possible.  As many styles of art.  As many kinds of music.  As many complex novels, and complex classic books, and of course as many economic models as well.  Religions, and religious books.  Anthropological understandings.  I also learned two languages in my adult years, German and Spanish (the former better than the latter).  A bit later I realized that figuring out how an economic sector works — if only partially — was really not so different from cracking these other cultural codes.  For instance, once I spent three days on a boat (as keynote speaker), exclusively with people from a particular segment of the shipping trade.  It was like entering a whole new world and every moment of it was fascinating.

Eventually it seemed to me that problems of management were themselves a kind of cultural code, each one different of course.

And travel was the most potent form of this challenge, every new place a new culture to be unraveled and partially understood, and how much time was there to do that anyway?

It is very time-consuming — years-consuming — to invest in this skill of culture code cracking.  But I have found it highly useful, most of all for various practical ventures and also for dealing with people, and for trying to understand diverse points of view and also for trying to pass intellectual Turing tests.

I am not recommending this you at any particular margin, or at the margin I have invested in.  But if you ask me about the Tyler Cowen production function, every now and then I will tell you.

Addendum: It occurs to me that the number and diversity of cultural codes is increasing much faster than the ability of any individual to track them, much less master them.  In this regard, an understanding of matters cultural is always receding from us.

Alexa for animals

A peckish parrot has been caught ordering strawberries, a watermelon and even a water boiler through his foster owner’s electronic personal assistant.

Rocco, an African Grey, requested the items through an Alexa device while his minder was out of the home. Luckily, due to a parental lock, none of his attempted purchases went through.

Rocco, who lives with Marion Wischnewski in Berkshire, U.K., has attempted to order everything from kites and lightbulbs through Alexa since moving to her home. He also gets the device to tell him jokes and play his favorite tunes.

“I’ve come home before and he has romantic music playing,” Wischnewski told The Times of London. “He loves to dance and has the sweetest personality.”

Here is the story, via Michael Rosenwald.

Michael’s short review of *Stubborn Attachments*

From my email, he said this was the entirety of his review:

A reflection on how to best worship humans or some form of enduring human community as a god or gods. From a religious perspective, such an approach may at first seem illusory, but an attentive reader will be left wondering how close that illusion is to the actual truth.

Saturday assorted links

A social credit system for scientists?

Researchers in China who commit scientific misconduct could soon be prevented from getting a bank loan, running a company or applying for a public-service job. The government has announced an extensive punishment system that could have significant consequences for offenders — far beyond their academic careers.

Under the new policy, dozens of government agencies will have the power to hand out penalties to those caught committing major scientific misconduct, a role previously performed by the science ministry or universities. Errant researchers could also face punishments that have nothing to do with research, such as restrictions on jobs outside academia, as well as existing misconduct penalties, such as losing grants and awards.

“Almost all aspects of daily life for the guilty scientists could be affected,” says Chen Bikun, who studies scientific evaluation systems at Nanjing University of Science and Technology.

The policy, announced last month, is an extension of the country’s controversial ‘social credit system’, where failure to comply with the rules of one government agency can mean facing restrictions or penalties from other agencies.

The punishment overhaul is the government’s latest measure to crack down on misconduct. But the nature and extent of the policy has surprised many researchers. “I have never seen such a comprehensive list of penalties for research misconduct elsewhere in the world,” says Chien Chou, a scientific integrity education researcher at Chiao Tung University in Taiwan.

By David Cyranoski in Nature, via Michelle Dawson.

A Progressive review of *Stubborn Attachments*

By Joshua Kim, here are a few excerpts:

An oddity of Stubborn Attachments is that Cowen is reluctant to apply his pro-economic growth philosophy to real-world political choices.

[TC: that is on purpose of course]

Stubborn Attachments would have been more persuasive if Cowen was more willing to explore the implications of his philosophy on the political and policy choices before us. The question is, are progressive values are at odds with the belief that long-term economic growth is the engine of progress?


Nor does Cowen answer the question of at what point a wealthy society should be able to provide a measure of economic security to all of its citizens? Does the guarantee that work should come with a living wage and that everyone deserves access to health care and education incompatible with a long-term focus on economic progress?

As is always the case with a Cowen book, his writing will make you think. Stubborn Attachments is too abstract for my tastes.  But I’m happy to have spent 3.5 hours arguing with Cowen.

If he reads MR, he can always spend more.

Friday assorted links

1. “Contrary to expectations derived from social role theory, sex differences in physical aggression decrease as societal gender inequality increased. In regards to sexual selection theory, we find no evidence that sex differences in frequent fighting varies according to societal rule of law or income inequality.”  Link here.

2. Arnold Kling’s 93 pp. macro memoir.

3. Do people donate money to signal their intelligence?

4. Governance within the caravan.

5. Houllebecq on Trump.  And Peter Beinart on populism and gender lines, interesting stuff though the framing is too slanted.

6. Short interview with me on writing.