Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Liberalism's Minsky Moment

Why do so many people around the world hate liberalism so much that a Trump election became possible?

Another class of explanations seek to pin the blame on the liberal order, most commonly by characterising populism as a revolt by the losers of globalisation. Except that globalisation has been a tremendous success. Of course there have been some losers, especially in countries like America and Britain with feeble policies for using the winnings from freer trade to compensate and retrain workers in unlucky industries, but not enough to win elections. And populism is riding high even in European countries with elaborate compensation and retraining schemes.

I have another explanation. Liberalism works just fine. It's just that the people got bored with it.


Liberalism has been an enormous moral, political, and economic success. But it has not achieved what seemed easiest of all: convincing those who grow up under it of its moral legitimacy and practical effectiveness in comparison to alternatives. Worse, it seems that those who grow up in the prosperous cocoon of a liberal society may be especially prone to political risk-taking. An uninhibited politics in which everything is permitted has a heady appeal, especially for those who have never had to worry about its risks.

- More Here

Quote of the Day

Take things like playfulness and purposelessness very seriously. . . . This is not meant to be light, but I think I would have somehow encouraged myself to let go a little bit more and hang in there and not pretend to know where this is all going. You don’t need to know where it’s all going.

- Timothy Ferriss, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers

Monday, January 16, 2017

On Reading

Brilliant interview with Doug Lemov @ EconTalk:

Russ Roberts: So, one point you make--you make it a lot in the book--is: This is hard. And teachers need certain strategies and skills to help students prepare to read difficult texts. And I couldn't agree with that more. There is a tension, I think, in modern American life and certainly in education toward making life easier. And that conflicts with this goal of grappling with difficult texts. Talk about close reading--the idea of close reading and how that relates to this.

Doug Lemov: Yeah; I think, close reading, maybe I'll start with why. Close reading--it's the important thing to be able to do in a reading class. Close reading to me is the set of skills that you use when a text is outside your comfort zone--when it's above your comfort zone. And I would just like to take your listeners back to college, or university, but say particularly college, the first time you'd really been stretched, when you were holed up alone with whatever that book was that was incredibly challenging to you and you weren't sure you could make sense of it. It was really hard to be successful in higher education, and most often in your professional life is to be able to read things that are not easy--that are out of your comfort zone. And increasingly, you know, leveled text is winning the day in our schools. And the notion is--my kids get this advice often from their school, 'Read a page of a book. If there are more than 5 words you aren't sure you understand, put it down. It's too hard for you.' Look, I'm sorry, but if those are my kids and that book is Slaughterhouse-Five or that book is Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice or, you know, Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass, I say, 'Pick it up and struggle with it.' And one, read a great text; and two, understand what it means to struggle and how you struggle. And this is something we have struggled as teachers to teach, which is: How do you struggle with a book? What do you do when it's hard? We tell kids to re-read, for example. But we don't always tell them how to reread and what different ways to reread are. And we tell them to look at the text, but we aren't necessarily as rigorous as we could be in showing them what types of questions you ask when you are first just trying to establish meaning; and then to analyze meaning. And I think that part is super-important as well, because the second--I think the first reason for close reading is it's so important for kids to be able to struggle with things that are challenging. But we also focus a lot--the second reason is we focus a lot on what I would call 'gist reading.' Which is, we read something--we read a Shakespearean sonnet, and we say something like, 'What is this sonnet about? Shakespeare is describing the fickle nature of love.' Great; now let's have a conversation about whether love is fickle. But understanding the gist of that sonnet, and understanding each line of the sonnet, and how it contributes to the meaning. And how meaning is made. And all the subtleties of the argument is very, very important. I mean, in a practical sense, if you are my lawyer I want you to understand more than 'Hey, this is a document about the rights of citizens.' I really need you to understand every line--what rights, how, and to whom. And if you are my doctor I need you to understand a little bit more about, 'Hey, this is a document about the importance of glucose levels on health.' So, understanding more than the gist is really important. Understanding how meaning is made and being able to deconstruct it is really important, especially when you need to be able to struggle with the text. And so, close reading I think helps students overcome those challenges. And generally, you know, we've been asked to do it by the new SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and by the Common Core. But there's been very little guidance for teachers on how to do it; and so what's tended to happen has been they've continued to do what they've ordinarily done and now they call it 'close reading.'

Quote of the Day

Each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume that it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free, and envision alternative futures.

- Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Deep Learning for Predicting Human Strategic Behavior


Predicting the behavior of human participants in strategic settings is an important problem in many domains. Most existing work either assumes that participants are perfectly rational, or attempts to directly model each participant's cognitive processes based on insights from cognitive psychology and experimental economics. In this work, we present an alternative, a deep learning approach that automatically performs cognitive modeling without relying on such expert knowledge. We introduce a novel architecture that allows a single network to generalize across different input and output dimensions by using matrix units rather than scalar units, and show that its performance significantly outperforms that of the previous state of the art, which relies on expert-constructed features.

- Full paper here

Good News But Not To Be Confused With Moral Progress

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced on Saturday night that after 146 years of performances, it was folding its big tent forever.

In a statement on the company’s website, Kenneth Feld, the chief executive of Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling, said the circus would hold its final performances in May. He cited declining ticket sales, which dropped even more drastically after elephants were phased out from the shows last year.

“This, coupled with high operating costs, made the circus an unsustainable business for the company,” the statement said. “The circus and its people have continually been a source of inspiration and joy to my family and me.”

- Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus to End Its 146-Year Run

Quote of the Day

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Wisdom Of The Week

Systems vs. Goals
Scott helped me refocus, to use his language, on "systems" instead of "goals." This involves choosing projects and habits that, even if they result in "failures" in the eyes of the outside world, give you transferable skills or relationships. In other words, you choose options that allow you to inevitably "succeed" over time, as you build assets that carry over to subsequent projects.
Fundamentally, "systems" could be thought of asking yourself, "What persistent skills or relationships can I develop?" versus "What short-term goal can I achieve?" The former has a potent snowball effect, while the latter is a binary pass/fail with no consolation prize. Scott writes about this extensively in his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.

-  Chapter on Scott Adams from the book Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferris

Quote of the Day

We propose that a 2 month, 10 man study of artificial intelligence be carried out during the summer of 1956 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.

The study is to proceed on the basis of the conjecture that every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it. An attempt will be made to find how to make machines use language, form abstractions, and concepts, solve kinds of problems now reserved for humans, and improve themselves.

- Dartmouth AI Project Proposal; J. McCarthy et al.; Aug. 31, 1955

Friday, January 13, 2017

Neanderthals Were People, Too

Who was Neanderthal Man? King felt obligated to describe him. But with no established techniques for interpreting archaeological material like the skull, he fell back on racism and phrenology. He focused on the peculiarities of the Neanderthal’s skull, including the “enormously projecting brow.” No living humans had skeletal features remotely like these, but King was under the impression that the skulls of contemporary African and Australian aboriginals resembled the Neanderthals’ more than “ordinary” white-people skulls. So extrapolating from his low opinion of what he called these “savage” races, he explained that the Neanderthal’s skull alone was proof of its moral “darkness” and stupidity. “The thoughts and desires which once dwelt within it never soared beyond those of a brute,” he wrote. Other scientists piled on. So did the popular press. We knew almost nothing about Neanderthals, but already we assumed they were ogres and losers.

The genesis of this idea, the historian Paige Madison notes, largely comes down to flukes of “timing and luck.” While King was working, another British scientist, George Busk, had the same suspicions about the Neander skull. He had received a comparable one, too, from the tiny British territory of Gibraltar. The Gibraltar skull was dug up long before the Neander Valley specimen surfaced, but local hobbyists simply labeled it “human skull” and forgot about it for the next 16 years. Its brow ridge wasn’t as prominent as the Neander skull’s, and its features were less imposing; it was a woman’s skull, it turns out. Busk dashed off a quick report but stopped short of naming the new creature. He hoped to study additional fossils and learn more. Privately, he considered calling it Homo calpicus, or Gibraltar Man.

So, what if Busk — “a conscientious naturalist too cautious to make premature claims,” as Madison describes him — had beaten King to publication? Consider how different our first impressions of a Gibraltar Woman might have been from those of Neanderthal Man: what feelings of sympathy, or even kinship, this other skull might have stirred.


