Month: March 2022

Japan fact of the day

More than a quarter of major Japanese start-ups, those worth more than a billion dollars, involve care for the elderly. The tech is impressive: at care homes, ‘workers now receive a signal when incontinent residents require attention, forewarning them of the need for urgent intervention. There are also devices that track vital signs and indicate irregular heartbeats or breathing, while robotic beds that turn into wheelchairs are also being manufactured.’

Here is more from Ed West, mostly about aging societies more generally.

Emergent Ventures winners, eighteenth cohort

Zvi Mowshowitz, TheZvi, New York City, to develop his career as idea generator and public intellectual.

Nadia Eghbal, Miami, to study and write on philanthropy for tech and crypto wealth.

Henry Oliver, London, to write a book on talent and late bloomers.  Substack here.

Geffen Avrahan, Bay Area, founder at Skyline Celestial, an earlier winner, omitted from an early list by mistake, apologies Geffen!

Subaita Rahman of Scarborough, Ontario, to enable a one-year visiting student appointment at Church Labs at Harvard University.

Gareth Black, Dublin, to start YIMBY Dublin.

Pradyumna Shyama Prasad, blog and podcast, Singapore.  Here is his substack newsletter, here is his podcast about both economics and history.

Ulkar Aghayeva, New York City, Azerbaijani music and bioscience.

Steven Lu, Seattle, to create GenesisFund, a new project for nurturing talent, and general career development.

Ashley Lin, University of Pennsylvania gap year, Center for Effective Altruism, for general career development and to learn talent search in China, India, Russia.

James Lin, McMaster University gap year, from Toronto area, general career development and to support his interests in effective altruism and also biosecurity.

Santiago Tobar Potes, Oxford, from Colombia and DACA in the United States, general career development, interest in public service, law, and foreign policy.

Martin Borch Jensen of Longevity Impetus Grants (a kind of Fast Grants for longevity research), Bay Area and from Denmark, for a new project Talent Bridge, to help talented foreigners reach the US and contribute to longevity R&D.

Jessica Watson Miller, from Sydney now in the Bay Area, to start a non-profit to improve the treatment of mental illness.

Congratulations to you all!  We are honored to have you as Emergent Ventures winners.

The cultural evolution of love in literary history

Since the late nineteenth century, cultural historians have noted that the importance of love increased during the Medieval and Early Modern European period (a phenomenon that was once referred to as the emergence of ‘courtly love’). However, more recent works have shown a similar increase in Chinese, Arabic, Persian, Indian and Japanese cultures. Why such a convergent evolution in very different cultures? Using qualitative and quantitative approaches, we leverage literary history and build a database of ancient literary fiction for 19 geographical areas and 77 historical periods covering 3,800 years, from the Middle Bronze Age to the Early Modern period. We first confirm that romantic elements have increased in Eurasian literary fiction over the past millennium, and that similar increases also occurred earlier, in Ancient Greece, Rome and Classical India. We then explore the ecological determinants of this increase. Consistent with hypotheses from cultural history and behavioural ecology, we show that a higher level of economic development is strongly associated with a greater incidence of love in narrative fiction (our proxy for the importance of love in a culture). To further test the causal role of economic development, we used a difference-in-difference method that exploits exogenous regional variations in economic development resulting from the adoption of the heavy plough in medieval Europe. Finally, we used probabilistic generative models to reconstruct the latent evolution of love and to assess the respective role of cultural diffusion and economic development.

Speculative, that is a new paper by Nicholas Baumard, Elise Huillery, Alexandre Hyafil, and Lou Safra.

Bangladesh YouTube food facts of the day

The channel behind this operation is called AroundMeBD, and its success has created a whole new economy in Shimulia, which has since been dubbed the YouTube village of Bangladesh.

The YouTube village is a prominent example of a niche but is also part of a growing online trend across South Asia: As the internet reaches villages, rural societies are finding ways to showcase and monetize their unique food cultures to audiences across the world, using platforms like YouTube and Facebook. In India, Village Cooking Channel, which posts videos of large-scale traditional cooking, has over 15 million subscribers. In Pakistan, Village Food Secrets has 3.5 million subscribers. Villagers who previously had little presence in media are now using these platforms to take ownership of the way their culture is portrayed — and building businesses that support dozens, and occasionally hundreds, of individuals.

Here is the full story, via Zach Valenta.  The article is interesting throughout, and yes YouTube remains underrated.

