The intellectual mistake of once-and-for-allism

One of the most common intellectual mistakes!

Do note however that it is an efficient mistake for many people to commit, and that is part of why it is so common.

“Once-and-for-allism” occurs when people decide that they wish to stop worrying about an issue at the margin.  They might either dismiss the issue, or they might blow up its importance but regard the issue as hopeless and undeserving of further consideration.  Either way, they seek to avoid the hovering sense of “I’ve still got to devote time and energy to figuring this out.”  They prefer “I am now done with this issue, once and for all!”  Thus the name of the syndrome.

I see once-and-for-allism with so many issues, but one recent example would be the forthcoming path of Covid and Long Covid.  Most people just don’t want to think about it any more, and so they settle on something (“it’s just a cold!” or “it will bankrupt the nation!”) rather than having to do lots of intellectual revisions based on the stream of new data.

Other examples of topics that attract once-and-for-all thinking would be crypto, demographic decline, long-run fiscal solvency, various foreign policy crises, biodiversity, AI issues, the Repugnant Conclusion and Non-Identity Problems, whether we are living in a simulation, UFOs, abortion, what is the person’s ultimate normative standard, and much more.

People won’t let these topics take up too much of their mind space.  But neither can they do the Bayesian detachment thing, and so they shunt these topics into settled categories and put them aside.

If you are trying to figure out a thinker and his or her defects, see if you can spot that person’s “once-and-for-all” moves.  There will be plenty of them.

Saturday assorted links

1. “It’s 5,000 times bigger than most bacteria,” Volland said. “To put it into context, it would be like a human encountering another human as tall as Mount Everest . . . This is the first opportunity we have to manipulate individual bacteria with tweezers.”  FT link here.  NYT coverage here.

2. Daniel Lippman, James Bond.

3. Kramnik on the human capital deficit.  Speculative.

4. Has the excess demand for truckers melted away?

5. Claims that Russia is exhausting its forces.

AlphaZero Ideas

That is a new and exciting paper from Julio González-Díaz and Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, here is the abstract:

Can artificial intelligence (AI) uncover new ideas? As machines are learning fast and becoming increasingly intelligent, can AI not only automate the production function of goods and services, but also of ideas? Economic growth arises from people creating ideas, and thus an affirmative answer to these questions may have drastic implications for a host of important issues. Yet, to date, there is no empirical evidence showing that AI can in fact generate tabula rasa ideas that improve human understanding. Using as an exogenous shock the introduction of AlphaZero, we provide the first causal evidence of the impact of unsupervised AI on the production function of ideas. Specifically, AlphaZero is considered a milestone of scientific progress in AI research. This program rediscovered ideas known in centuries of human chess, and created new ideas as well. We study world experts at the frontier of knowledge and find that at least the player with the highest classical rating in the history of chess learned and adopted new ideas uncovered by AlphaZero. Other players may have also done the same. We contend that obtaining evidence of the impact of AI on the production function of ideas is a necessary first step to think about AI’s impact on the innovation and research processes that drive the advancement of knowledge and economic growth.

The main new ideas I have seen come from AlphaZero are the following:

1. Pushing the h pawn is often better than you thought! (emphasized by the authors)

2. Said pawn can be worth more on h6 (h3), as an aggressive weapon, than you might have thought.

3. Qa1 (a8) is occasionally a better move than it looks.

4. The chess openings that were preferred in the early 20th century, such as the Queen’s Gambit, are in fact pretty lindy and pretty good.  You can debate whether that is a “new” idea, but it is a meaningful revision of sorts.  (Of course plenty of earlier patzers had some fondness for #1-3, one might add, though perhaps not for the right reasons.)

So that is something.  But I think in terms of a percentage of the total improvement in play, it is quite small.  “Finding more good players through the internet” would come in first by a long mile.  “Giving more players more time on convenient services such as” likely would be next.  Even “just having good players improve their endgame play using basic study and standard chess engines” would be much larger than these AlphaZero effects.  “More top players copying the physical training regimen of Magnus” would be more significant as well.

I am also skeptical of the claim that very much of Carlsen’s 2019 improvement (he didn’t lose a game that year) came from AlphaZero.  He has lost some games since then!  And it is not as if all of his subsequent opponents are zapping him with surprise “Qa1” moves.  I see AlphaZero as a series of innovative but ultimately modest advances that have been incorporated by some of the top players with barely noticeable overall gains in move quality.

I am not an AI skeptic, and furthermore I see special value per se in “advancing the frontier,” even when various infra-marginal gains (“swim more!”) are more significant in quantitative terms.  Still, my estimate of the chess innovative advances from AlphaZero are more modest than what this paper would seem to suggest.

Friday assorted links

1. Our response to Monkeypox has been less than impressive.

2. Why are some nations more entrepreneurial than others?

3. Robin Hanson on AI competition and risk.

4. When did perfume stop being about sex? (NYT)  Interesting throughout.

5. By one new estimate Covid vaccines saved 20 million lives in their first year.  That is why I say the great stagnation is over, at least for now, though of course we could slip back into it.

6. Weird facts to toy with your sense of historical time.

7. “Slow and negligible senescence among testudines challenges evolutionary theories of senescence” — anything to this?  And here is the NYT coverage.  Big if true!

8. Dating services for the D.C. set.

*Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne*

This new book by Katherine Rundell, now out in the UK but still pending in the United States for September, is one of the very best studies of an individual poet I ever have read.  The book’s style is so energetic and so carefully crafted as a whole, it is difficult to excerpt from.  What is striking to me is that the blurbs are from super-smart people, and they all are literally accurate (has that ever been the case?). So for instance Claire Tomalin wrote:

Katherine Rundell’s brave and detailed new biography of John Donne is just the book we need…Every page sparkles…

Simon Jenkins wrote:

Rundell has a wonderful touch, light yet profound, which perfectly suits her extraordinary subject…Unmissable.

