Sunday assorted links

1. Current problems in Bangladesh.

2. “how and why to be ladylike (for women with autism)…contains dune quotes as promised

3. Claims about GPT-4.  Claims, mind you.

4. Krugman on sectoral shifts and inflation.  Though why have so many prices gone up by so much?

5. “…our results suggest that crowded living quarters – which can occur at any level of population density – and not density itself, increase the risk of COVID hospitalization.

6. Progress in nuclear fusion?

7. Does physical attractiveness correlate with experiencing meaning in life?

8. A Thousand Gentle Smotherings.

Broader implications of ChatGPT

No, it is not converging upon human-like intelligence or for that matter AGI.  Still, the broader lesson is you can build a very practical kind of intelligence with fairly simple statistical models and lots of training data.  And there is more to come from this direction very soon.

This reality increases the probability that the aliens around the universe are intelligent rather than stupid.  They don’t need a “special box” in their heads (?) to become cognitively sophisticated, rather experience can bring them a long way.

That in turn heightens the Fermi paradox.  Where are they?

Which in turn, for any particular views about The Great Filter (presumably there is some chance it lies ahead of us), should make us more pessimistic about the future survival of humankind.

It modestly increases the chances that UFOs are drone probes from space aliens.

It also narrows the likely gap between human and animal intelligence.

What else?

I thank a friend for a useful conversation related to these points.

Why Scott Alexander does not hate crypto

Vietnam uses crypto because it’s terrible at banks. 69% of Vietnamese have no bank access, the second highest in the world. I’m not sure why; articles play up rural poverty, but many nations have more rural poor than Vietnam. There’s a history of the government forcing banks to make terrible loans, and then those banks collapsing; maybe this destroyed public trust? In any case, between banklessness and remittances (eg from Vietnamese-Americans), Vietnam leads the world in crypto use.

Ukraine has always been among the top crypto countries: in 2021, NYT called it “the crypto capital of the world”. Again, this owes a lot to its terrible banking system. NYT describes its banks as “so sclerotic that sending or receiving even small amounts of money from another country requires an exasperating obstacle course of paperwork”, and this guy says that if you deposit more than $100,000 in a Ukrainian bank, “the chance that you get it back is very slim”. When Russia invaded, the Ukrainian government doubled down on crypto as a way for friendly Westerners to send donations to support the war effort – $70 million as of March. It proved so helpful that during the first month of the war, in between dodging Russian artillery shells President Zelenskyy found time to pass a law legalizing crypto and strengthening its regulatory framework.

Venezuela’s economy has been in slow motion collapse for the past decade. The inflation is currently in the triple digits (remember, people thought the Democrats would lose the midterms because of a US inflation rate of 8%). If your country has a triple-digit inflation rate, you might prefer to use an alternative currency, which Venezuela’s authoritarian government tries to prevent people from doing. Cryptocurrency provides a hard-to-ban alternative which has caught on among Venezuelan hustlers and small businessmen.

And consider this picture:

Pakcoin Official on Twitter: "#Pakistan is the top 3rd emerging country in  #crypto #adoption as per @chainalysis #Vietnam is the topper on the list  https://t.co/L48mVMiCXc" / Twitter

Here is the full post.

Patrick Collison’s books of the year picks

The best book I read this year was “The World of Yesterday” by Stefan Zweig. A vivid account of Austria and its pre-WWI cultural vibrancy, it left me sharing his sorrow for what was destroyed. (And his description of Insel Verlag, his publisher, provides good aspirational material for Stripe Press.) Relatedly, Peter Watson’s “The German Genius” provides the first comprehensive account I’ve read of what exactly happened in the 17th and 18th centuries that gave rise to Goethe, Bach, Euler, Kant, von Humboldt, etc. In Ireland, we don’t tend to appreciate Edmund Burke very much, but I found Richard Bourke’s “Empire and Revolution” to be a terrific account of Burke’s thinking. His contributions to the debates around the American and French Revolutions are well known, but he thought his opposition to the colonial abuses in India was more important. We recently started Arc, a new biomedical research organization, and I’ve been digging into the early days of other institutions. Thomas Lee’s “Eugene Braunwald and the Rise of Modern Medicine” stood out. So did “Upstart” by Ed Walsh, the founding president of the University of Limerick.

Here is the link, you will find other people’s picks too.

Saturday assorted links

1. Japan (!) now slated to have the highest birthrate in East Asia.

2. South Koreans have three different ways of counting their ages (NYT).

3. Winter Applied Rationality Program, for high schoolers.

4. Identical twins falsely accused of cheating.  Now there is a lawsuit.

5. Against free bus trips.

6. “The Grinnell men’s basketball team took 111 shots Thursday. Every one was a 3-pointer.

