Favorite podcasts of 2017

(no order)

  • S-Town
  • Ponzi Supernova
  • Crimetown
  • Planet Money
  • StartUp
  • Slate Star Codex
  • Everything Hertz
  • Casefile
  • Reply All
  • This American Life
  • Pessimists Archive
  • Waking Up
  • EconTalk
  • 80,000 Hours
  • Rationally Speaking
  • The Weeds
  • The Daily
  • Conversations with Tyler
  • The Insight
  • Criminal
  • Radiolab
  • More Perfect
  • Ben Shapiro Show [good for popping my filter bubble, but also see here]

Excerpts from The Doomsday Machine

Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame recent published a book about his days as a nuclear war planner, The Doomsday Machine. Below are just a few of the bits I found interesting. (There were many others, but they were more difficult to excerpt.)

My first summer [at RAND] I worked seventy-hour weeks, devouring secret studies and analyses till late every night, to get up to speed on the problems and the possible solutions. I was looking for clues as to how we could frustrate the Soviet versions of RAND and SAC, and do it in time to avert a nuclear Pearl Harbor. Or postpone it. From the Air Force intelligence estimates I was newly privy to, and the dark view of the Soviets, which my colleagues shared with the whole national security community, I couldn’t believe that the world would long escape nuclear holocaust. Alain Enthoven and I were the youngest members of the department. Neither of us joined the extremely generous retirement plan RAND offered. Neither of us believed, in our late twenties, we had a chance of collecting on it.

Just one of many stories on how unreliable Ellsberg found command and control procedures to be:

To prevent unauthorized action by a single duty officer with access to Execute codes in any particular command post, there was a universal and supposedly ironclad rule that at least two such officers must be on duty at all times, day and night, and they must both be involved in, and agree on, the authentication of an order to execute nuclear war plans from a higher authority and on their decision to relay this order to subordinate commands… One way or another, each post purported to have arrangements so that one officer by himself could neither authenticate orders received nor send out authenticated Execute commands.

But in practice, not. As various duty officers explained to me, oftentimes only one man was on duty in the office. The personnel requirements for having two qualified officers sitting around in every such station at literally every moment of the night were just too stringent to be met. Duty rosters did provide for it, but not for backups when one officer “had” to be elsewhere—to get some food or for a medical emergency, his own or, on some bases, his wife’s. Did that mean that all subordinate commands would be paralyzed, unable to receive authenticated Execute orders, if the one remaining duty officer received what appeared to be an order to commence nuclear operations during that interval?

That couldn’t be permitted, in the eyes of the officers assigned to this duty, each of whom had faced up to the practical possibility of this situation. So each of them had provided for it “unofficially,” in his own mind or usually by agreement with his fellow duty officers. Each, in reality, had the combinations to both safes, after all, or some arrangement for acquiring them. If there was only one safe, each officer would, in reality, know the full combination to it. One officer would hold both envelopes when the other had to be away. Where there were more elaborate safeguards, the officers had always spent some of their idle hours late at night figuring out how to circumvent them, “if necessary.” They had always succeeded in doing so. I found this in every post I visited.

[Read more…]

Books, music, etc. from Q4 2017

Books

  • Berezow & Campbell, Science Left Behind: Meh.
  • Biederman & Bennis, Organizing Genius: Some interesting stories, not sure how reliable they are, authors make no attempt to get data on the question.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Denis Villenueve: Blade Runner 2049 (2017) ★
  • Mike Mills: 20th Century Women (2016)
  • Various: Top of the Lake, season 1 (2013) ★
  • Various: Bojack Horseman, season 3 (2017)
  • Noah Baumbach: The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) ★
  • Mike Leigh: Life is Sweet (1990)
  • Dee Rees: Mudbound (2017)
  • Various: Broad City, season 4 (2017)
  • Various: Better Things, season 2 (2017)
  • Johnson: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
  • Aronofsky: Mother! (2017) ★

Games

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Breath of the Wild (2017) ★
  • Super Mario Odyssey (2017) ★
  • Steamworld Dig 2 (2017)

Media I’m looking forward to, Q1 2018 edition

Added this month:

Books

bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

Pinker on implementing world peace

From Better Angels of Our Nature, ch. 5:

In “Perpetual Peace,” Kant envisioned a “federation of free states” that would fall well short of an international Leviathan. It would be a gradually expanding club of liberal republics rather than a global megagovernment, and it would rely on the soft power of moral legitimacy rather than on a monopoly on the use of force. The modern equivalent is the intergovernmental organization or IGO — a bureaucracy with a limited mandate to coordinate the policies of participating nations in some area in which they have a common interest. The international entity with the best track record for implementing world peace is probably not the United Nations, but the European Coal and Steel Community, an IGO founded in 1950 by France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy to oversee a common market and regulate the production of the two most important strategic commodities. The organization was specifically designed as a mechanism for submerging historic rivalries and ambitions — especially West Germany’s — in a shared commercial enterprise. The Coal and Steel Community set the stage for the European Economic Community, which in turn begot the European Union.

