How Canada was populated, and depopulated

Americans were the first major population group to settle permanently in Canada in more than token numbers, and they dominated Canada’s population for six decades.  From the 1770s until the 1830s, the majority of English-speaking Canadians were U.S.-born…

Over the preceding decades, most ambitious and inventive immigrants to Canada had quickly departed for the United States.  The colonies were left with a self-selected group who didn’t want much from life: an agrarian, very religious, austere population of peasants and labourers who tended to see change and growth as a threat rather than an opportunity and a consumer economy as generally sinful excess.

That is from Doug Saunders, Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million, in addition to its positive programme this is also a useful book for understanding Canadian history.

A highly speculative version of the immunological dark matter hypothesis

The COVID-19 pandemic is thought to began in Wuhan, China in December 2019. Mobility analysis identified East-Asia and Oceania countries to be highly-exposed to COVID-19 spread, consistent with the earliest spread occurring in these regions. However, here we show that while a strong positive correlation between case-numbers and exposure level could be seen early-on as expected, at later times the infection-level is found to be negatively correlated with exposure-level. Moreover, the infection level is positively correlated with the population size, which is puzzling since it has not reached the level necessary for population-size to affect infection-level through herd immunity. These issues are resolved if a low-virulence Corona-strain (LVS) began spreading earlier in China outside of Wuhan, and later globally, providing immunity from the later appearing high-virulence strain (HVS). Following its spread into Wuhan, cumulative mutations gave rise to the emergence of an HVS, known as SARS-CoV-2, starting the COVID-19 pandemic. We model the co-infection by an LVS and an HVS and show that it can explain the evolution of the COVID-19 pandemic and the non-trivial dependence on the exposure level to China and the population-size in each country. We find that the LVS began its spread a few months before the onset of the HVS and that its spread doubling-time is \sim1.59\pm0.17 times slower than the HVS. Although more slowly spreading, its earlier onset allowed the LVS to spread globally before the emergence of the HVS. In particular, in countries exposed earlier to the LVS and/or having smaller population-size, the LVS could achieve herd-immunity earlier, and quench the later-spread HVS at earlier stages. We find our two-parameter (the spread-rate and the initial onset time of the LVS) can accurately explain the current infection levels (R^2=0.74); p-value (p) of 5.2×10^-13). Furthermore, countries exposed early should have already achieved herd-immunity. We predict that in those countries cumulative infection levels could rise by no more than 2-3 times the current level through local-outbreaks, even in the absence of any containment measures. We suggest several tests and predictions to further verify the double-strain co-infection model and discuss the implications of identifying the LVS.

That is a new paper from Hagai and Ruth Perets, another link here, via Yaakov.

Sunday assorted links

COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast

Who would guess that a virus could reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts? Nevertheless, because of knock-on effects from a reduction in aircraft traffic it appears to be true.

Weather forecasts play essential parts in daily life, agriculture and industrial activities, and have great economic value. Meteorological observations on commercial aircraft help improve the forecast. However, the global lockdown during the COVID‐19 pandemic (March‐May 2020) chops off 50‐75% of aircraft observations. Here, we verify global weather forecasts (1‐8 days ahead) against the best estimates of atmospheric state, and quantify the impact of the pandemic on forecast accuracy. We find large impacts over remote (e.g., Greenland, Siberia, Antartica and the Sahara Desert) and busy air‐flight regions (e.g., North America, southeast China and Australia). We see deterioration in the forecasts of surface meteorology and atmospheric stratification, and larger deterioration in longer‐term forecasts. This could handicap early warning of extreme weather and cause additional economic damage on the top of that from the pandemic itself. The impacts over Western Europe are small due to the high density of conventional observations, suggesting that introduction of new observations would be needed to minimize the impact of global emergencies on weather forecasts in future.

From Ying Chen, COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis. Yes, the excellent one.