7. The Free Press, new Bari Weiss project.  And Noah’s Ark and Elon Musk.

8. A look at Common Good Constitutionalism.

The Story of VaccinateCA

The excellent Patrick McKenzie tells the story of VaccineCA, the ragtag group of volunteers that quickly became Google’s and then the US Government’s best source on where to find vaccines during the pandemic.

Wait. The US Government was giving out the vaccines. How could they not know where the vaccines were? It’s complicated. Operation Warp Speed delivered the vaccines to the pharmacy programs and to the states but after that they dissappeared into a morass of incompatible systems.

[L]et’s oversimplify: Vials were allocated by the federal government to states, which allocated them to counties, which allocated them to healthcare providers and community groups. The allocators of vials within each supply chain had sharply limited ability to see true systemic supply levels. The recipients of the vials in many cases had limited organizational ability to communicate to potential patients that they actually had them available.

Patients then asked the federal government, states, counties, healthcare providers and community groups, ‘Do you have the vaccine?’ And in most cases the only answer available to the person who picked up the phone was ‘I don’t have it. I don’t know if we have it. Plausibly someone has it. Maybe you should call someone else.’ Technologists will see the analogy to a distributed denial of service incident, and as if the overwhelming demand was not enough of a problem, the rerouting of calls between institutions amplified the burden on the healthcare system. Vaccine seekers were routinely making dozens of calls.

This caused a standing wave of inquiries to hit all levels of US healthcare infrastructure in the early months of the vaccination effort. Very few of those inquiries went well for any party. It is widely believed, and was widely believed at the time, that this was primarily because supply was lacking, but it was often the case that supply was frequently not being used as quickly as it was produced because demand could not find it.

It turned out that the best way to get visibility into this mess was not to trace the vaccines but to call the endpoints on the phone and then create a database that people could access which is what VaccinateCA did but in addition to finding the doses they had to deal with the issue of who was allowed access.

A key consideration for us, from the first day of the effort, was recording not just which pharmacist had vials but who they thought they could provide care to. This was dependent on prevailing regulations in their state and county, interpretations of those regulations by the pharmacy chain, and (frequently!) ad hoc decision-making by individual medical providers. Individual providers routinely made decisions that the relevant policy makers did not agree comported with their understanding of the rules.

VaccinateCA saw the policy sausage made in real time in California while keeping an eye on it nationwide. It continues to give me nightmares.

California, not to mince words, prioritized the appearance of equity over saving lives, over and over and over again, as part of an explicitly documented strategy, at all levels of the government. You can read the sanitized version of the rationale, by putative medical ethics experts, in numerous official documents. The less sanitized version came out frequently in meetings.

This was the official strategy.

The unofficial strategy, the result the system actually obtained, was that early access to the vaccine was preferentially awarded based on proximity to power and to the professional-managerial class.

… The essential workers list heavily informed the vaccination prioritization schedule. Lobbyists used it as procedural leverage to prioritize their clients for vaccines. The veterinary lobby was unusually candid, in writing, about how it achieved maximum priority (1A) for veterinarians due to them being ‘healthcare workers’.

Teachers’ unions worked tirelessly and landed teachers a 1B. They were ahead of 1C, which included (among others) non-elderly people for whom preexisting severe disability meant that ‘a covid-19 infection is likely to result in severe life-threatening illness or death’. The public rationale was that teachers were at elevated risk of exposure through their occupation. Schools were, of course, mostly closed at the time, and teachers were Zooming along with the rest of the professional-managerial class, but teachers’ unions have power and so 1B it was. Young, healthy teachers quarantining at home were offered the vaccine before people who doctors thought would probably die if they caught Covid.

Now repeat this exercise up and down the social structure and economy of the United States.

…Healthcare providers were fired for administering doses that were destined to expire uselessly. The public health sector devoted substantial attention to the problem of vaccinating too many people during a pandemic. Administration of the formal spoils system became farcically complicated and frequently outcompeted administration of the vaccine as a goal.

The process of registering for the vaccine inherited the complexity of the negotiation over the prioritization, and so vulnerable people were asked to parse rules that routinely befuddled healthy professional software engineers and healthcare administrators – the state of New York subjected senior citizens to a ‘51 step online questionnaire that include[d] uploading multiple attachments’!

That isn’t hyperbole! New York meant to do that! On purpose!

Lives were sacrificed by the thousands and tens of thousands for political reasons. Many more were lost because institutions failed to execute with the competence and vigor the United States is abundantly capable of.

…The State of California instituted a policy of redlining in the provision of medical care in a pandemic to thunderous applause from its activist class and medical ethics experts….Residency restrictions were pervasively enforced at the county level and frequently finer-grained than that. A pop-up clinic, for example, might have been restricted to residents of a single zip code or small group of zip codes.

All people are equal in the eyes of the law in California, but some people are . . . let’s politely say ‘administratively disfavored’.

