Tuesday assorted links

1. Why is children’s TV so weird and mesmerizing?  A little slow at the beginning, but recommended.

2. Products Elad Gil wishes to see.

3. The empire strikes back: Dominic Cummings not allowed to hire civil servants directly.  And: “One of the UK’s top employment lawyers previously told the Guardian that the post was “quite outrageous from an employment law perspective”.”

4. Robert Trivers on Jeffrey Epstein.

5. Why some knots work and others do not.

6. Thirteen tips for engaging with physicists, from a biologist.

Comments

I don't understand: Boris Johnson has a huge majority in Parliament, why can't he just change the rules about how civil servants are hired?

He can, but until he does only civil servants can hire civil servants, and Dominic Cummings is a SpAd.

This makes clear what is the best advice you can give to Cummings and UK civil service reformers: you need to understand how an organization works before successfully reforming it. (In alternative, you *could* set up a parallel organization and slowly transfer resources and responsibilities to it, but this can go wrong in so many ways)

Given your lack of understanding, I cannot figure out why you thought hiring more civil servants helped anything..

Because his country is one election away from a very left-wing party in charge of the civil service, who would upset his donors far more than Oxbridge humanities graduates.

Perhaps because gphaving squandered your entire political capital to gratify the whim of a self professed leninist revolutionary is perhaps not how even an unconventional Conservative PM wishes to be remembered.

#1. --to conceal the malignancy of the technophilia and the developmental propaganda it spews?

Spending more time seated before screens and monitors than in the company of engaged and caring adults, today's tykes are being set up to become pious technophiles as they . . . mature.

3. Not sure what Trivers was thinking with this. He's almost 77, so maybe in his dotage a bit. Epstein is clearly a Big League version of Billy McFarland. Having an astute understanding of rich and influential targets can take you a long way in this world.

oops... #4.

“By the time they’re 14 or 15, they’re like grown women were 60 years ago, so I don’t see these acts as so heinous.”

Ouch. Yeah, that's not what you want to say in that situation.

3. The empire strikes back: Dominic Cummings not allowed to hire civil servants directly.

---

When the advice was called for I suggested the Bank of England be made independent of government, give it private sector non-profit status. Hence the problem, we are socialist idiots! We cannot help ourselves.

Had he taken my advice, this problem would not have occured.

#1 I remember as a child being mesmerized by Mr. Rogers. In hindsight it now reminds me of an MO like Tim Burtons but in the opposite direction. There was a lot of subconscious psychology in that show, and I think to an extent all childrens' programming. Depending on who you talk to we never really grow up, so there you go.

#3 See!?! See!?! The boomers and legacy boomer laws strike again!

#4 Mossad.

#5 That video is pretty cool.

Ghislaine Maxwell is still free.

What are the odds she ever faces a trial?

In keeping with Tyler's recent post on increasing difficulty with 'probability', by Bayesian Probability model regarding this whole situation is completely shot. In addition to her father being ex-Mossad (and the rumor she's currently in Israel at various safe-houses), my take would be she resurfaces after this begins to die down which A) could be quite some time and B) might never happen because that would just remind everyone that 'Epstein didn't kill himself'.

So odds are I can't even begin to predict the odds of what happens to her.

I'm going to give a few other things a shot though (a la Scott Alexander prediction for the New Year style...) accompanied by a percentage value of what I rate as their subjective chance of being true:

1) Epstein and Maxwell were intelligence assets/agents of 'a' government - 90%
2) Epstein and Maxwell were intelligence assets/agents of Israel - 60%
3) Epstein did in fact kill himself (you must keep in mind that they do administer this kind of training to high-level operatives) - 80%
4) Epstein did not in fact kill himself and died by some other as yet unidentified means - 50%
5) Epstein did not kill himself and was murdered. Probability yes/no - 40%. Probability yes/no ever finding out with certainty - 100%
6) More and more information will be revealed about his connections and a picture will begin to build - his handlers approval or not - of what he was doing and why - 100%
7) Additional careers not yet wrecked will be wrecked by him long after he's dead - 100%

(3) and (4) are exclusive events yet add up to 130 pct....

It said "subjective".