How to aid the arts during a pandemic

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column.  In addition to “the usual,” we might also consider arts vouchers:

The second element of the arts rescue plan would take a different tack. Rather than giving money to arts institutions, the federal government could set aside some amount for a concept known as arts vouchers, originally developed by the British economist Alan Peacock.

Arts vouchers are similar to education vouchers except that they cover the arts. The government would hand them out to each American and allow state and local governments to specify which institutions and individuals would be eligible to receive such vouchers as payment. Unlike direct grants to arts institutions, arts vouchers give consumers a big say in where aid goes. They could be more popular with voters, because they give each one a direct benefit — namely, cash in pocket (yes, they would have to spend it on the arts, but it’s still cash).

Most of all, vouchers would recognize that planning authorities, even at state and local levels, don’t always know which artistic forms will be popular. If some reallocations are inevitable — for instance out of nightclubs and into outdoor bluegrass festivals — vouchers will allow those preferences to be registered quickly.

Obviously, if state and local governments specify a narrow set of eligible recipients, arts vouchers aren’t much different than direct grants. In that case, little is lost. Still, one hopes that vouchers can be used more imaginatively. Imagine the city of Detroit allowing vouchers to be spent not just at the Detroit Institute of the Arts but also on hip-hop, street art and outdoor theatre.

In short, vouchers can allow American artistic innovation to proceed, even flourish, rather than merely preserving everything as it was before the pandemic. Vouchers also serve an important macroeconomic function by maintaining consumer spending and demand, thus addressing one problem area of the broader economy. With direct grants to arts institutions, there is always the danger the funds simply will sit in the coffers of still-closed non-profits while the broader economy remains weak.

Vouchers shouldn’t be the entire plan of arts assistance for at least two reasons: They may not be a sufficient lifeline for small arts institutions that cannot yet reopen, and they may not help the arts sectors that draw in foreign tourists, most of all in New York City.

There is more at the link.

GPT-3, etc.

Here is an email from a reader, I do not really have an opinion of my own yet.  Please note I will not indent any further:

“I wanted to draw your attention to something. Are you familiar with “AI Dungeon,” text-based RPG “open world” game running on GPT-2 / GPT-3?  Here’s the author’s discussion on medium, or you can play the GPT-2 version for free to get a sense of it directly.

But what I really want to draw your attention to is players who are using custom prompts to open up dialogs with GPT-3 about non-game things.

This result is particularly impressive:  https://www.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/hrx2id/a_collection_of_amazing_things_gpt3_has_done/fy7i7im/

( Following that string of posts is a little hampered by reddit’s format; here are the posts in order: part 1,  part 2,  part 3)

If the author is to be believed, they’ve had GPT-3 / “Dragon”:

1. write code
2. act as a pharmacology tutor
3. write poetry
4. translate english, french, chinese (the instruction to “balance the intent of the author with artistic liberty” is particularly interesting)

It’s hard to excerpt, I’d recommend reading the whole thing if you have time.

Here’s another user’s eloquent conversation about the experience of being an AI, using a similar mechanism (screencap images of the convo, part 1 and part 2 ), with a sample prompt if you want to converse with GPT-3 yourself via AI Dungeon.

I am increasingly convinced that Scott Alexander was right that NLP and human language might boostrap a general intelligence. A rough criteria for AGI might be something like (i) pass the Turing test, and (ii) solve general problems; the GPT-3-AI-Dungeon examples above appear to accomplish preliminary versions of both.

GPT was published in June 2018, GPT-2 in February 2019, GPT-3 in May 2020.

As best I can tell GPT -> GPT2 was ~10x increase in parameters over ~8 months, and GPT2 -> GPT3 was ~100x increase of parameters over ~14 months. Any number of naive projections puts a much more powerful release happening over the next ~1-2yrs, and I also know that GPT-3 isn’t necessarily the most powerful NLP AI (perhaps rather the most popularly known.)

