Tag Archives: econ

National AI Strategy

Some of my co-workers published a sponsored piece in the Atlantic calling for a national AI strategy, which was tied in to some discussions at the Washington Ideas event.

I'm 100% on board with the US having a strategy, but I want to offer one caveat: "comprehensive national strategies" are susceptible to becoming top-down, centralized plans, which I think is dangerous.

I'm generally disinclined to centralized planning, for both efficiency and philosophical reasons. I'm not going to take the time now to explain why; I doubt anything I could scratch out here would shift people very much along any kind of Keynes-Hayek spectrum.

So why am I bothering to bring this up? Mostly because I think it would be especially ill-conceived to adopt central planning when it comes to AI. The recent progress in AI has been largely a result of abandoning top-down techniques in favor of bottom-up ones. We've abandoned hand-coded visual feature detectors for convolutional neural networks. We've abandoned human-engineered grammar models for statistical machine translation. In one discipline after another emergent behavior has outpaced decades worth of expert-designed techniques. To layer top-down policy-making on a field built of bottom-up science would be a waste, and an ironic one at that.


PS Having spoken to two of the three authors of this piece, I don't mean to imply that they support centralized planning of the AI industry. This is just something I would be on guard against.

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What I've Been Reading

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel

Not bad. I'm a sucker for this type of history of a single commodity or common household object. It did make we want to try to get my hands on one of the few non-Cavendish cultivars of bananas that ever make their way to America.

Banana, Dan Koeppel

Very short summary/background info: all of the bananas at American grocery stores are genetic clones. This leaves them very susceptible to disease. This is not a theoretical concern: the variety which was previously ubiquitous was wiped out in the middle of the 20th century, and the current variety is being decimated in many growing regions. The fact that they're sterile fruits propagated clonally also makes it extremely difficult to breed other, more resistant varieties the way we do with the majority of our produce. Also important to the story is that banana production for the US and European markets has historically been very oligopolistic, leading to some … unsavory … business practices.

(Digression: The artificial banana flavor used in candies tastes nothing like our modern Cavendish bananas but I have heard that it is a very good match for the flavor of the Gros Michel that the Cavendish replaced. I've never been able to find definitive confirmation of that though, and I wish it was mentioned in this book. This a minor was disappointment. On the other hand, I was unreasonably amused by Koeppel's tongue-in-cheek translation of the "Gros Michel" as "The Big Mike".)

There is a temptation when people right books about subjects that have been overlooked to try to swing the pendulum too hard the other way to make the audience realize how important the subject is. Koeppel mostly avoids that trap, but falls in to it somewhat when discussing more current history. There's a lot more to Latin American politics and the rise of Bolivarian Socialism than the treatment of workers on banana plantations, which Koeppel asserted as a primary cause. Similarly he drew an analogy between the Clinton administration filing a complaint with the WTO about EU banana import duties and the active role that United Fruit played in shaping US foreign policy in Latin America between the beginning of the century and the middle of the Cold War. Both have fruit companies involved in international relations, that's where the similarities end. One of those is egregious cronyism, and one is a rules-based order in action.

Koeppel was on the shakiest ground towards the end of the book, when he was discussing the future of the banana market. His discussion of Fair Trade could benefit from reading Amrita Narlikar and similar critiques. I do give Koeppel much credit for his recognition of Consumer Sovereignty. If the conditions of banana growers are going to improve it won't be because Chiquita/Dole/etc. become kinder and gentler, it must be because consumers decide to spend more money buying bananas. Our stated preferences for better conditions for poor agricultural workers do not match our revealed preferences as consumers.

I also commend Koeppel for admitting that researching this book caused him to change his mind about transgenic food. He had previously been anti-GMO but became convinced genetic manipulation is the only way to save the banana crop. I do wish he had extended more of the same enthusiastic acceptance of transgenics to other crops, which he only went halfway to doing. Yes, bananas sterility makes them somewhat of a special case, but only somewhat.

A couple of months back I read Dan Reader's Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. If you're going to pick up one book about a non-cereal staple crop (and why wouldn't you?), I liked Potato much better.