My Conversation with the excellent Sam Bankman-Fried

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss the Sam Bankman-Fried production function, the secret to his trading success, how games like Magic: The Gathering have shaped his approach to business, why a legal mind is crucial when thinking about cryptocurrencies, the most important thing he’s learned about managing, what Bill Belichick can teach us about being a good leader, the real constraints in the effective altruism space, why he’s not very compelled by life extension research, challenges to his Benthamite utilitarianism, whether it’s possible to coherently regulate stablecoins, the implicit leverage in DeFi, Elon Musk’s greatest product, why he thinks Ethereum is overrated, where in the world has the best French fries, why he’s bullish on the Bahamas, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Now, for mathematical finance, as you know, we at least pretend we can rationally price equities and bonds. People started with CAPM. It’s much more complicated than that now. But based on similar kinds of ideas — ultimately arbitrage, right? — if you think of crypto assets, do we even have a pretense that we have a rational theory of how they’re priced?

BANKMAN-FRIED: With a few of them, not with most. In particular, let’s talk about Dogecoin for a second, which I think is the purest of a type of coin, of the meme coin. I think the whole thing with Dogecoin is that it does away with that pretense. There is no sense in which any reasonable person could look at Dogecoin and be like, “Yes, discounted cash flow.” I think that there’s something bizarre and wacky and dangerous, but also powerful about that, about getting rid of the pretense.

I think that’s one example of a place where there is no pretense anymore that there is any real sense of how do you price this thing other than supply and demand, like memes versus — I don’t know — anti-memes? I think that more generally, though, that’s happened to a lot of assets. It’s just less explicit in a lot of them.

What is Elon Musk’s greatest product ever, or what’s his most successful product ever? I don’t think it’s an electric car. I don’t think it’s a rocket ship. I think one product of his has outperformed all of his other products in demand, and that’s TSLA, the ticker. That is his masterpiece. How is that priced? I don’t know, it’s worth Tesla. It’s a product people want, Tesla stock.

COWEN: But the prevalence of memes, Dogecoin, your point about Musk — which I would all accept — does that then make you go back and revisit how everything else is priced? The stuff that was supposed to be more rational in the first place — is that actually now quite general, and you’ve seen it through crypto? Or not?

BANKMAN-FRIED: Absolutely. It absolutely forces you to go back and say, “Well, okay, that’s how cryptocurrencies are priced. Is it really just crypto that’s priced that way?” Or maybe, are there other asset classes that may claim to have some pricing, or purport to, or people may often assume it does, but which in practice is not exactly that? I think the answer to that is a pretty straightforward yes.

It’s a pretty straightforward answer that you look at Tesla, you look at a lot of stocks right now, you think about what determines their market cap — the discounted cash flow? Yeah, sort of, that plays a role in it. That’s 30 percent of the answer. It’s when we look at the meme stocks and the meme coins that we feel like we can see the answer for ourselves for the first time, but it was always there in the other stocks as well, and social media has been amplifying this all over the place.

COWEN: Is this a new account of how your background as a gamer with memes has made you the appropriate person for pricing and arbitrage in crypto?

BANKMAN-FRIED: Yeah, there’s probably some truth to that. [laughs]

Interesting throughout, and not just for crypto fans.

How do Effective Altruist recommendations change in time of war?

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

During wartime, basic human needs become more pressing, most of all food. For instance, Ukraine supplies much of the world’s grain, including to many of the world’s poorer countries. The largest importers of Ukrainian grain are Egypt, Turkey, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Pakistan, and in percentage terms Yemen, Libya and Lebanon are especially dependent. To the extent the conflict and sanctions disrupt Russia as well, Russia is not only a major grain exporter but also the largest exporter of fertilizer.

With so much of Ukraine under siege, these supplies are a mix of blockaded or endangered, thereby creating hunger and malnutrition risk for grain importers.

Increasing the productivity of agriculture, especially in poorer countries, now should be a higher priority. When food supply from one source such as Ukraine is shut off, poorer nations should have other supply options. The Green Revolution has been wonderful for India and Pakistan by increasing crop yields — but it turns much more agricultural innovation is necessary…

In a world at peace, public health interventions yield high returns, and they probably still will in wartime. But their relative benefits, compared to other interventions, may diminish. Saving lives with medicine is worthwhile, but many medicines are expensive. If lives can be saved by the mere shipment and trade of food, and at a profit at that, that will be preferred over saving lives with medicine.

Migration, or the discovery and reallocation of talent, also becomes a higher priority in wartime.  Do read the whole thing.