When future AI textbooks are written, I could easily imagine them citing 2020 or 2021 as years when preliminary AGI first emerged,. This is very different than my own previous personal forecasts for AGI emerging in something like 20-50 years…

p.s. One of the users above notes that AI Dungeon GPT-3 (“Dragon”) is a subscription service, something like ~$6 a week. MIE.”

Mood affiliation, the police, and rising crime rates

Had a thought on the discussion of rising crime over the last few months inspired by your MR posts on mood affiliation that I wanted to pass along:

There’s been a bit of discussion lately about increased shootings in major cities in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and the two main narratives trying to explain them have been “protests fueling higher tensions” and “cops backing off and not patrolling as much or doing their jobs”. Interestingly, the latter seems to be based on a model where fewer cops and patrols results in more crime, so you might naively expect people who hold that belief would be more likely to believe that simple defunding and reduction of police presence would lead to more crime generally.

But if you believe that mood affiliation predicts opinions better than factual consistency, then it matters more that the former position sounds like “cops to blame, cops bad”, while the second sounds more like “cops are important, cops good”. And most commentators care more about the correct affect towards the police, rather than consistent models of reality, so you largely have commentators that are pro-defund police, but blame their lack of presence for crime increases, or commentators that are pro-police, think defunding would lead to increases in crime, but are less willing to entertain the idea that recent increases in crime are caused by the choices of officers.

That is from an email by Benjamin Hawley.

Saturday assorted links

New York City facts of the day

In June alone some 270 people were shot in the city, a 154 per cent increase from a year earlier. July is not looking any better. Over the recent July 4 holiday weekend, 64 people were shot. Seventeen more were shot this Monday, a day after Gardner’s death. Those shootings have contributed to a 23 per cent increase in homicides so far this year. Burglary is also soaring.

Here is more from Chaffin and Zhang at the FT.

Why does America have such old leaders?

Since 1950, the average age of heads of government in the three dozen member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has steadily declined, from above 60 years old to around 54 today. The average O.E.C.D. national leader is now two decades younger than Mr. Trump — and almost a quarter century younger than Mr. Biden…

And it isn’t just the American presidency that’s gone gray. The average age of Congress has trended upward for decades. Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, is 80; Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is 78. The Supreme Court’s nine justices average above 67. Mr. Trump’s cabinet averages over 60, among the oldest in the O.E.C.D.

Here is one (not the only) explanation:

The way countries select their leaders offers a third possibility. In most O.E.C.D. countries, the head of government is a prime minister chosen by fellow lawmakers in the national legislature. Because party members pick their leaders, and can recall them at will, parliamentary systems give political parties significant control over whom to elevate, said Kaare Strom, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. And parties often have strategic reasons to pick younger leaders: to appeal to particular constituencies or to brand themselves behind more telegenic faces.

Presidential systems, by contrast, give parties less control over who from their ranks will run — and which candidate voters will prefer. “The process is more driven by who’s out there, who’s interested, and what kind of resources they have,” said Professor Strom. “There’s not the same kind of institutional control and vetting of those candidates that you have in the European parliamentary systems.”

Accumulated wealth and fundraising connections may matter more too in the American system, also favoring seniority.  Here is the full NYT story by Ian Prasad Philbrick.

The Thai coronavirus paradox

Dr. Wiput Phoolcharoen, a public health expert at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who is researching an outbreak of the coronavirus in Pattani in southern Thailand, noted that more than 90 percent of those who tested positive there were asymptomatic, much higher than normal.

“What we are studying now is the immune system,” he said.

Dr. Wiput said Thais and other people from this part of Southeast Asia were more susceptible to certain serious cases of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne virus, than those from other continents.

“If our immune systems against dengue are so bad, why can’t our immune system against Covid be better?” he asked.

Here is more from the NYT, good to see coverage of this.  Finally we are getting somewhere.

