The robot culture that is Singapore

The robot scans its surroundings also for offenses like Illegal hawking, improperly parked bicycles, assembly of more than five people in line with prevailing Covid-19 safety management measures and e-scooters and motorcycles driving on footpaths.

In case a suspicion arises, the robot takes video footage and sends it to a command and control center which feeds the material into a video analytics system programmed to recognise a person’s posture and other visual indicators of “wrongdoing.”

“Educating the public” with pre-recorded messages

Then, the robot blares out a pre-recorded message, for example, “Please do not smoke in prohibited areas such as covered walkways.” The message is meant to “educate the public and deter such behaviours,” according to a release by the project team.

The robotic watchdog is a joint project involving five public Singapore agencies, namely the Home Team Science and Technology Agency, or HTX, the National Environment Agency, the Land Transport Authority, the Singapore Food Agency and the Housing and Development Board. It will go on for a three-week trial phase for now.

During the trial, the robot will be used for education and deterrence, rather than enforcement, the authorities said. The aim is to collect data to improve the analytics system and fine-tune any kinks.

Here is the full story, via Jasper C.

Gaming is coming to get us

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, the first part concerns culture, but here is the section on government regulation:

The self-contained nature of games also means they will be breaking down government regulation. Plenty of trading already takes place in games — involving currencies, markets, prices and contracts. Game creators and players set and enforce the rules, and it is harder for government regulators to play a central role.

The lesson is clear: If you wish to create a new economic institution, put it inside a game. Or how about an app that gamifies share trading? Do you wish to experiment with a new kind of stock exchange or security outside the purview of traditional government regulation? Try the world of gaming, perhaps combined with crypto, and eventually your “game” just might influence events in the real world.

To date the regulators have tried to be strict. It is currently difficult to build fully realized new worlds without creating something that is legally defined as an unregistered security. Those regulations don’t receive a lot of attention from the mainstream media, but they are rapidly becoming some of the most significant and restrictive rules on the books.

At the same time, regulators are already falling behind. Just as gaming has outraced the world of culture, so will gaming outrace U.S. regulatory capabilities, for a variety of reasons: encryption, the use of cryptocurrency, the difficulties of policing virtual realities, varying rules in foreign jurisdictions and, not incidentally, a lack of expertise among U.S. regulators. (At least the Chinese government’s attempt to restrict youth gaming to three hours a week, while foolhardy, reflects a perceptive cultural conservatism.)

Both the culture-weakening and the regulation-weakening features of games follow from their one basic characteristic: They are self-contained worlds. Until now, human institutions and structures have depended on relatively open and overlapping networks of ideas. Gaming is carving up and privatizing those spaces. This shift is the big trend that hardly anyone — outside of gaming and crypto — is noticing.

If the much-heralded “metaverse” ever arrives, gaming will swallow many more institutions, or create countervailing versions of them. Whether or not you belong to the world of gaming, it is coming for your worlds. I hope you are ready.

And the piece has a good footnote on how gaming relates to postmodernism.

Sunday assorted links

1. David Autor on the labor shortage (NYT).

2. Lawrence H. White corrects the record on Hayek.

3. China fact of the day: “…of all countries looked at by the IMF, in 2000 China had the most decentralized government as measured by the percentage of spending that is local.”  NB: Better link is this one.

4. A fourth dose for Israel?

5. The culture that is Serbia?  And Straussian Beatles Man We Was Lonely.

6. CDC once again not heeding the science, not even the medical science (much less expected value maximization).  And yet further obvious, rookie screw-ups.  And where are those Delta-specific boosters?

7. Ross Douthat on the American Empire (NYT).

Is there a value of application thoroughness?

Ultimately, hiring outsiders is always going to be fraught. But I think Katsenelson was on to something with a ploy he used a few years ago to recruit an analyst. Determined to find someone who really cared about investment research, not just money, he devised a tediously time-consuming job advert. It asked candidates to list all the books they had read in the past 12 months; talk about the three books — and two people — who had influenced them most; provide a stock idea analysis and write a cover letter to say why not hiring them would be a massive mistake.

About 50 applications came in, only a dozen of which answered each question. But the successful candidate is still with the firm and for Katsenelson, “it worked out great”. This tactic won’t suit every company, or every job. But I bet it does better than the average algorithm.

Here is more from Pilita Clark from the FT.

“Conspicuous corruption”

People can exhibit their status by the consumption of particular goods or experiential purchases; this is known as “conspicuous consumption”; the practice is widespread and explains the market characteristics of a whole class of goods, Veblen goods, demand for which increase in tandem with their price. The value of such positional goods lies in their distribution among the population—the rarer they are, the more desirable they become. At the same time, higher income, often associated with higher status, has been studied in its relation to unethical behavior. Here we present research that shows how a particular Veblen good, illicit behavior, and wealth, combine to produce the display of illegality as a status symbol. We gathered evidence at a large, country-level, scale of a particular form of consumption of an illictly acquired good for status purposes. We show that in Greece, a developed middle-income country, where authorities cannot issue custom vanity license plates, people acquire distinguishing plate numbers that act as vanity plate surrogates. We found that such license plates are more common in cars with bigger engines and in luxury brands, and are therefore associated with higher value vehicles. This cannot be explained under the lawful procedures for allocating license plates and must therefore be the result of illegal activities, such as graft. This suggests a pattern of “conspicuous corruption”, where individuals break the law and use their gains as status symbols, knowing that the symbols hint at rule-breaking, as long as the unlawful practice cannot be incontestably established.