Claims about taste

Chen et al. show that people’s aesthetic tastes are not arbitrarily different from each other in different sensory modalities but vary primarily along only a single dimension across sights and sounds: how similar a person’s taste is to the average taste. People who have atypical taste for images also tend to have atypical taste for sounds.

Here is the paper, via Michelle Dawson.

Holden Karnofsky emails me on transformative AI

Here is Holden, our discussion started with this post of mine, for his words I will use quotation marks rather than dealing with double indentation:

“…debates about specifics between climate scientists get incredibly intricate (and are often very sensitive to parameters we just can’t reasonably estimate), and if you tried to get oriented to climate science by reading one it would be a nightmare, but this doesn’t mean the big-picture ways in which climatologists diverge from conventional wisdom should be discounted.

I think the broad-brush picture here is a better starting point than an exchange between Eliezer, Ajeya, me and Scott.

Even shorter version:

  • You can run the bio anchors analysis in a lot of different ways, but they all point to transformative AI this century;
  • As do the expert surveys, as does Metaculus;
  • Eliezer’s argument is that he thinks it will be sooner;
  • The most naive extrapolations of economic growth trends imply singularity (or at least “new growth mode”) this century;
  • Other angles of analysis (including the very-outside-view semi-informative priors) are basically about rebutting the idea that there’s a giant burden of proof here.
  • Specific arguments for “later than 2100,” including outside-view arguments, seem reasonably close to nonexistent; Robin Hanson has a (unconvincing IMO) case for synthetic AI taking longer, but Robin is also forecasting transformative AI of a sort (ems, which he says will lead to an explosion in economic growth and a relatively quick transition to something even stranger) this century.

So I ultimately don’t see how you get under P=1/3 or so for this century, and if you are way under P=1/3, I’d be interested if there were any more you could say about why (though recognize forecasts can’t always totally be explained).

P=1/3 would put “transformative AI this century” within 2x of “nuclear war this century,” and I think the average “nuclear war” is way less likely (like at least 10x) to have super-long-run impacts than the average “transformative AI is developed.”

That’s my basic thinking! It’s based on numerous angles and is not very sensitive to specific takes on the rate at which FLOPs get cheaper, although at some point I hope we can nail that parameter down better via prediction markets or something of the sort. Prediction markets on transformative AI itself are going to be harder, but I’m hopeful about that too. I think a very fast transition is plausible, so it could be very bad news if folks like you continue thinking it’s a remote possibility until it’s obviously upon us. (In my analogy, today might be like early January was for COVID. We don’t know enough to be sure, but we know enough to be highly alert, and we won’t necessarily be sure very long before it’s too late.)”

End of Holden, now back to TC.  And here is Holden’s “most important century” page.  That is our century, people!  This is all a bit of a follow-up on an in-person dialogue we had, but I will give him the last word (for now).

What should I ask Jamal Greene?

I will be doing a CWT for him, here is part of his Wikipedia page:

Jamal K. Greene is an American legal scholar whose scholarship focuses on constitutional law. He is the Dwight Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Greene is one of four co-chairs of Facebook‘s Oversight Board, a body that adjudicates Facebook’s content moderation decisions…

He obtained an AB from Harvard College in 1999, where he was a sports writer for The Harvard Crimson. One of his last pieces for that publication reflected on his experience as a “black kid from Brooklyn” spending four years “in the Ivy bubble”.

After graduation, Greene worked at Sports Illustrated. He received a JD from Yale Law School in 2005 and clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, from 2005 to 2006, and for Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court of the United States, from 2006 to 2007.

Greene is the author of How Rights Went Wrong: Why Our Obsession With Rights Is Tearing America Apart (2021). The book argues that United States constitutional law inappropriately grants strong protection to a small set of constitutional rights, as opposed to more limited protection to a broader set of rights.[ He further argues that this approach has hardened positions and reduced the ability for those with differing views to compromise. The work praises proportionality review as an alternative to American constitutional adjudication.

His additional writings in articles and book chapters include: “Selling Originalism”; “Giving the Constitution to the Courts”, a review of Keith E. Whittington’s Political Foundations of Judicial Supremacy: The Presidency, The Supreme Court, and Constitutional Leadership in U.S. History; “Beyond Lawrence: Metaprivacy and Punishment”; “Lawrence and the Right to Metaprivacy”; “Divorcing Marriage from Procreation”; “Judging Partisan Gerrymanders Under the Elections Clause”; “Hands Off Policy: Equal Protection and the Contact Sports Exemption of Title IX”; and “Disappearing Dilemmas: Judicial Construction of Ethical Choice as Strategic Behavior in the Criminal Defense Context”.