The great Maggie O’Farrell wrote:

A wonderful, joyous piece of work…with fierce, interrogative intelligence. I just loved it.

All true!  Recommended, a sure thing for the year’s best of non-fiction list.  You don’t even have to like poetry, as a history book it is first-rate as well.

An AI does a CWT between me and “Janet Yellen”

TYLER COWEN: I want to ask you a series of questions about what’s overrated and underrated. It can be in your area of expertise, it could be in life in general, up to you. JANET YELLEN: Sure. TYLER COWEN: Let me start with an easy one. Bitcoin, overrated or underrated? JANET YELLEN: Oh, that’s a tough one. I’m going to say overrated. TYLER COWEN: Why? JANET YELLEN: Well, it doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t earn any income for anybody. It’s just essentially speculative, people thinking it will be worth more in the future because other people think it will be worth more in the future. And so it’s kind of a bubble. TYLER COWEN: If we think about the Federal Reserve and its role in society, is it overrated, underrated, or properly rated? JANET YELLEN: I think it’s properly rated. We have a very important role in setting monetary policy, which can affect economic activity and employment and inflation. So, I think the public understands that we play an important role. TYLER COWEN: How about the role of the United States in the world economy? Overrated, underrated, or properly rated? JANET YELLEN: Oh, that’s a tough one. I would say we are probably rated about right. We are the largest economy in the world. We are a very important player in the global economy. TYLER COWEN: How about the role of academic economists in society? Overrated, underrated, or properly rated? JANET YELLEN: Oh, that’s a tough one, too. I would say we are probably a bit overrated. We have a lot of smart people and we do good work, but we don’t always get it right. TYLER COWEN: Last one. In terms of your own career, looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? JANET YELLEN: Oh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a great career. I’ve loved what I’ve done. I can’t think of anything I would have done differently.

Here is the program (authentication required, you can’t use it), and the work here on feeding the prompts was done by Michael Tolhurst.  And here is me with Oscar the Grouch.

That was then, this is now

On July 7 [1917], while the unsuccessful hunt for fugitive Bolsheviks continued, Prince Lvov resigned as leader of the Provisional Government.  He was replaced by Kerensky.  This had nothing to do with either the July uprising or the failed offensive.  Five days earlier, Kadet ministers had resigned in protest at a decision to allow Ukraine a degree of autonomy.

Both liberals and socialists in the reconstituted Provisional Government wanted to keep the Russian empire together.  They had accepted in March that after the war Poland, now behind German lines, would break away to become fully independent, but they were determined to hold on to the Grand Duchy of Finland, the Baltic provinces and Ukraine.  their view was that the grievances and aspirations of national minorities were purely the product of Tsarist oppression, above all the ‘russification’ programmes introduced under Nicholas II which had discourages any diversity of culture or language.  A few limited concessions to autonomy were thought to be sufficient.

…Russians in Kiev never expected the Ukrainian forces to put up much of a fight.  Deliberately ignoring the reality of Ukrainian culture and history, they had taken Ukrainian patriotism as little more than a joke.

That is from the new and excellent Anthony Beevor book, Russia: Revolution and Civil War 1917-1921.

What I’ve been reading

1. Ian Morris, Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World: A 10,000 Year History.  None of the book is bad, and half is quite interesting.  Think of the treatment as “Deep Roots for Brexit,” though willing to noodle over earlier and more interesting topics in history.  From a good FT review by Chris Allnutt: “Morris succeeds in condensing 10,000 years into a persuasive and highly readable volume, even if there are moments that risk a descent into what he seeks to avoid: “a catalogue of men with strange names killing each other”, as historian Alex Woolf put it.”  Now if only he would explain why their hot and cold water taps don’t run together…

2. Michel Houellebecq, Interventions 2020.  Grumpy non-fiction essays, with plenty of naive anti-consumerism.  You need to read them if you are a fan, but I didn’t find so much here of interest.  I was struck by his nomination of Paul McCartney (!) as the most essential musician, with Schubert next in line.  Mostly it is MH being contrary.  He has earned the right, but he wasn’t able to make me care more.

3. Frank O’Connor, “Guests of the Nation.”  One of the best short stories I have read, Irish.  Can’t say any more without spoilers! 11 pp. at the link.

4. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Word for World is Forest.  Has anyone done a systematic accounting of which Vietnam era fictional works have held up and which not?  Maybe this one gets a B+?  Not top drawer Le Guin, but good enough to read, and better yet if you catch the cross-cultural references and all the anthropological background works.

5. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, some cheap paperback edition.  I did a quick, non-studied reread of this, in prep for the new Cambridge University Press reissue edition due out June 30, which has excellent notes and I will study and reread in more detail.  One of the very best books!  Not only is the story fully engaging and deeply humorous, but it is one of the seminal tracts on progress (largely skeptical), a blistering take on political correctness, wise on the virtues and pitfalls of travel, and one of the first novels to truly engage with science and politics and their interaction.  Straussian throughout.  Swift is one of the very greatest thinkers and writers and his output has held up remarkably well.

The great stagnation and the primacy of foreign policy

One cause (and effect) of the great stagnation, as emphasized by Peter Thiel and others (including myself), is our inability to imagine a future radically different from the immediate past.  We view progress as gentrification and more nice restaurants, not fundamental transformation.

This same lack of imagination makes it difficult to understand the primacy of foreign policy in understanding the world on a day-to-day basis.  If you lack imagination, you will tend to assume that the current configurations of countries, alliances, and so on are simply going to last.

But they are not, and they never have.  And thus the primacy of foreign policy considerations.  But for many people this is difficult to grasp.