Here is the link by Panos Louridas and Diomidis Spinellis, via the excellent Kevin Lewis.

Those new service sector jobs China markets in everything

At 40 years old, Zheng says she’s tired of searching for the perfect man. So she’s decided to hire one instead.

Whenever she feels like some male company, the divorcée heads to a café in central Shanghai named The Promised Land. There, she spends hours being pampered by a handsome young server, who fetches her drinks, watches movies with her, and listens attentively to her anecdotes.

The sessions cost over 400 yuan ($60) each time, but Zheng says they’re worth every cent.

“The butlers respect me and care about my feelings,” she tells Sixth Tone. “Even if you have a boyfriend, he might not be this sweet, right?”

…The outlets have found success by tapping into the frustrations of Chinese women, many of whom feel society remains far too patriarchal…

Wang Qian, a 24-year-old student, is a regular visitor to the café. She tells Sixth Tone she enjoys the feeling of empowerment she gets from spending time there.

According to Wang, many of the men she meets in normal life are pu xin nan — a term popularized by the female comedian Yang Li that roughly translates as “men who are so average, yet so confident.” The butlers, however, are considerate and never mansplain anything to her, she says…

The butler feels he has to be flawless to progress at The Promised Land. The café imposes a rigid hierarchy. Butlers are divided into three levels: entry, advanced, and celebrity — with each priced differently. To spur competition, the managers hang a board on the wall displaying the number of tips each server has received.

Here is the full story, interesting throughout.

Two brutal tests — can you pass them?

We all give people “tests” when we meet them, whether we are consciously aware of it or not.  Here are two of mine:

1. The chess test.  When I played chess in my youth, I would commonly analyze games with other players.  You would then rapidly learn just how much and how quickly the other player could figure out the position and see imaginative variations.  Some players maybe had equal or even inferior results to mine (I had a good work ethic and took no drugs), but it was obvious they were greater talents at analysis.  Top chess players who worked with Bobby Fischer also attest that in this regard he was tops, not just “another great player.”  That was true even before he was good enough and steady enough to become world champion.

When talking ideas with people, the same issue surfaces — just how quickly and how imaginatively do they grasp what is going on?  You should put aside whatever they have or have not accomplished.  How much do they have this Bobby Fischer-like capacity to analyze?  No matter what their recent results have been (remember how Efim Geller used to kick Fischer’s butt in actual games?).

2. The art test.  Take a person’s favorite genres of art, music, whatever.  But something outside of their work lives.  Maybe it can even be sports.  How deeply do they understand the said subject matter?  At what kind of level can they talk about it or enjoy it or maybe even practice it?

Remember in Hamlet, how Hamlet puts on a play right before the King’s eyes, to see how the King reacts to “art”?

Here we are testing for sensibility more than any kind of rigorous analysis, though the analysis test may kick in as well.  Just how deep is the person’s deepest sensibility?

If you are investing in talent, you probably would prefer someone really good at one of these tests over someone who is “pretty good” at both of them.

3. All other tests.

Now, people can be very successful while failing both “the chess test” and “the art test.”  In fact, most successful people fail both of these tests.  Still, their kinds of success will be circumscribed.  They are more likely to be hard-working, super-sharp, and accomplished, perhaps charismatic as well, while lacking depth and imaginative faculty in their work.

Nonetheless they will be super-focused on being successful.

I call this the success test.

Now if someone can pass the chess test, the art test, and the success test with flying colors…there are such people!

And if the person doesn’t pass any of those tests, they still might be just fine, but there will be a definite upper cap on their performance.

Our anti-science science advisors, yet again

Top federal health officials have told the White House to scale back a plan to offer coronavirus booster shots to the general public later this month, saying that regulators need more time to collect and review all the necessary data, according to people familiar with the discussion.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warned the White House on Thursday that their agencies may be able to determine in the coming weeks whether to recommend boosters only for recipients of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine — and possibly just some of them to start.

Here is more from the NYT.  I’ll say it again simply: they refuse to apply scientific reasoning under the heading of expected value theory.  I should note, however, that if they recommend it all be sent to Brazil I will agree, but even that decision they should be able to reach within the end of business day.