I’ll start with a confession, an embarrassing but relevant one, because I would come to see our history with Neanderthals as continually distorted by an unfortunate human tendency to believe in ideas that are, in reality, incorrect — and then to leverage that conviction into a feeling of superiority over other people. And in retrospect, I realize I demonstrated that same tendency myself at the beginning of this project. Because I don’t want to come off as self-righteous, or as pointing fingers, here goes:

Before traveling to Gibraltar last summer, I had no idea what Gibraltar was. Or rather, I was sure I knew what Gibraltar was, but I was wrong. I thought it was just that famous Rock — an unpopulated hunk of free-floating geology, which, if I’m being honest, I recognized mostly from the Prudential logo: that limestone protuberance at the mouth of the Mediterranean, that elephantine white molar jutting into the sky. True, I was traveling to Gibraltar on short notice; when I cold-called the director of the Gibraltar Museum, Clive Finlayson, he told me the museum happened to be starting its annual excavation of a Neanderthal cave there the following week and invited me to join. Still, even a couple of days before I left, when a friend told me she faintly remembered spending an afternoon in Gibraltar once as a teenager, I gently mansplained to her that I was pretty sure she was mistaken: Gibraltar, I told her, wasn’t somewhere you could just go. In my mind, I had privileged access.

But Neanderthals weren’t the slow-witted louts we’ve imagined them to be — not just a bunch of Neanderthals. As a review of findings published last year put it, they were actually “very similar” to their contemporary Homo sapiens in Africa, in terms of “standard markers of modern cognitive and behavioral capacities.” We’ve always classified Neanderthals, technically, as human — part of the genus Homo. But it turns out they also did the stuff that, you know, makes us human.

Neanderthals buried their dead. They made jewelry and specialized tools. They made ocher and other pigments, perhaps to paint their faces or bodies — evidence of a “symbolically mediated worldview,” as archaeologists call it. Their tracheal anatomy suggests that they were capable of language and probably had high-pitched, raspy voices, like Julia Child. They manufactured glue from birch bark, which required heating the bark to at least 644 degrees Fahrenheit — a feat scientists find difficult to duplicate without a ceramic container. In Gibraltar, there’s evidence that Neanderthals extracted the feathers of certain birds — only dark feathers — possibly for aesthetic or ceremonial purposes. And while Neanderthals were once presumed to be crude scavengers, we now know they exploited the different terrains on which they lived. They took down dangerous game, including an extinct species of rhinoceros. Some ate seals and other marine mammals. Some ate shellfish. Some ate chamomile. (They had regional cuisines.) They used toothpicks.

Wearing feathers, eating seals — maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive. But it’s what our human ancestors were capable of back then too, and scientists have always considered such behavioral flexibility and complexity as signs of our specialness. When it came to Neanderthals, though, many researchers literally couldn’t see the evidence sitting in front of them. A lot of the new thinking about Neanderthals comes from revisiting material in museum collections, excavated decades ago, and re-examining it with new technology or simply with open minds. The real surprise of these discoveries may not be the competence of Neanderthals but how obnoxiously low our expectations for them have been — the bias with which too many scientists approached that other Us. One archaeologist called these researchers “modern human supremacists.”

For millenniums, some scientists believe, before modern humans poured in from Africa, the climate in Europe was exceptionally unstable. The landscape kept flipping between temperate forest and cold, treeless steppe. The fauna that Neanderthals subsisted on kept migrating away, faster than they could. Though Neanderthals survived this turbulence, they were never able to build up their numbers. (Across all of Eurasia, at any point in history, says John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “there probably weren’t enough of them to fill an N.F.L. stadium.”) With the demographics so skewed, Stringer went on, even the slightest modern human advantage would be amplified tremendously: a single innovation, something like sewing needles, might protect just enough babies from the elements to lower the infant mortality rate and allow modern humans to conclusively overtake the Neanderthals. And yet Stringer is careful not to conflate innovation with superior intelligence. Innovation, too, can be a function of population size. “We live in an age where information, where good ideas, spread like wildfire, and we build on them,” Stringer told me. “But it wasn’t like that 50,000 years ago.” The more members your species has, the more likely one member will stumble on a useful new technology — and that, once stumbled upon, the innovation will spread; you need sufficient human tinder for those sparks of culture to catch.

“There was nothing inevitable about modern human success,” Stringer says. “It was luck.” We didn’t defeat the Neanderthals; we just swamped them. Trinkaus compares it to how European wildcats are currently disappearing, absorbed into much larger populations of house cats gone feral. It wasn’t a flattering analogy — we are the house cats — but that was Trinkaus’s point: “I think a lot of this is basically banal,” he says.

- More Here