Pilot X, Tom Merritt

This is a time-travel adventure story. It seemed like it could have been a Doctor Who episode. Merritt handles the oddities that result from time travel with deftness and wit. (A couple of examples that make you stop and think. 1: "This will be the last time I meet you, but not the last time you meet me." 2: The main character spends twelve years in training for a job, but it takes only four years, because when he gets to the end of the four year period he goes back in time and starts again twice, so that there are three of him all operating in parallel.) Amusing, but not great.


The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

I had previous read Liu's short story collection The Paper Menagerie and loved it. Grace of Kings didn't disappoint. Highly recommended. One of the blurbs on the back cover described it as "the Wuxia version of Game of the Thrones" and that pretty much covers it.

One downside to the book is that characters experience rapid changes in fortune within the span of several pages. It's a nice, fast pace — most contemporary fantasy authors would lumberingly stretch out plot points like this for scores (hundreds?) of pages — but it does rob the story of some of the potential dramatic tension. One minute I've never even considered the possibility of a character rebelling against their overlord, and then within ten minutes they've plotted their rebellion, rebelled, been suppressed, and then punished. That doesn't give me much chance to savor the possibilities of what might happen. All in all though, I prefer this pace to the prolix plodding common to so many contemporary fantasy authors. I appreciate GRRM-style world building as much as the next reader, but not every fantasy novel needs every minor character to have their entire dynastic history spelled out, complete with descriptions of their heraldry, the architecture of their family seat, their favorite meals, and their sexual peccadilloes.

I'm not actually sure 'fantasy' is the correct term for Grace of Kings, come to think of it. There's some minor divine intervention and a couple of fantastic beasts, but no outright magic. I suppose it's fantasy in a sort of Homeric way, rather than a 20th century way.

Anyway, I've got my hands on the sequel, The Wall of Storms, and will be starting it as soon as possible. Hopefully we don't have to wait too long before the third and final volume is published.


The Art of War, Sun Tzu, translated by the Denma Translation Group

I listened to this audio edition from Shambhala Press. I don't pay much attention to which publishers produce which books, but I've been quite happy with several volumes of theirs that I've bought.

I hadn't read Art of the War in probably 20 years, so this was a good refresh. The way they structured this was to first have a recording of the text being read, and then start at the beginning with another reading but this time with interspersed commentary. That was a very good way to do it.

The text itself is short, and the commentary in this edition is good, so I'd recommend this even if you have read Art of War before.


The Map Thief, Michael Blanding

This is the story of an antiquities dealer specializing in rare maps, E. Forbes Smiley III, who turned to theft to build his inventory. I don't usually go for true crime stories, and indeed that was the least interesting aspect of this book. However, it was an interesting look at a little corner of the art/antiques market that I did not know about. There is also good information about the history of cartography, exploration and printing.((Everyone loves to hate on the Mercator projection, but this book does a good job of explaining how revolutionarily useful Mercator's cartography was in the 16th century. His projection is a tool that is remarkably good for its intended purpose, i.e. helping navigate over long sea voyages. It shouldn't be used the way it has been (hung on every classroom wall, making choropleth infographics, etc.) but that doesn't make it a bad tool per se, just one that is misused. The fitness of a technology, just like that of a biological organism, can only be usefully evaluated in the environment it is adapted for.))

Perhaps the most interesting part of the case for me came after Smiley confessed and the various libraries he stole from had to go about figuring out what was missing and from whom. In the case of normal thefts, or even art thefts, this is pretty straight forward, but the nature of the material — rare, poorly or partially catalogued, incompletely and idiosyncraticly described, existing in various editions with only marginal differences, etc. — make it quite a puzzle. Coming up with a good cataloging system for oddities like antique maps would make a good exercise for a library science/information systems/database project. (Indeed it was only thanks to the work of a former Army intelligence analyst that things got sorted out as well as they did.) Even something superficially simple like figuring out which copy of a printed map is which makes for a good computer vision challenge.

