What is his security clearance level again?

Mr. [Harry] Reid, the former Democratic senator from Nevada who pushed for funding the earlier U.F.O. program when he was the majority leader, said he believed that crashes of vehicles from other worlds had occurred and that retrieved materials had been studied secretly for decades, often by aerospace companies under government contracts.

Here is the full NYT story, much more at the link.  Via you-know-who.

Thursday assorted links

Brazil fact of the day

Considering the limited infrastructure routes, high rate of wear and tear, and the need for various input materials, per-mile Brazilian infrastructure costs are typically quadruple those of a flat, arable, temperate territory — with additional premium for the roads that must pierce the Escarpment.

That is from Peter Zeihan’s quite interesting Disunited Nations: The Scramble for Power in a Disunited World.  The Escarpment, by the way, refers to the cliffs that run along Brazil’s coastal zones and have kept Brazil so long from integrating their cities and building a truly stable nation-state.  The lack of navigable rivers throughout most of the country does not help either — North America was blessed in this regard.

Here is Zeihan’s take on Rio:

…its decline will be emblematic of several of the country’s coastal cities.  It’s too far from the Northern Hemisphere to be involved in manufacturing supply chains, too isolated to serve as entrepot or processing center, and too densely populated to be safe.

Zeihan likes to solve for the equilibrium.

The case against the import of GPT-3

From an email from Agustin Lebron, noting that I will impose no further indentation:

“One thing that’s worth noting:

The degree of excitement about GPT-3 as a replacement for human workers, or as a path to AGI, is strongly inversely correlated with:

(a) How close the person is to the actual work. If you look at the tweets from Altman, Sutskever and Brockman, they’re pumping the brakes pretty hard on expectations.
(b) How much the person has actually built ML systems.

It’s a towering achievement to be able to train a system this big. But to me it’s clearly a dead-end on the way to AGI:

– The architecture itself is 3 years old: https://arxiv.org/abs/1706.03762. It is not an exaggeration to say that GPT-3’s architecture can be described as “take that 2017 paper and make 3 numbers (width, # layers, # heads) much bigger”. The fact that there hasn’t been any improvement in architecture in 3 years is quite telling.

– In the paper itself, the authors clearly say they’re quite near fundamental limits in being able to train an architecture like this. GPT-3 isn’t a starting point, it’s an end-point.

– If you look at more sober assessments (http://lacker.io/ai/2020/07/06/giving-gpt-3-a-turing-test.htmlhttps://minimaxir.com/2020/07/gpt3-expectations/), without the tweet selection bias, it starts to look less impressive.

– Within my fairly heterogeneous circle of ML-expert friends, there’s little disagreement about dead-end-ness.

The most interesting thing about GPT-3 is the attention and press that it’s gotten. I’m still not sure what to make of that, but it’s very notable.

Again, it’s incredibly impressive and also piles of fun, but I’m willing to longbet some decent money that we’re not replacing front-end devs with attention-layer-stacks anytime soon.”

I remain bullish, but it is always worth considering other opinions.

Wednesday assorted links

Which country has had the best response to the coronavirus?

I pick the United Kingdom, even though their public health response has been generally poor.  Why? Their researchers have discovered the single-best mortality-reducing treatment, namely dexamethasone (the cheap steroid), and the Oxford vaccine is arguably the furthest along.  In a world where ideas are global public goods, research matters more than the quality of your testing regime!

And the very recent results on interferon beta — still unconfirmed I should add — come from…the UK.

At the very least, the UK is a clear first in per capita terms.  Here are the closing two paragraphs:

It is fine and even correct to lecture the British (and the Americans) for their poorly conceived messaging and public health measures. But it is interesting how few people lecture the Australians or the South Koreans for not having a better biomedical research establishment. It is yet another sign of how societies tend to undervalue innovation — which makes the U.K.’s contribution all the more important.

Critics of Brexit like to say that it will leave the U.K. as a small country of minor import. Maybe so. In the meantime, the Brits are on track to save the world.

Here is my full Bloomberg column on that topic.  And if you wish to go a wee bit Straussian on this one, isn’t it better if the poor performers on public health measures — if there are going to be some — are (sometimes) the countries with the best and most dynamic biomedical establishments?  Otherwise all the panic and resultant scurry amounts to nothing.  When Mexico has a poor public health response to Covid-19, the world doesn’t get that much back in return.  In this regard, I suspect that biomedical innovation in the United States is more sensitive to internal poor performance on Covid-19 than is the case for Oxford.

What are the best books of this year?

Yes I am compiling my usual list, to be presented right before Black Friday in November, but assembling the list has been much harder this year.  I am sent fewer review copies, the public libraries have been closed for many moons, and I haven’t been able to get to Daunt Books in London, or to my favorite Kinokuniya store in Singapore for that matter.  I haven’t been to a real bookstore period since the lockdowns started.

So I am double-checking with you all — what are in fact the best books of this year?  And please…in the comments list only the truly good ones.

The case for GPT-3

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

As a very rough description, think of GPT-3 as giving computers a facility with words that they have had with numbers for a long time, and with images since about 2012.

The core of GPT-3, which is a creation of OpenAI, an artificial intelligence company based in San Francisco, is a general language model designed to perform autofill. It is trained on uncategorized internet writings, and basically guesses what text ought to come next from any starting point. That may sound unglamorous, but a language model built for guessing with 175 billion parameters — 10 times more than previous competitors — is surprisingly powerful.

The eventual uses of GPT-3 are hard to predict, but it is easy to see the potential. GPT-3 can converse at a conceptual level, translate language, answer email, perform (some) programming tasks, help with medical diagnoses and, perhaps someday, serve as a therapist. It can write poetry, dialogue and stories with a surprising degree of sophistication, and it is generally good at common sense — a typical failing for many automated response systems. You can even ask it questions about God.

Imagine a Siri-like voice-activated assistant that actually did your intended bidding. It also has the potential to outperform Google for many search queries, which could give rise to a highly profitable company.

GPT-3 does not try to pass the Turing test by being indistinguishable from a human in its responses. Rather, it is built for generality and depth, even though that means it will serve up bad answers to many queries, at least in its current state. As a general philosophical principle, it accepts that being weird sometimes is a necessary part of being smart. In any case, like so many other technologies, GPT-3 has the potential to rapidly improve.

There is much more at the link.

*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.

And:

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.

And:

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.

And:

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.”

And:

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