I’m gonna go with

1) it receives little to no media coverage by end of 2020 in any major outlets (nytimes, cnn) - 80%

2) Ghislaine Maxwell is never officially charged or brought before a court - 90%

3) by 2024 any mention of Epstein will be considered conspiracy level nuttery and an excuse to discredit the mentioner - 90%

My prediction vs. yours:

1) Gonna have to say 50%...I think this will go for a bit longer than 2020

2) 100% agreement

3) N/A - Not really applicable only because it's already considered conspiracy level nuttery as we speak. I will say that this will increase by 2024, so 100% agreement also

5. I've had Lefty Kreh's book on fly fishing knots for decades: it's the bible of fishing knots. From the link: "One observation from the study, as Patil explained to NPR, is that “twist is quite important in how knots behave.” Having lots of twists going in opposite directions along the knot can kind of lock it. “But if lots of twists are going in the same direction, then the whole thing can roll out.” Can't escape politics.

5. Philippe Petit, the guy who tightroped from one Twin Tower to the other back in 1974, wrote a good book about knots a few years ago called "Why Knot?" And he would know what a good knot is.

Agreed, a very entertaining and attractive book, and comes with a practice rope. I felt I'd never encountered such a perfect matching of credential and subject.

>“It seems like humans just lucked out and discovered some good knots,” says Patil, “but it’s kind of unclear how.”

That is some kick-ass insight. Thanks so much for the link, Ty!

#3: The The Iron Law of Bureaucracy strikes again!

3. A couple of interesting Letters to the Editor in response to the article.
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/03/dominic-cummings-the-civil-service-and-kafka

The first author, Chris Webster, has decided unsupported opinions and gets lost in the PC fools field when he speaks of Cummings lacking moral standing.

Steve Hsu also talks about Cummings initiative.
"Rule Britannia"
Note Added: Some of the media takes on Dom's job ad are extremely uncharitable. They (and the people they quote) assume Dom is entirely naive about when mathematical and computational methods might be useful, and when they might not. I suggest these people study his other writing carefully. For example:
More important than technology is the mindset – the hard discipline of obeying Richard Feynman’s advice: ‘The most important thing is not to fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.’ They
[quant types] were a hard floor on ‘fooling yourself’ and I empowered them to challenge everybody including me. They [quant types] saved me from many bad decisions even though they had zero experience in politics and they forced me to change how I made important decisions like what got what money. We either operated scientifically or knew we were not, which is itself very useful knowledge.

https://infoproc.blogspot.com/2020/01/rule-britannia.html

I don't yet understand exactly about what Jeffrey Epstein was being accused, specially because "child" and "rape" are much more ambiguous in English then in Portuguese (while "criança" is usually only until 13-14 and "violação" is only non-consensual sex, I think "children" is until 18 and "rape" includes also the case when the victim consented but is too young to consent) - non-consensual sex with small children? Consensual sex with small children? Non-consensual sex with teenagers? Consensual sex with teenagers?

What's the point of a comment like this, when Google is available to all, except to spread doubt about the idea that accusations of sex crimes are accusations of crimes, i.e. that sex crimes are crimes.

The point, as far as I can tell, is to distinguish between the legal and common-sense uses of the words "child" and "rape." They are quite different, and there is some value to pointing it out, albeit obliquely as Mr. Madeira did.

Sex trafficking involving minor girls (by a man in his 50s) and rape. Here is one example: "But she said she was firm about not wanting to have intercourse with Epstein. One day, however, the girl said that Epstein, unable to control himself, held her down on a massage table and penetrated her, the police report said."

See the Miami Herald article I linked to below.

3. Insights on institutions:
1. "General Electric looks nothing like it looked in 1975. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or Stanford look a lot like they looked in 1975. They’re about the same size to within a factor of two, they’re about the same number of buildings, they operate on about the same calendar, they have many of the same people or some number of the same people in significant positions. The main thing to say is that, for something that’s all about ideas and for something that’s all about young people, the pace of innovation in higher education is stunningly slow…

A number of universities have made what Clay Christensen would say is the first elementary error. They said that their MOOC efforts or their distance learning efforts are going to all be designed to be complementary of better education on their campuses.

There’s a certain logic to that in terms of faculty politics, in terms of faculty comfort, and all of that, but the essence of Clay Christensen’s lessons about disruptive innovation is if you want to do something all new you have to separate it from the original mission, not judge it by the standards of the original product, and let it be separate." - Larry Summers, 2017

2. "There is enormous inertia—a tyranny of the status quo—in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable." - Milton Friedman, 1982

3. "One reason many institutions today are weaker than counterparts were generations ago was that allocation of smart people got more efficient for certain definitions of efficient, and institutions no longer benefit from so much free lunch.

I don't know what to do with this belief, because on the one hand I rather like many institutions, but I don't particularly think they have a right to nosh on peoples' time and talents, and I think it feels unlikely that this genie goes back in the bottle.