There are also Game Theoretic concerns at work: libraries would benefit if they all operated together to publicize thefts in order to track down stolen materials, but it is in every individual library's interest to cover up thefts so as not to besmirch their reputation and alienate donors, who expect that materials they contribute will be kept safe. The equilibrium is not straightforward, nor is it likely to be optimal.

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Will AI steal our jobs?

As an AI researcher, I think I am required to have an opinion about this. Here's what I have to say to the various tribes.

AI-pessimists: please remember that the Luddites have been wrong about technology causing economic cataclysm every time so far. We're talking about several consecutive centuries of wrongness.1 Please revise your confidence estimates downwards.

AI-optimists: please remember that just because the pessimists have always been wrong in the past does not mean that they must always be wrong in the future. It is not a natural law that the optimists must be right. That labor markets have adapted in the long term does not mean that they must adapt, to say nothing of short-term dislocations. Please revise your confidence estimates downwards.

Everyone: many forms of technology are substitutes for labor. Many forms of technology are complements to labor. Often a single form of technology is both simultaneously. It is impossible to determine a priori which effect will dominate.2 This is true of everything from the mouldboard plough to a convolutional neural network. Don't casually assert AI/ML/robots are qualitatively different. (For example, why does Bill Gates think we need a special tax on robots that is distinct from a tax on any other capital equipment?)

As always, please exercise cognitive and epistemic humility.


  1. I am aware of the work of Gregory Clark and others related to Industrial Revolution era wage and consumption stagnation. If a disaster requires complicated statistical models to provide evidence it exists, I say its scale can not have been that disastrous. []
  2. Who correctly predicted that the introduction of ATMs would coincide with an increase in employment of bank tellers? Anyone? Anyone? Beuller? []
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Reading List for 23 September 2013

Arnold Kling :: Big Gods

Here is a question to think about. If religions help to create social capital by allowing people to signal conscientiousness, conformity, and trustworthiness [as Norenzayan claims], how does this relate to Bryan Caplan’s view that obtaining a college degree performs that function?

That might explain why the credentialist societies of Han China were relatively irreligious. Kling likes to use the Vickies/Thetes metaphor from Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age, and I think this dichotomy could play well with that. Wouldn't the tests required by the Reformed Distributed Republic fill this role, for instance?

Ariel Procaccia :: Alien journals

Steve Landsburg :: RIP, Ronald Coase

This is by far the best, simplest explanation of Coase's insights that I have read. Having read plenty of Landsburg, that should not — indeed does not — surprise me.

His final 'graph is a digression, but a good point:

Coase’s Nobel Prize winning paper is surely one of the landmark papers of 20th century economics. It’s also entirely non-technical (which is fine), and (in my opinion) ridiculously verbose (which is annoying). It’s littered with numerical examples intended to illustrate several different but related points, but the points and the examples are so jumbled together that it’s often difficult to tell what point is being illustrated... Pioneering work is rarely presented cleanly, and Coase was a true pioneer.

And this is why I put little stock in "primary sources" when it comes to STEM. The intersection between people/publications who originate profound ideas and people/publications which explain profound ideas well is a narrow one. If what you want is the latter, don't automatically mistake it for the former. The best researchers are not the best teachers, and this is true as much for papers as it is for people.

That said, sometimes the originals are very good. Here are two other opinions on this, from Federico Pereiro and John Cook.

Prosthetic Knowledge :: Prototypo.io

Start a font by tweaking all glyphs at once. With more than twenty parameters, design custom classical or experimental shapes. Once prototyping of the font is done, each point and curve of a glyph can be easily modified. Explore, modify, compare, export with infinite variations.

I liked this better when it was called Metafont.

Sorry, I couldn't resist some snark. I actually do like this project. I love both Processing and typography, so why wouldn't I? Speaking of which...

Hoefler & Frere-Jones :: Pilcrow & Capitulum

Some sample pilcrows from the H&FJ foundry.
Some sample pilcrows from the H&FJ foundry.

Eric Pement :: Using SED to make indexes for books

That's some impressive SED-fu.

