Month: July 2020

*Counterpart* (no significant spoilers)

Girardian television!  The basic set-up is that two similar, almost identical universes have branched from one, centered around Berlin.  And there is a (controlled and limited) path for tunneling from one world to another.  Some interaction ensues.  Solve for the equilibrium.  The Girardian equilibrium.  It joins David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers as one of the true cultural explanations of Girardian thought, and yes there is an embedded and I would say largely true model in the plot, especially in season two.  Here is Wikipedia on the show.  It was too smart to last for more than two years on the air.  Excellent cast also, with the Whiplash drum instructor (J.K. Simmons) as the lead character(s), and the female lead from Rushmore (Olivia Williams) as his wife(s).

Tuesday assorted links

1. How to get people to wear masks.  Don’t be rude to them or scold, and express your own vulnerability.

2. Further T-cell immunity results.

3. Proteus becomes the world’s first manufactured non-cuttable material.

4. Economics of Costco brands and their cannabalization.

5. Should we cancel Aristotle? (NYT)

6. Such a high seroprevalence in Delhi so quickly?  And what is their actual death rate?

7. If you are hoping the second wave won’t be so bad, as we all are, Louisiana and Luxembourg are two bad news cases to worry about.

Moskos on Surging Crime in NYC

Peter Moskos warns about rising crime in NYC in the NYDaily news.

Violence in New York is up….In the last 28 days (through July 12), compared to last year, shootings have more than tripled (318 vs. 97). Last week was even worse. If the last 28 days become the new normal, 2021 will have more than 4,100 shootings, a level not seen in well over 20 years.

Undoubtedly bail reform, protests, looting, COVID-19, and the release of prisoners because of COVID all play a role, though how much is debate. What’s less known is how the NYPD has been methodically declawed by design.

Years of political advocacy have resulted in the intentional erosion of legal police authority. There is less prosecution. Most miscreant activities have been decriminalized. The city survived and even benefited from many reforms, but now the camel’s back is breaking.

…For many, this is a feature, not a flaw. A new breed of progressive prosecutors has battled to see who can prosecute the least. As a result, arrests in 2019 decreased 35% from 2016. Reducing incarceration is desirable, and New York has been doing so literally for decades without jeopardizing public safety.

More recently, since November, because of bail reform and COVID releases, the number of jailed inmates dropped another 40%. People are coming out of jail, and few are going in. Many applaud this because incarceration disproportionately affects Black and Brown people.

But so does non-enforcement and the rise in violence. In 2018 (the latest year with published data), 95.7% of shooting victims in New York City are Black or Hispanic. Just 4.3% of victims are white or Asian. When violence goes up, more Black and Hispanic people are shot.

How Swiss politics works

And now it’s becoming clear why almost all popular initiatives are rejected. If the initiative had a obvious chance of being approved, the parliament would introduce the necessary legislation on its own. From this point of view the small number of successful initiatives is not a sign of a system malfunction, but rather a proof that the system is functioning the way it is expected to.


Another safety measure is that Swiss referenda are, in their essence, not polarizing. In referendum you are never asked to decide between two extremes, between, say, pro-life and pro-choice, but rather between the initiative proposal and the status quo. Voting against is always a safe and neutral option. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are not sympathetic to the spirit of the initiative. You may just think it’s going too far, or maybe you like some aspects of it but don’t like some other.

Here is more from Martin Sustrik, via The Browser (always excellent).  I’ll say it again: there should be far more books and articles asking the basic question of why Switzerland seems to work so well — Progress Studies!

The economy of Lebanon is collapsing

Here is the opening:

Most parts of Lebanon are receiving no more than two or three hours of electricity a day. An incoming flight at Beirut’s airport had to abort a landing this month because the lights on the runway went out. The traffic signals in the capital have stopped working, adding to the congestion on Beirut’s already chaotic streets.

These are among the latest symptoms of an economic implosion that is accelerating at an alarming pace in Lebanon as its government, its banks and its citizens run out of foreign currency simultaneously.


The Lebanese pound has lost over 60 percent of its value in just the past month, and 80 percent of its value since October. Prices are soaring and goods disappearing.