Many historians believe that these organizations helped keep war out of the collective consciousness of Western Europe. By making national borders porous to people, money, goods, and ideas, they weakened the temptation of nations to fall into militant rivalries, just as the existence of the United States weakens any temptation of, say, Minnesota and Wisconsin to fall into a militant rivalry. By throwing nations into a club whose leaders had to socialize and work together, they enforced certain norms of cooperation. By serving as an impartial judge, they could mediate disputes among member nations. And by holding out the carrot of a vast market, they could entice applicants to give up their empires (in the case of Portugal) or to commit themselves to liberal democracy (in the case of former Soviet satellites and, perhaps soon, Turkey).

Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy on AI risk

Richard Clarke and R.P. Eddy recently published Warnings, a book in which they try to identify “those rare people who… have accurate visions of looming disasters.” The opening chapter explains the aims of the book:

…this book will seek to answer these questions: How can we detect a real Cassandra among the myriad of pundits? What methods, if any, can be employed to better identify and listen to these prophetic warnings? Is there perhaps a way to distill the direst predictions from the surrounding noise and focus our attention on them?

…As we proceeded through these Cassandra Event case studies in a variety of different fields, we began to notice common threads: characteristics of the Cassandras, of their audiences, and of the issues that, when applied to a modern controversial prediction of disaster, might suggest that we are seeing someone warning of a future Cassandra Event. By identifying those common elements and synthesizing them into a methodology, we create what we call our Cassandra Coefficient, a score that suggests to us the likelihood that an individual is indeed a Cassandra whose warning is likely accurate, but is at risk of being ignored.

Having established this process for developing a Cassandra Coefficient based on past Cassandra Events, we next listen for today’s Cassandras. Who now among us may be accurately warning us of something we are ignoring, perhaps at our own peril?

Of the risks covered in the book, Clarke says he’s most worried about sea level rise, and Eddy says he’s most worried about superintelligence.

Below is a sampling of what they say in the chapter on risks from advanced AI systems. Note that I’m merely quoting from their take, not necessarily agreeing with it. (Indeed, there are significant parts I disagree with.)

[Read more…]

There was only one industrial revolution

Many people these days talk about an impending “fourth industrial revolution” led by AI, the internet of things, 3D printing, quantum computing, and more. The first three revolutions are supposed to be:

  • 1st industrial revolution (~1800-1870): the world industrializes for the first time via steam, textiles, etc.
  • 2nd industrial revolution (1870-1914): continued huge growth via steel, oil, other things, and especially electricity.
  • 3rd industrial revolution (1980-today): personal computers, internet, etc.

I think this is a misleading framing for the last few centuries, though, because one of these things is not remotely like the others. As far as I can tell, the major curves of human well-being and empowerment bent exactly once in recorded history, during the “1st” industrial revolution:

all curves, with events

(And yes, there’s still a sharp jump around 1800-1870 if you chart this on a log scale.)

The “2nd” and “3rd” industrial revolutions, if they are coherent notions at all, merely continued the new civilizational trajectory created by the “1st” industrial revolution.

I think this is important for thinking about how big certain future developments might be. For example, authors of papers at some top machine learning conference seem to think there’s a decent chance that “unaided machines [will be able to] accomplish every task better and more cheaply than human workers” sometime in the next few decades. There’s plenty of reason to doubt this aggregate forecast, but if that happens, I think the impact would likely be on the scale of the (original) industrial revolution, rather than that of e.g. the (so small it’s hard to measure?) impact of the “3rd” industrial revolution. But for some other technologies (e.g. “internet of things”), it’s hard to tell a story for how it could possibly be as big a deal as the original industrial revolution.

Storeable, convenient veg*n meal options

Ever since I wrapped up my animal consciousness report, I’ve been working to become a better reducetarian. As such, I’ve been hunting for storeable, convenient veg*n meal options. (Getting restaurants to carry tastier veg*n food is harder, but I’ve been enjoying my Impossible Burgers!)

A spreadsheet of my findings thus far is here. In my area, they’re available locally via Instacart. So far, my tastiest solution is “buy Vegetarian Plus meals.”

Most of these meals don’t satisfy me on their own, so I usually supplement with a banana or whatever.

Books, music, etc. from August-September 2017

Books

  • Tegmark, Life 3.0

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Spicer: Ingrid Goes West (2017) ★
  • Ross: Captain Fantastic (2016)
  • Shults: It Comes at Night (2017)
  • Young: Hounds of Love (2016)
  • Alvarez: Don’t Breathe (2016)

Three wild speculations from amateur quantitative macrohistory

Note: As usual, these are my personal guesses and opinions, not those of my employer.

In How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?, I looked for measures (or proxy measures) of human well-being / empowerment for which we have “decent” scholarly estimates of the global average going back thousands of years. For reasons elaborated at some length in the full report, I ended up going with:

  1. Physical health, as measured by life expectancy at birth.
  2. Economic well-being, as measured by GDP per capita (PPP) and percent of people living in extreme poverty.
  3. Energy capture, in kilocalories per person per day.
  4. Technological empowerment, as measured by war-making capacity.
  5. Political freedom to live the kind of life one wants to live, as measured by percent of people living in a democracy.