Mike Duncan :: Revolutions Podcast

(Okay, so technically this may not belong on a "reading list.") Duncan previously created The History of Rome podcast, which is one of my favorites. Revolutions is his new project, and it just launched. Get on board now.

Kenneth Moreland :: Diverging Color Maps for Scientific Visualization [pdf]

Ardi, Tan & Yim :: Color Palette Generation for Nominal Encodings [pdf]

These two have been really helpful in the new visualization project I'm working on.

Andrew Shikiar :: Predicting Kiva Loan Defaults

Brett Victor :: Up and Down the Ladder of Abstraction: A Systematic Approach to Interactive Visualization

This would be a great starting place for high-school or freshmen STEM curricula. As a bonus, it has this nice epigraph from Richard Hamming:

"In science, if you know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. In engineering, if you do not know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. Of course, you seldom, if ever, see either pure state."

Megan McArdle :: 13 Tips for Jobless Grads on Surviving the Basement Years

I'm at the tail end of a doctoral program and going on the job market. This is good advice. What's disappointing is that this would have been equally good and applicable advice for people going on the job market back when I started grad school. The fact that we're five years (!!) down the road and we still have need of these sorts of "surviving in horrid job markets" pieces is bleak.

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Reading List for 16 July 2013

Evan Miller :: Winkel Tripel Warping Trouble or "How I Found a Bug in the Journal of Surveying Engineering"

All programming blogs need at least one post unofficially titled “Indisputable Proof That I Am Awesome.” These are usually my favorite kind of read, as the protagonist starts out with a head full of hubris, becomes mired in self-doubt, struggles on when others would have quit, and then ultimately triumphs over evil (that is to say, slow or buggy computer code), often at the expense of personal hygiene and/or sanity.

I'm a fan of the debugging narrative, and this is a fine example of the genre. I've been wrestling with code for mapping projections recently, so I feel Miller's pain specifically. In my opinion the Winkel Tripel is mathematically gross, but aesthetically unsurpassed. Hopefully I'll find some time in the next week or so to put up a post about my mapping project.

Irene Global Tweets WInkel Tripel
A screenshot of a project I've been working on to map geotagged tweets.

Kevin Grier :: Breaking down the higher ed wage premium

wage premium by major
Wage premium and popularity of majors

File under "all college degrees are not created equal" or perhaps "no, junior, you may not borrow enough to buy a decent house in order to get a BA in psych."

Aleatha Parker-Wood :: One Shot vs Iterated Games

Social cohesion can be thought of as a manifestation of how "iterated" people feel their interactions are, how likely they are to interact with the same people again and again and  have to deal with long term consequences of locally optimal choices, or whether they feel they can "opt out" of consequences of interacting with some set of people in a poor way.

Mike Munger :: Grade Inflation? Some data

Munger links to some very good analysis but it occurs to me that what is really needed is the variance of grades over time and not just the mean. (Obviously these two things are related since the distribution is bounded by [0, 4]. A mean which has gone from 2.25 to 3.44 will almost certainly result in less variance here.)

I don't much care where the distribution is centered. I care how wide the distribution is — that's what lets observers distinguish one student from another. Rankings need inequality. Without it they convey no information.

Marginal Revolution :: Alex Tabarrok :: The Battle over Junk DNA

I share Graur's and Tabarrok's wariness over "high impact false positives" in science. This is a big problem with no clear solutions.

The Graur et al. paper that Tabarrok discusses is entertaining in its incivility. Sometimes civility is not the correct response to falsehoods. It's refreshing to see scientists being so brutally honest with their opinions. Some might say they are too brutal, but at least they've got the honest part.

Peter McCaffrey :: 5 reasons price gouging should be legal: Especially during disasters

McCaffrey is completely right. But good luck to him reasoning people out of an opinion they were never reasoned into in the first place.

I do like the neologism "sustainable pricing" that he introduces. Bravo for that.