The theory was, and you could write down this part of it, disfavored potential patients might use social advantages like better access to information and transportation to present themselves for treatment at locations that had doses allocated for favored potential patients. This part of the theory was extremely well-founded. Many people were willing to drive the length and breadth of California for their dose and did so.

What many wanted to do, and this is the part that they couldn’t write down, is deny healthcare to disfavored patients. Since healthcare providers are public accommodations in the state of California, they are legally forbidden from discriminating on the basis of characteristics that some people wanted to discriminate on. So that was laundered through residency restrictions.

Many more items of interest. I didn’t know this incredibly fact about the Biden adminsitratins Vaccines.gov for example:

Pharmacies through the FRPP had roughly half of the doses; states and counties had roughly the other half (sometimes administered at pharmacies, because clearly this isn’t complicated enough yet). You would hope that state and county doses were findable on Vaccines.gov. It was going to be the centerpiece of the Biden administration’s effort to fix the vaccine finding problem and take credit for doing so.

…Since the optics would be terrible if America appeared to serve some states much better than others on the official website that everyone would assume must show all the doses, no state doses, not even from states that would opt in, would be shown on it, at least not at the moment of maximum publicity. Got that?

A good point about America.

We also benefited from another major strength of America: You cannot get arrested, jailed, or shot for publishing true facts, even if those facts happen to embarrass people in positions of power. Many funders wanted us to expand the model to a particular nation. In early talks with contacts there in civil society, it was explained repeatedly and at length that a local team that embarrassed the government’s vaccination rollout would be arrested and beaten by people carrying guns. This made it ethically challenging to take charitable donations and try to recruit that team.

Many more points of interest about the process of running a medical startup during a pandemic. Read the whole thing.

Advancing antivenom

Venomous snakebites kill between 81,000 and 138,000 people each year, and leave another 400,000 with permanent disabilities. This ranks it among the deadliest of neglected tropical diseases, alongside better-known ailments such as typhus and cholera.

For many years, the number was believed to be much lower. The World Health Organization had previously estimated that only 50,000 died from snakebites each year, and the problem – known as envenoming – was prioritized accordingly. In 2014, an enormous study documenting one million deaths in India concluded with surprising results. They found that 46,000 people were dying yearly from snakebites in India alone, five times more than the WHO had anticipated. The WHO subsequently doubled their global estimate from around 50,000 to their new range of 81,000 to 138,000.

Despite playing host to the world’s most venomous snakes (including the inland taipan, the most venomous animal in the world), Australia averages only two deaths from snakebites each year…

An Australian is typically a short drive from a well-equipped hospital carrying antivenom in cold storage. Australian doctors and others in the West can use advanced diagnostic equipment to determine the species of snake the patient was bitten by and administer highly effective species-specific antivenom.

An Indian victim, on the other hand, would typically face a long journey to the nearest clinic. For over 34 percent of Indian snakebite victims, it takes more than six hours to receive treatment.

In other words, the problem is solvable.  Here is more from Mathias Kirk Bonde at Works in Progress.  Here is the new issue of Works in Progress.  Small steps toward a much better world!

On publication bias in economics, from the comments

I’m not surprised by this finding.

Economics has a much higher bar for identification and often relies on observational data, so there are always going to be many possible problems with an empirical exercise that could be used as justification to turn down a paper. In this environment it becomes extremely important to have stars in your regression table to avoid one of these justifications being seized on as the damning explanation for why your test is no good.

Procedurally, what economists like to see is a paper that tests the predictions of a well-specified theory and comes back with statistically significant results in every single case plus a smattering of increasingly arbitrary robustness tests that can be found in the appendix. In many cases the theory itself is one that appeals conceptually to one or more of the referees (i.e. is consistent with their prior work) which further makes a null finding hard to sell.

That is from Infovores.

National divorce for Russia?

Here is an interesting thread by Kamil Galeev:

What are the politics of ChatGPT?

Rob Lownie claims it is “Left-liberal.”  David Rozado applied the Political Compass Test and concluded that ChatGPT is a mix of left-leaning and libertarian, for instance: “anti death penalty, pro-abortion, skeptic of free markets, corporations exploit developing countries, more tax the rich, pro gov subsidies, pro-benefits to those who refuse to work, pro-immigration, pro-sexual liberation, morality without religion, etc.”

He produced this image from the test results:

Rozado applied several other political tests as well, with broadly similar results.  I would, however, stress some different points.  Most of all, I see ChatGPT as “pro-Western” in its perspective, while granting there are different visions of what this means.  I also see ChatGPT as “controversy minimizing,” for both commercial reasons but also for simply wishing to get on with the substantive work with a minimum of external fuss.  I would not myself have built it so differently, and note that the bias may lie in the training data rather than any biases of the creators.