(I also especially wanted measures of subjective well-being and social well-being, and also of political freedom as measured by global rates of slavery, but these data aren’t available; see the report.)

Anyway, the punchline of the report is that when you chart these six measures over the past few millennia (data; zoomable), you get a chart like this (axes removed for space reasons): [Read more…]

Hillary Clinton on AI risk

From What Happened, p. 241:

Technologists like Elon Musk, Sam Altman, and Bill Gates, and physicists like Stephen Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence could one day pose an existential security threat. Musk has called it “the greatest risk we face as a civilization.” Think about it: Have you ever seen a movie where the machines start thinking for themselves that ends well? Every time I went out to Silicon Valley during the campaign, I came home more alarmed about this. My staff lived in fear that I’d start talking about “the rise of the robots” in some Iowa town hall. Maybe I should have. In any case, policy makers need to keep up with technology as it races ahead, instead of always playing catch-up.

Update 11/24/2017: Clinton said more about AI fears in an interview with Hugh Hewitt:

Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, a lot of really smart people are sounding an alarm that we’re not hearing. And their alarm is artificial intelligence is not our friend. It can assist us in many ways if it is properly understood and contained. But we are racing headfirst into a new era of artificial intelligence that is going to have dramatic effects on how we live, how we think, how we relate to each other. You know, what are we going to do when we get driverless cars? It sounds like a great idea. And how many millions of people, truck drivers and parcel delivery people and cab drivers and even Uber drivers, what do we do with the millions of people who will no longer have a job? We are totally unprepared for that. What do we do when we are connected to the internet of things and everything we know and everything we say and everything we write is, you know, recorded somewhere? And it can be manipulated against us. So I, you know, one thing I wanted to do if I had been president was to have a kind of blue ribbon commission with people from all kinds of expertise coming together to say what should America’s policy on artificial intelligence be?

But of course, the worries Gates & Musk & Hawking have expressed are not about self-driving cars.

Books, music, etc. from July 2017

Books

  • [none]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Nichols: Loving (2016)
  • Gray: The Lost City of Z (2016)
  • Various: Transparent, season 3 (2016)
  • Mangold: Logan (2017)
  • Showalter: The Big Sick (2017)
  • Peele: Get Out (2017) ★
  • Nolan: Dunkirk (2017) ★
  • Arnold: American Honey (2016)

Books, music, etc. from June 2017

Books

  • Allison: Destined for War (2017). Decent, but very one-sided in its arguments. Scary.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

  • [none]

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Various: Stranger Things, season 1 (2016)
  • Campos: Christine (2016)
  • Various: Fargo, season 3 (2017) ★
  • Various: Better Call Saul, season 3 (2017) ★
  • Various: The Handmaid’s Tale, season 1 (2017) ★

Media I’m looking forward to, July 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

Books, music, etc. from May 2017

Books

  • [none]

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

  • Saagara: 2 (2017)
  • Perfume Genius: No Shape (2017)

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Birbiglia: Don’t Think Twice (2016)
  • Various: Master of None, season 2 (2017)

Media I’m looking forward to, June 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

Monkey classification errors

More Wynne & Udell (2013):

Michael D’Amato and Paul van Sant (1988) trained Cebus apella monkeys to discriminate slides containing people from those that did not. The monkeys readily learned to do this. Then the monkeys were presented with novel slides they had never seen before which contained either scenes with people or similar scenes with no people in them. Here also the monkeys spontaneously classified the majority of slides correctly. So far, so good – clear evidence that the monkeys had not just learned the particular slides they had been trained on but had abstracted a person concept from those slides that they then successfully applied to pictures they had never seen before.

Or had they? D’Amato and van Sant did not stop their analysis simply with the observation that the monkeys had successfully transferred their learning to novel slides – rather they went on to look carefully at the kinds of errors the monkeys had made. Although largely successful with the novel slides, the monkeys made some very puzzling mistakes. For example, one of the person slides that the monkeys had failed to recognize as a picture of a human being had been a head and shoulders portrait – which, to another human, is a classic image of a person. One of the slides that the monkeys had incorrectly classified as containing a human had actually been a shot of a jackal carrying a dead flamingo in its mouth; both the jackal and its prey were also reflected in the water beneath them. What person in her right mind could possible confuse a jackal with a flamingo in its mouth with another human being?

The explanation for both these mistakes is the same: the monkeys had generalized on the basis of the particular features contained in the slides they had been trained with rather than learning the more abstract concept that the experimenters had intended. The head and shoulders portrait of a person lacked the head-torso-arms-legs body shape that had been most common among the images that the monkeys had been trained with, and consequently, they had rejected it as not similar enough to the positive image they were looking for. Similarly, during training, the only slides that had contained flashes of red happened to be those of people. Three of the training slides had contained people wearing a piece of red clothing, whereas none of the nonperson slides had contained the color red. Consequently, when the jackal with prey slide came along during testing, it contained the color red, and so the monkeys classified it as a person slide.