Friday assorted links

What I’ve been reading

1. Brent Tarter, Virginians and Their Histories.  The best book I have read on the history of Virginia, by an order of magnitude.  And in turn that makes it an excellent book on race as well, and also on broader American history.  If I have to spend the whole year in this state, I might as well read about it.  I learned also that 21,172 Virginians have identified themselves as American Indians, and that this movement is more active than I had realized.

2. Diary of Anne Frank.  It seems inappropriate to call this a “good” or even “great” book.  I had not read it since high school, I will just say it deserves its enduring status, and the reread was much more rewarding and interesting than what I was expecting.

3. Howard Brotz, editor, African-American Social & Political Thought 1850-1920.  A fascinating selection from the debates of the time, reprinting Douglass, Booker T., Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, and others.  Douglass holds up best, including his critique of colonialism.  The weakest argument in the volume was “Haiti is working out fine, so Liberia will succeed as well.”  Of greatest interest to me was the extent to which the African-American debates of that time overlapped with opinions about Africa and the Caribbean.  Recommended, and excellent background for many of the current disputes.

4. Simone Weil: An Anthology, and Gravity and GraceGravity and Grace is the early work.  Its ten best pages are superb, but reading it is mostly a frustrating experience, due to the diffuse nature of the presentation (to be clear, overall I consider that a relatively high reward ratio).  The former collection is the best place to start, noting again there is a certain degree of diffuseness, but as with Žižek there are insights you just don’t get anywhere else.  A good question for any talent selection algorithm is whether it would pick out the teenage Weil and give her a grant to pursue her writing projects.  Sadly she died at age 34 in 1943.

George Mason’s critique of the American Constitution

Not long ago someone tweeted this part:

The President of the United States has the unrestrained Power of granting Pardons for Treason; which may be sometimes exercised to screen from Punishment those whom he had secretly instigated to commit the Crime, & thereby prevent a Discovery of his own Guilt.

And that led me to wish to read the whole thing.  Mason of course was an anti-Federalist, and in his short piece he lays out why he opposes the proposed new constitution.  Here is what I found striking:

1. He feared that the President would become a tool of the Senate or of his own cabinet.

2. He feared the Senate would not be directly accountable to the people.  Of course, in due time we changed that through constitutional amendment.

3. He feared the federal judiciary would end up taking over state and local judiciaries.

4. The Senate can excessively legislate through the use of treaties — quite a contemporary objection by the way.

5. The individual states won’t be able to levy tariffs on trade across state borders.

6. Federal and state legislatures won’t be able to pass enough ex post facto laws (the strangest worry to me).

7. He made various claims that ended up being made obsolete by the adoption of a Bill of Rights.

8. The southern states would end up systematically outvoted.

9. The Vice President could end up becoming too powerful through his role in the Senate.

It is striking to me in these early writings how much people worry about the evolution of the Senate, and how little attention they pay to the Supreme Court, which at the time was viewed as not slated to be so powerful.

The problem of “Congress will toss away its legislative and war-making roles, and give up a lot of effective control of the budget” was also nowhere to be found in the words of the early critics, as far as I can tell.  Nor did they have much of a notion of the rise of the administrative state.

Mason was a forceful writer, but the broad lesson is simply that the future is very difficult to predict.

Thursday assorted links

1. Markets in everything: selfie masks that look like your face.

2. Orthodox privilege, by Paul Graham.

3. Chess players make bigger mistakes when they are playing on-line (are some of those hand/cursor slips?  How much is lack of immersion in the competitive atmosphere of a face to face game?).

4. Derek Lowe on T-cell immunity.  And further research suggesting herd immunity sets in much sooner than we used to think  (again, these results are no excuse for stupidity and complacency, the urgency to make other good decisions remains).

5. Shootings are rising more than usual and arrests are falling (NYT).

6. Wagner in the parking lot as opera returns to Germany (NYT).

7. The current accelerated Chinese testing of vaccines (NYT).