Bread, a staple of the Lebanese diet, is in short supply because the government can’t fund imports of wheat. Essential medicines are disappearing from pharmacies. Hospitals are laying off staff because the government isn’t paying its portion, and canceling surgeries because they don’t have electricity or the fuel to operate generators.


Newly impoverished people are taking to Facebook to offer to trade household items for milk. Crime is on the rise. In one widely circulated video, a man wearing a coronavirus mask and wielding a pistol holds up a drugstore and demands that the pharmacist hand over diapers.

“Lebanon is no longer on the brink of collapse. The economy of Lebanon has collapsed,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Lebanese model established since the end of the civil war in 1990 has failed. It was a house of glass, and it has shattered beyond any hope of return.”


Lebanon’s Western allies long ago made it clear that they won’t help out until the government undertakes efforts to reform the corrupt and bloated public sector. An $11 billion package of loans and investments has been on offer since 2018 — on the condition that the government undertake some limited changes. It hasn’t.

And if you had any doubts:

Staggering amounts are now missing from the banking system — perhaps as much as $100 billion, according to government figures.

Three-quarters of the deposits in the entire banking system were denominated in U.S. dollars, and many ordinary Lebanese may have lost most or all of their savings, said Jad Chaaban, an economist at the American University of Beirut.

Here is the full article by Liz Sly.

My podcast with David Perell on “the Tyler Cowen production function”

Here goes, it is not for me to judge the quality of the result, but I can say that David is a very good interviewer.  Here are his summary notes:

Tyler ends every episode of his podcast asking about other people’s production function. How do you get so much done? What’s the secret sauce of all that you’ve accomplished? This episode is entirely devoted to that question. But this time, I’m asking Tyler. We started by talking about why there aren’t more Tyler Cowens in the world. Then, we moved to Tyler’s process for writing, such as choosing article topics and editing his work. Later in the podcast, we discussed Tyler’s process for choosing friends, why he would travel across the world to visit a new country for just ten hours, and what he’s learned from high-powered people like Peter Thiel and Patrick Collison.

I also tried to give a few deliberately “low status boasting answers,” as I call them (rather than high status airy detachment — e.g., “it is not for me to judge the quality of the result”), label it countersignaling if you wish.

Here is David on Twitter, and you can take his on-line writing classes here.

Monday assorted links

1. Sally Rooney on the culture of college debate.

2. Why did Chinese rulers stay in power for so long?  And China’s floods are getting worse.

3. Russian elite given experimental Covid vaccine since April?

4. “There is little relationship between the opioid crisis and contemporaneous measures of labor market opportunity.

5. “We show that occupational licensing has significant negative effects on labor market fluidity defined as cross-occupation mobility.”

How Canada was populated, and depopulated

Americans were the first major population group to settle permanently in Canada in more than token numbers, and they dominated Canada’s population for six decades.  From the 1770s until the 1830s, the majority of English-speaking Canadians were U.S.-born…

Over the preceding decades, most ambitious and inventive immigrants to Canada had quickly departed for the United States.  The colonies were left with a self-selected group who didn’t want much from life: an agrarian, very religious, austere population of peasants and labourers who tended to see change and growth as a threat rather than an opportunity and a consumer economy as generally sinful excess.

That is from Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million, in addition to its positive programme this is also a useful book for understanding Canadian history.

A highly speculative version of the immunological dark matter hypothesis

The COVID-19 pandemic is thought to began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Mobility analysis identified East-Asia and Oceania countries to be highly-exposed to COVID-19 spread, consistent with the earliest spread occurring in these regions. However, here we show that while a strong positive correlation between case-numbers and exposure level could be seen early-on as expected, at later times the infection-level is found to be negatively correlated with exposure-level. Moreover, the infection level is positively correlated with the population size, which is puzzling since it has not reached the level necessary for population-size to affect infection-level through herd immunity. These issues are resolved if a low-virulence Corona-strain (LVS) began spreading earlier in China outside of Wuhan, and later globally, providing immunity from the later appearing high-virulence strain (HVS). Following its spread into Wuhan, cumulative mutations gave rise to the emergence of an HVS, known as SARS-CoV-2, starting the COVID-19 pandemic. We model the co-infection by an LVS and an HVS and show that it can explain the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the non-trivial dependence on the exposure level to China and the population-size in each country. We find that the LVS began its spread a few months before the onset of the HVS and that its spread doubling-time is \sim1.59\pm0.17 times slower than the HVS. Although more slowly spreading, its earlier onset allowed the LVS to spread globally before the emergence of the HVS. In particular, in countries exposed earlier to the LVS and/or having smaller population-size, the LVS could achieve herd-immunity earlier, and quench the later-spread HVS at earlier stages. We find our two-parameter (the spread-rate and the initial onset time of the LVS) can accurately explain the current infection levels (R^2=0.74); p-value (p) of 5.2×10^-13). Furthermore, countries exposed early should have already achieved herd-immunity. We predict that in those countries cumulative infection levels could rise by no more than 2-3 times the current level through local-outbreaks, even in the absence of any containment measures. We suggest several tests and predictions to further verify the double-strain co-infection model and discuss the implications of identifying the LVS.