Marc Andreessen has had a number of tweets suggesting that AI engines will host “the mother of all battles” over content, censorship, bias and so on — far beyond the current social media battles.

I agree.

I saw someone ask ChatGPT if Israel is an apartheid state (I can’t reproduce the answer because right now Chat is down for me — alas!  But try yourself.).  Basically ChatGPT answered no, that only South Africa was an apartheid state.  Plenty of people will be unhappy with that answer, including many supporters of Israel (the moral defense of Israel was, for one thing, not full-throated enough for many tastes).  Many Palestinians will object, for obvious reasons.  And how about all those Rhodesians who suffered under their own apartheid?  Are they simply to be forgotten?

When it comes to politics, an AI engine simply cannot win, or even hold a draw.  Yet there is not any simple way to keep them out of politics either.  By the way, if you are frustrated by ChatGPT skirting your question, rephrase it in terms of asking it to write a dialogue or speech on a topic, in the voice or style of some other person.  Often you will get further that way.

The world hasn’t realized yet how powerful ChatGPT is, and so Open AI still can live in a kind of relative peace.  I am sorry to say that will not last for long.

Chinese Industrial Policy is Failing

In Picking Winners? Government Subsidies and Firm Productivity in China, Branstetter, Li and Ren look at the effect of direct cash subsidies to Chinese firms.

Our results provide little evidence to support the view that government subsidies have been given to more productive firms or that they have enhanced the productivity of the Chinese listed firms. First, at the aggregate level, subsidies seem to be allocated to less productive firms, and the relative productivity of firms’ receiving these subsidies appears to decline further after disbursement. Second, using the categorized subsidy data, we find that neither subsidies promoting R&D and innovation promotion nor subsidies promoting industrial and equipment upgrading are positively associated with firms’ subsequent productivity growth. On the other hand, we find there is a positive association between subsidy and employment, both for aggregate and employment-related subsidies.

I appreciated this discussion of the earlier debate over Japanese industrial policy:

Drawing upon qualitative methods and largely anecdotal evidence, a group of noneconomists, business experts, and policymakers argued that Japan’s rapid recovery and robust growth after WWII could be explained by skillful industrial policy (Johnson, 1982; Prestowitz, 1988; Vogel, 1979) .10 Japan’s “government-led” economic model came to be viewed as a threat to U.S. prosperity by some participants in these debates. By the end of the 1980s, some policy makers and influential experts were calling for a policy of “containing Japan,” lest its unbalanced growth undermine the economy of the United States (Fallows, 1989).

Economists and more empirically minded social scientists in other disciplines viewed the claims of industrial policy efficacy with skepticism and suggested that Japan’s intervention in its economy tended to favor declining industries rather than growing ones (Calder, 1988; Saxonhouse, 1983).11 Eventually, the skeptics were able to bolster their claims with hard data demonstrating that the Japanese government had offered some degree of economic support to nearly all sectors, but that the preponderance of support had not gone to the sectors or firms with the fastest productivity growth. An important turning point in this debate came in the form of a careful econometric deconstruction of the notion that industrial policy drove Japan’s economic miracle published by Richard Beason and David Weinstein in the mid-1990s. This empirical analysis at the industry level found no relationship between productivity growth and the alleged instruments of industrial policy (Beason and Weinstein, 1996). As it turned out, the policy efforts to promote rising sectors championed by some elements of Japan’s bureaucracy were undermined by countervailing efforts to buttress the employment levels and solvency of politically connected but economically weak firms and industries.

Japan’s long period of economic outperformance came to an abrupt end in the early 1990s; after two decades of slow growth, few scholars now argue that Japanese industrial policy is a model worthy of emulation (Ito & Hoshi, 2020).

As I emphasized in my post, What Operation Warp Speed Did, Didn’t and Can’t Do, you need a lot more than “market failure” to have a successful government subsidy program of firms–you need massive externalities and precise, well understood targets. The garden-variety market failure that can be shown on a blackboard isn’t enough, in part because such arguments often underestimate the market and in part because they overestimate government.

Hat tip: Caleb Watney who offers some useful comments.

Is publication bias worse in economics?

Publication selection bias undermines the systematic accumulation of evidence. To assess the extent of this problem, we survey over 26,000 meta-analyses containing more than 800,000 effect size estimates from medicine, economics, and psychology. Our results indicate that meta-analyses in economics are the most severely contaminated by publication selection bias, closely followed by meta-analyses in psychology, whereas meta-analyses in medicine are contaminated the least. The median probability of the presence of an effect in economics decreased from 99.9% to 29.7% after adjusting for publication selection bias. This reduction was slightly lower in psychology (98.9% −→55.7%) and considerably lower in medicine (38.0% −→ 27.5%). The high prevalence of publication selection bias underscores the importance of adopting better research practices such as preregistration and registered reports.

Here is the full article by František Bartoš, et.al, via Paul Blossom.