"Can you give me an example?" The Catholic Church for much of recorded history, teaching as a profession prior to women having routine access to professional employment, the United States federal government between about 1920 and about 1960, etc." - Patrick McKenzie @patio11, 2019

4. I think that institutions (like the World Bank) are like people. They age, and they deteriorate, and at a certain time, you have to bury them and then build a new one." - Alain Bertaud, 2019

#3 is a new insight.

It is, but the sub-insight that women having greater access to professional employment has had horrendous consequences for children's education is not new, and is almost always considered too politically incorrect to discuss.

3. Maybe dashing Cummings' hopes of institutional experimentation from the inside out will make him a martyr and increase public support for it. Or maybe the inert risk-averse kludgeocracy won't change without a crisis.

I see why Robin Hanson was drawn to institution design. If large-scale change from fastest to slowest (noting some overlap) is:
1. Technological change
2. Social/cultural change
3. Institutional change

Then we should expect the most progress from changing our institutions, not our tech or our mores.

We've had/are experiencing an information revolution and a sexual revolution. How about an institutional revolution?

Maybe the even-slower individual-level change of biological evolution can be so sped up by gene editing that we can make institutions better by making the people running them better: more intelligent, diligent, and ambitious. A true change from the inside out. But by then homo sapiens might already be displaced by ems.

3. The original post obviously provoked a fair amount of commentary, and presumably, some number of actual responses cum applications.

But why make that post in the first place?

Come on, he's in the position whereby he can reasonably claim credit for the strategy behind two electoral victories, so it would probably be a mistake to assume that he is somehow stupid, so what's the point of the blog post?

As someone who has interacted a lot with both physicists and bioloogists, the piece here is interesting and also to see the contrasts of both with economics. On the matter of math and equations, we are closer to the physicists than to the biologists.

Curiously, on the matter of "optimization," we may be beyond both of them, emphasizing this far more than either. A big beef between economists and physicists has been the tendency of economists to emphasize our theoretical models with their foundation on economic rational optimizing, although behavioral economics is less into this. Physicists are much quicker to throw out economic theory when it seems to contradict empirical facts.

OTOH, a lot of evolutionary theorists buy into almost economist-style optimization theories with regard to evolutionary adaptation over time. Optimization per se does not enter into physics at all, near as I can see.

It is not obvious to me that physicists have a greater sense of humor than either biologists or economists. Do not think that one is field-specific. Suspect this guy is suffering from small sample bias.

"Optimization per se does not enter into physics at all, near as I can see."

Hamilton’s principle: The motion of a dynamical system in a given time interval is such as to extremise (usually minimise) the action integral.

In addition to the two examples above, there's also surface tension. From wikipedia: "Surface tension is the tendency of fluid surfaces to shrink into the minimum surface area possible."

Still, I think Barkley's got a point: these physics examples are about inanimate objects or forces, not about behavioral decisions. Economics AFAICT is nearly unique in both the social sciences and natural sciences with its notions of optimizing agents. With of course the exception of evolutionary sciences as Barkley mentioned.

Well, physics is basically ABOUT inanimate objects. Well, about the inanimateness of all objects: no matter what they intend, people dropping from a cliff will fall the same as a rock dropped from the cliff.

Optimization is found in ecology: an ecosystem tends to maximize energy throughput (with all the caveats about "tends to", local v. global maximum, etc.). The "selfish gene" metaphor is a giant optimization program, and it pervades the study of evolution and behavior.

6. Nice observation: "Compared with the good predictions from theory in physics, prediction in vast facets of biology, such as evolution, is more like stock-market cycles — discernible only in retrospect."

2. The most impact would come from a company developing a water and sewer module for conservatives so conservatives can build cheap housing for themselves cheaply. The module would be charged periodically with a 100 liters of water and a new biodegradable bag and then provide potable water for drinking and washing and process all waste into potable water plus undigested solid waste.

Such a module would allow as much housing to be crammed onto a patch of land without any government regulation, cost, taxes, involvement, as each housing unit is built around one of these modules. Any patch of land can support housing, desert, hard rock, an ocean craft.

And why would any devotee of private free markets want any roads. They cost too much, and god gave every conservative legs to walk wherever they need to go. (If god didn't provide legs, they are born a leftist.)