That is a new paper from Hagai and Ruth Perets, another link here, via Yaakov.

Sunday assorted links

1. Ross Douthat on meritocracy (NYT).  And Caleb Watney on American innovation slowing (Atlantic).

2. Superspreading events.  Very good piece.

3. “In 15 years, Guth has helped his 18 breeder members obtain near-monopolies on the world’s rarest parrots.

4. What about single-strip testing yourself every day?

5. Parrondo’s paradox: how a combination of losing strategies (sometimes) can help you win.  And an application to pandemics.

6. Too few low-wage jobs after Covid?  And rolling 7-day averages for Covid deaths, worth checking that page regularly and don’t forget Sweden.

7. FDA approves pooled testing.

COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast

Who would guess that a virus could reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts? Nevertheless, because of knock-on effects from a reduction in aircraft traffic it appears to be true.

Weather forecasts play essential parts in daily life, agriculture and industrial activities, and have great economic value. Meteorological observations on commercial aircraft help improve the forecast. However, the global lockdown during the COVID‐19 pandemic (March‐May 2020) chops off 50‐75% of aircraft observations. Here, we verify global weather forecasts (1‐8 days ahead) against the best estimates of atmospheric state, and quantify the impact of the pandemic on forecast accuracy. We find large impacts over remote (e.g., Greenland, Siberia, Antartica and the Sahara Desert) and busy air‐flight regions (e.g., North America, southeast China and Australia). We see deterioration in the forecasts of surface meteorology and atmospheric stratification, and larger deterioration in longer‐term forecasts. This could handicap early warning of extreme weather and cause additional economic damage on the top of that from the pandemic itself. The impacts over Western Europe are small due to the high density of conventional observations, suggesting that introduction of new observations would be needed to minimize the impact of global emergencies on weather forecasts in future.

From Ying Chen, COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis. Yes, the excellent one.

How to aid the arts during a pandemic

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  In addition to “the usual,” we might also consider arts vouchers:

The second element of the arts rescue plan would take a different tack. Rather than giving money to arts institutions, the federal government could set aside some amount for a concept known as arts vouchers, originally developed by the British economist Alan Peacock.

Arts vouchers are similar to education vouchers except that they cover the arts. The government would hand them out to each American and allow state and local governments to specify which institutions and individuals would be eligible to receive such vouchers as payment. Unlike direct grants to arts institutions, arts vouchers give consumers a big say in where aid goes. They could be more popular with voters, because they give each one a direct benefit — namely, cash in pocket (yes, they would have to spend it on the arts, but it’s still cash).

Most of all, vouchers would recognize that planning authorities, even at state and local levels, don’t always know which artistic forms will be popular. If some reallocations are inevitable — for instance out of nightclubs and into outdoor bluegrass festivals — vouchers will allow those preferences to be registered quickly.

Obviously, if state and local governments specify a narrow set of eligible recipients, arts vouchers aren’t much different than direct grants. In that case, little is lost. Still, one hopes that vouchers can be used more imaginatively. Imagine the city of Detroit allowing vouchers to be spent not just at the Detroit Institute of the Arts but also on hip-hop, street art and outdoor theatre.