USA fact of the day retail theft and resale is rising

The Coalition of Law Enforcement and Retail, a trade association, which Mr. Dugan heads, estimates that organized retail theft accounts for around $45 billion in annual losses for retailers these days, up from $30 billion a decade ago. At CVS, reported thefts have ballooned 30% since the pandemic began…

“The digital world has become a pretty easy way to move this product,” Home Depot Chairman and CEO Craig Menear told investors in December 2019, becoming one of the first executives to highlight organized retail crime. “It is literally millions and millions of dollars of multiple retailers’ goods.”

Here is the full WSJ story, interesting throughout.

Friday assorted links

1. Capybara population ‘wreaking havoc’ in wealthy community in Argentina.

2. Scott Sumner on his new book.

3. New boxed set covers the Beach Boys last creative period (NYT).

4. David Brooks (albeit with other purposes in mind) expresses why I am skeptical about the possibility of ems (NYT).

5. AMA with Vitalik, the lead question is from Elon, I am in there too, as is Alex and many others you might know (only the people he follows on Twitter were allowed to ask).  Definitely recommended.

Authoritarian Australia

Australia is now one of the most authoritarian states in the world. Conor Friedersdorf writes:

Australia is undoubtedly a democracy, with multiple political parties, regular elections, and the peaceful transfer of power. But if a country indefinitely forbids its own citizens from leaving its borders, strands tens of thousands of its citizens abroad, puts strict rules on intrastate travel, prohibits citizens from leaving home without an excuse from an official government list, mandates masks even when people are outdoors and socially distanced, deploys the military to enforce those rules, bans protest, and arrests and fines dissenters, is that country still a liberal democracy?

As I noted earlier, Australia is in clear contravention of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, Article 13 of which states:

  1. Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
  2. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Friedersdorf continues:

To give Australia’s approach its due, temporary restrictions on liberty were far more defensible early in the pandemic…Had it behaved rationally and adequately valued liberty, a rich nation like Australia would have spent lavishly—before knowing which vaccines would turn out to be most effective—to secure an adequate supply of many options for its people. It could afford to eat the cost of any extra doses and donate them to poorer countries. Australia then could have marshaled its military and civil society to vaccinate the nation as quickly as possible, lifted restrictions more fully than Europe and the United States did, and argued that the combination of fewer deaths and the more rapid return to normalcy made their approach a net win.

Instead, Australia invested inadequately in vaccines and, once it acquired doses, was too slow to get them into arms. “Of the 16 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine that have been released to the government by manufacturer CSL, only about 8 million have gone into the arms of Australians,” The Age reported on August 21, citing concern about blood clots and a widespread preference for the Pfizer vaccine.

…Because of its geography, Australia is a neighbor and an observer of authoritarian countries as varied as China and Singapore. But its own fate, too, may turn on whether its people crave the feeling of safety and security that orders from the top confer, or whether they want to be free.

Australians largely support the restrictions but to me that makes them all the more disturbing.

Temporary restrictions on liberty can be justified in an emergency if the restrictions produce something else of great value but respecting the great value of liberty and individual rights means doing everything in one’s power to limit the scope of and lift such restrictions as quickly and completely as possible.

China campaign of the day

The Chinese government has ordered a boycott of “sissy pants” celebrities as it escalates a fight against what it sees as a cultural import that threatens China’s national strength.

In a directive issued on Thursday, China’s TV watchdog said entertainment programs should firmly reject the “deformed aesthetics” of niangpao, a derogatory term that refers to effeminate men.

The order came as Beijing tightens control over the country’s entertainment industry, taking aim at an explosion of TV and streaming shows that hold increasing sway over pop culture and the youth.

Young, delicate-looking men who display gentle personalities and act in boys’ love dramas have amassed large fan bases mostly comprising women. Many of them, like Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo, are China’s top-earning celebrities.

They came in sharp contrast with the older generation of male stars, who were expected to sing revolutionary songs and play intrepid, aggressive soldiers defending the country from foreign enemies.

But the more gender-neutral aesthetics have come under criticism from conservative voices in society. Some officials and parents fear the less macho men on TV would cause young men to lose their masculinity and therefore threaten the country’s development.

Here is the full story, and I thank B. for the pointer.  As I said yesterday, I do get the point but such campaigns are not for me…

Ezra Klein making the case for Gavin Newsom

“If Gavin were recalled, that’d be disastrous for housing policy in this state,” Brian Hanlon, the president of California YIMBY, a pro-housing group, told me. “The Legislature, I believe, could override Larry Elder’s vetoes on key bills. But all of these hard-fought housing bills that we are not passing with a supermajority cannot survive an Elder veto. All that would die.”

“I also think that if the recall succeeds, in part due to housing, the overall situation in Sacramento would just be chaotic,” Hanlon added later. “It’ll be a lost year as Democrats and the Legislature work to retake the governor’s office in 2022.”

Metcalf, the former head of the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development, has moved from dismayed to impressed by Newsom’s record on housing. “We’re beginning to see Newsom find the levers to pull,” he said. “We’re seeing him figure out how to get the Legislature to do what he wants. We’re just getting there with Newsom, which would make it very painful to lose him now.”

There is much more at the NYT link.