This is, of course, what people who live "off the grid" try to do now (generators for electricity having already been invented). However, I think most use roads :)

4. Unlike the Marginal Revolution commentariat and the rest of the world, Trivers, with his personal knowledge, actually has something to add to the sordid story of Jeffrey Epstein. Even though one may have no personal knowledge of the man there are still things that are being ignored in this story. First of all, there's no real evidence of forcible rape. The "underage" females that are the focus of public ire are old enough to have drivers licenses, cell phones and credit cards. If anyone is at fault in this drama it is the parents of these girls, who are responsible for their well-being until adulthood, age 26 according to Obama Care. Does a normal parent allow their child to fly off to some Caribbean island with a group of strangers? In the real world, these children are taken away from their parents and become wards of the state. That is, if they can actually be considered children. It's now illegal by federal law for minors to smoke cigarettes or "vape". Ergo a "child" of 20 years and 11months +, who can hold any number of dangerous jobs, will be violating the law by popping into a 7-11 for a pack of Marlboroughs, although the store clerk will be the one punished. It's time to recognize that post-pubescent females (and males) are biologically adults and that cultures that consider them children are fooling themselves and doing no favors to these young adults.

About 5 seconds of work on your part would have led you to the fact that Jeffrey Epstein initially became entangled with the law because of a complaint to police by a 14-year-old. Some other girls may have been as young as 13 when they were first molested by Epstein.

The point of Trivers' post is that the age of biological maturity is irrelevant.

Also irrelevant is your attempt to blame the parents. No one denies that Epstein exploited young girls who were from broken and sometimes abusive homes.

In case you are interested in facts, here is the original piece of investigative journalism that brought Epstein back in the news: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/article220097825.html

#6 is excellent and broadly applicable - great value can be generated by looking at one field with the lens of another.

That's the common mantra, but actual practitioners seem to think the opposite. The amount of time you have to invest in one field to truly understand the cutting edge problems makes interdisciplinary insight perhaps a less a winning strategy than is commonly thought (e.g. see Leahey, Erin et al, 2016).

It is impossible to square Trivers' proclaimed dedication to women at the end of that blog post with what he claims to have said about 14 or 15 year old girls. And the cold, clinical way he reckons with that bizarre statement fixates on his own feelings about the subject, rather the harm done to children and the guilt he should feel at having said something so dismissive about their pain.

I had never heard of Trivers until I read that blog post. I'm sorry that I have heard of him now.

It is interesting to compare the Epstein case to that of Roman Polanski. As recently as 11 years ago, a list of Hollywood luminaries wrote an open letter expressing their outrage that a man who stands credibly accused of drugging and then raping and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl should have to suffer the indignity of arrest. With Epstein, right up until he became persona non grata we also see a history of defenders saying variations of, "having sex with a 16-year-old is still legal in many places... 14, 15, 16, what's the difference?... it was consensual!... well, close enough to consensual that it shouldn't matter."

The lesson is that attitudes towards adults having sexual contact with young teenagers depends a lot on how much money the accused has and how important the accused is to the professional networks of influential people.

He was unknown to me also, and I neither care for Trivers' "dedication to women" nor for the sanctimony of commenters on this subject - but there are a lot of different kinds of prodigies out there. Math and soccer and violin don't cover it. Some young girls are prodigies at attracting men and always will be. Some men are Komarovskys, on the prowl for fatherless such girls. Few are Zhivagos, perhaps, but obviously most men know what's appropriate culturally, in the West, with respect to sexually mature girls, at any given moment, if not historically or even in future, and don't even need/want to think about it.

I don't see much connection between Epstein and Weinstein, but it's cool that the latter be judged, not because he matters individually or because these young actresses suffered any very great trauma by most measures in the world of "sex work", a prestige variety of which is really what most of them are engaged in and have been since Hollywood's beginnings - but just to remind everyone that we know it is wise to keep certain standards in place even if they are everywhere violated. Hypocrisy is almost always healthy, a good sign.

But it will be tedious if we have to pretend that this trial and accompanying fad puts an end to anything - that we can retire the word "nubile" once and for all - and then further pretend to be outraged over and over when it does nothing of the kind.

Though the whole thing* sharply illustrates the elevation of the magic power of "words" over "deeds" that suggests we only had farther and harder to fall from the age of chivalry than even a Ford Madox Ford could have imagined a hundred years ago.

*I first typed "coming as it does at this particular time" and then realized how silly, when else could it or would it?

Didn't FMF report on the love triangle between Stanford White, his eventual assassin Harry K. Thaw, and the 16-year-old chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit?

"Physicists expect you to build your own equipment. If this topic comes up with a theorist, feel free to ignore it. If it comes up with an experimentalist, you will have to concede that you paid a huge mark-up for off-the-shelf equipment."

On college and university campuses I think we see a similar difference in mindset, but not between physicists and biologists, but between faculty and administrators. Faculty IME seem to be generally more do-it-yourself: they'll go out and learn how to use the complex software or write their own program or whatever. Whereas an administrator is more likely to buy an off-the-shelf solution (or hire a consultant to do the work).

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