In short, vouchers can allow American artistic innovation to proceed, even flourish, rather than merely preserving everything as it was before the pandemic. Vouchers also serve an important macroeconomic function by maintaining consumer spending and demand, thus addressing one problem area of the broader economy. With direct grants to arts institutions, there is always the danger the funds simply will sit in the coffers of still-closed non-profits while the broader economy remains weak.

Vouchers shouldn’t be the entire plan of arts assistance for at least two reasons: They may not be a sufficient lifeline for small arts institutions that cannot yet reopen, and they may not help the arts sectors that draw in foreign tourists, most of all in New York City.

There is more at the link.

GPT-3, etc.

Here is an email from a reader, I do not really have an opinion of my own yet.  Please note I will not indent any further:

“I wanted to draw your attention to something. Are you familiar with “AI Dungeon,” text-based RPG “open world” game running on GPT-2 / GPT-3?  Here’s the author’s discussion on medium, or you can play the GPT-2 version for free to get a sense of it directly.

But what I really want to draw your attention to is players who are using custom prompts to open up dialogs with GPT-3 about non-game things.

This result is particularly impressive:

( Following that string of posts is a little hampered by reddit’s format; here are the posts in order: part 1,  part 2,  part 3)

If the author is to be believed, they’ve had GPT-3 / “Dragon”:

1. write code
2. act as a pharmacology tutor
3. write poetry
4. translate english, french, chinese (the instruction to “balance the intent of the author with artistic liberty” is particularly interesting)

It’s hard to excerpt, I’d recommend reading the whole thing if you have time.

Here’s another user’s eloquent conversation about the experience of being an AI, using a similar mechanism (screencap images of the convo, part 1 and part 2 ), with a sample prompt if you want to converse with GPT-3 yourself via AI Dungeon.

I am increasingly convinced that Scott Alexander was right that NLP and human language might boostrap a general intelligence. A rough criteria for AGI might be something like (i) pass the Turing test, and (ii) solve general problems; the GPT-3-AI-Dungeon examples above appear to accomplish preliminary versions of both.

GPT was published in June 2018, GPT-2 in February 2019, GPT-3 in May 2020.

As best I can tell GPT -> GPT2 was ~10x increase in parameters over ~8 months, and GPT2 -> GPT3 was ~100x increase of parameters over ~14 months. Any number of naive projections puts a much more powerful release happening over the next ~1-2yrs, and I also know that GPT-3 isn’t necessarily the most powerful NLP AI (perhaps rather the most popularly known.)

When future AI textbooks are written, I could easily imagine them citing 2020 or 2021 as years when preliminary AGI first emerged,. This is very different than my own previous personal forecasts for AGI emerging in something like 20-50 years…

p.s. One of the users above notes that AI Dungeon GPT-3 (“Dragon”) is a subscription service, something like ~$6 a week. MIE.”

Mood affiliation, the police, and rising crime rates

Had a thought on the discussion of rising crime over the last few months inspired by your MR posts on mood affiliation that I wanted to pass along:

There’s been a bit of discussion lately about increased shootings in major cities in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and the two main narratives trying to explain them have been “protests fueling higher tensions” and “cops backing off and not patrolling as much or doing their jobs”. Interestingly, the latter seems to be based on a model where fewer cops and patrols results in more crime, so you might naively expect people who hold that belief would be more likely to believe that simple defunding and reduction of police presence would lead to more crime generally.

But if you believe that mood affiliation predicts opinions better than factual consistency, then it matters more that the former position sounds like “cops to blame, cops bad”, while the second sounds more like “cops are important, cops good”. And most commentators care more about the correct affect towards the police, rather than consistent models of reality, so you largely have commentators that are pro-defund police, but blame their lack of presence for crime increases, or commentators that are pro-police, think defunding would lead to increases in crime, but are less willing to entertain the idea that recent increases in crime are caused by the choices of officers.

That is from an email by Benjamin Hawley.

Saturday assorted links

1. Update on the Colorado drone swarms — it seems not the military.

2. History blog written by a sixth grader.

3. Couples meet less and less in college.

4. AI version of a CWT with Paul Graham.

5. Uzbekistan offers $3000 to visitors (from low-risk countries) who contract Covid there.

6. “Chinese writers in interviews usually reference Dickens and Tolstoy and Carver more often than they reference their peers.

7. More new T-cell results.