I would add a sixth reason to his list: accusations of "price gouging" are one rhetorical prong in an inescapable triple bind. A seller has three MECE choices: price goods higher than is common, the same as is common, or lower than is common. These choices will result in accusations of price gouging, collusion, and anti-competitive pricing, respectively. Since there is no way to win when dealing with people who level accusations of gouging, the only sensible thing to do is ignore them.

Shawn Regan :: Everyone calm down, there is no “bee-pocalypse”

Executive summary: apiarists have agency, and the world isn't static. If the death rate of colonies increases, they respond by creating more colonies. Crisis averted.

Eliezer Yudkowsky :: Betting Therapy

"Betting Therapy" should be a thing. You go to a betting therapist and describe your fears — everything you're afraid will happen if you do X — and then the therapist offers to bet money on whether it actually happens to you or not. After you lose enough money, you stop being afraid.

Sign me up.

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"Traffic," Tom Vanderbilt

This is a good compendium. Nothing too ground-breaking here, but Vanderbilt does cover a lot of ground.

I especially liked that Vanderbilt addressed self-driving cars. Traffic was published in 2009; I didn't expect then that producers would have made as much progress towards autonomous vehicles as they have in the last four years. I am more optimistic about overcoming regulatory hurdles than I was then, but I still believe those will be bigger obstacles than any technological difficulties.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), Tom Vanderbilt

I find any serious discussion of congestion, mass transit, electric vehicles, hybrids, land use, urban planning, fuel usage, carbon emissions, etc. pretty pointless if it doesn't consider the transformative effects of autonomous vehicles. Planning a new highway or commuter rail line that's supposed to be useful for the next fifty years without considering robo-cars feels like some 1897 Jules Verne-esque proto-steampunk fantasy that predicts the next century will look just like the last one except it will have more telegraphs and longer steam trains. You might as well be sitting around in a top hat and frock coat micromanaging where you'll be putting all the stables and coal bunkers for the next five generations, oblivious to Messrs Benz, Daimler, Peugeot et al. motoring around on your lawn.

I think you can wrap most of the problems of traffic congestion up into several short, unimpeachable statements:

  1. Costs can take the form of both money and time.
  2. Lowering the cost of something means people will do more of it, ceteris paribus.
  3. Reducing traffic congestion reduces the time-cost of driving.
  4. The reduced cost of driving causes people to want to drive more, raising traffic congestion again.

Unless someone can show me one of those four statements is incorrect, I'm comfortable concluding that traffic is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Plenty people think they have the cure for congestion: roundabouts, light rail, "livable communities," bike sharing, HOV lanes, high-density residences, abolishing free parking, mileage fees, congestion fees, etc. Some of these are good ideas, and some aren't. But I'm not taking anyone who claims to solve (or even alleviate) the traffic problem seriously unless they can address how their solution interacts with #1-4 above.

For some of the proposals the resolution is simple: they lower the time-cost but explicitly raise the monetary cost (e.g. congestion pricing, market-based rates for parking). Others don't have such an easy time of it. But either way, I'd like people to at least be able to address how they would break out of this feedback loop.


PS I once sat through an hour-long keynote by an eminent professor from MIT Sloan on modeling market penetration of alternative fuel vehicles. Half of his talk ended up being about gas shortages, both in the 1970s and after Hurricane Sandy. At no point in those thirty minutes did he once mention the word "price"! Everything I had heard about the distinction between freshwater and saltwater economics snapped into focus.

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Armen Alchian & Unnecessary Mathematical Fireworks

Cato Daily Podcast :: Remembering Armen Alchian

Don Boudreaux discussing Armen Alchian's preference for clear prose over "mathematical pyrotechnics" reminded me of a few neural networks researchers I know. I won't name names, because it wasn't a favorable comparison. There's far too much equation-based whizz-bangery going on in some papers.

I use to think the problem was insufficient sophistication in my own math background, but I've recently heard independently from two very smart people in our Applied Math/Scientific Computing program that they also find the math in a lot of these papers to be more of an obfuscating smoke screen than a clarifying explication. If they find it hard to follow I've got good reason to believe the problem isn't just me.

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