So what should I ask him?

Bank runs and CBDC

Our analysis holds important lessons for the introduction of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs). With a CBDC as the main means of payment, people can convert their bank deposits into CBDC quickly. There is no longer a need to stand in line at an ATM as currently in Russia. With CBDC, ordering goods and dumping this electronic cash is easier, too: a simple on-line transaction suffices. While the Russian central bank may suspend electronic means of payments, this is a bad option in a CBDC system, as such transactions lie at its heart. Suspending CBDC payment possibilities risks breaking trust in the currency altogether. With a CBDC, a central bank run may no longer proceed in slow motion, as currently in Russia; it can be fast and dramatic.

The situation in Russia is unusual. The central bank run as described may not come to pass, and lines at ATMs may recede. But trust in government money should not be taken for granted. We have seen plenty of panic in the U.S. in the last two years already. Options on how to deal with the evaporation of trust need thinking through ahead of time, particularly once a CBDC is introduced.

That is part of a short piece by Linda Schilling, Jesús Fernández-Villaverde, and Harald Uhlig.

The Sheriff of Transnistria

You will probably start to hear a lot more about Transnistria in the near future. Transnistria sits in between Moldova and Ukraine and was formed in the 1990s as a pro-Soviet breakway state from Moldova. After a brief civil war it is now governed independently and its security is overseen by “a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission that supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone, comprising 20 localities on both sides of the river.”

Wikipedia: Although the ceasefire has held, the territory’s political status remains unresolved: Transnistria is an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system, currency, and vehicle registration.[16][17][18][19] Its authorities have adopted a constitution, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms. After a 2005 agreement between Moldova and Ukraine, all Transnistrian companies that seek to export goods through the Ukrainian border must be registered with the Moldovan authorities.[20] This agreement was implemented after the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) took force in 2005.[21] Most Transnistrians have Moldovan citizenship,[22] but many also have Russian, Romanian, or Ukrainian citizenship.[23][24] The main ethnic groups are Russians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians.

Now here is where it gets weird.

Wikipedia: Sheriff (Russian: Шериф) is the second-largest[citation needed] company in the unrecognised breakaway state Transnistria. It is based in the city of Tiraspol. Formed in the early 1990s by Viktor Gușan and Ilya Kazmaly, former members of the special services, Sheriff has grown to include nearly all forms of profitable private business in the unrecognised country, and has even become significantly involved in local politics and sport,[2] with some commentators saying that company loyalists hold most main government positions in the territory.

…Sheriff owns a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its home ground Sheriff Stadium, a project which also included a five-star hotel.

And consider the following from 2021:

New Moldovan President Maia Sandu has said she wants her country to join the European Union and demanded Russian troops leave Transnistria.

But the breakaway statelet still affirms its allegiance to Moscow.

In Tiraspol, a billboard reads “Russia in our hearts,” while a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on a wall in Krasnoselsky’s offices.

Hat tip: The deputy, Kevin Lewis.

What I’ve been reading

1. John Elliott Cairnes, The Slave Power, from 1862.  Cairnes remains greatly underrated as an economist.  But The Slave Power is most remarkable for seeing that slavery was a system that pervaded (and corrupted) all aspects of the economy and society of the South.  An excellent early integration of economic reasoning and sociology.  And to think he wrote this from Galway, not Mississippi.

2. Barbara Bloemink, Florine Stettheimer: A Biography.  A revelatory book that proves Stettheimer’s reputation deserves to be upgraded to the top tier of American artists of her time.  The color plates are wonderful.  I hadn’t known of her inspiration coming from Ballet Russe works.  For those who care, definitely recommended, deserves to make the best of the year list.

3. Stanislaw Lem, The Invincible.  One of the better Lems, reminds me of a Star Trek episode, with shades of gray goo hypotheses and an East Bloc ending.

I liked Meghan O’Rourke, The Invisible Kingdom: Reimagining Chronic Illness.

John Davis, Waterloo Sunrise: London from the Sixties to Thatcher is mostly a social history.

There is also Penelope J. Corfield, The Georgians: The Deeds and Misdeeds of 18th-Century Britain.

Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, Restarting the Future: How to Fix the Intangible Economy elicited this blurb from me: “How does the concept of intangible capital help explain some features of what has gone wrong in our world? How is the concept of intangible capital key to fixing what has gone wrong and improving our world? This is the go-to book for those and other critical questions for boosting economic growth.”