Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July Links

You might have heard of a company named vGo.  They make telepresence robots and have had some success selling them, though they haven't grown much recently.  Well, we (Vecna) bought them.

So, the Tories have announced some new economic policies including replacing assistance to the poor with a higher minimum wage.  That's sort of odd for a conservative government.  The general consensus among economists is that raising the minimum wage within reasonable bounds tends to help poor people overall at the expense of a modest increase in unemployment.  Policies with drawbacks are always uncomfortable and some on the left have argued that there isn't actually any disemployment effect.  But some on the right have argued that a loss of jobs is actually a good thing because it disproportionately affects foreigners.  That view was not uncommon when minimum wage laws were first being proposed but I can only find one person baldly advocating that view these days.  But Britain's proposed minimum wage law looks different than the US's and Britain doesn't have any easy way to prevent European immigration while remaining inside the EU so I'm somewhat suspicious that this change is in fact due to worries about immigration.

In happier news the march of Moore's law continues to 7nm.  Now with Germanium!  But sadly it does appear to be slowing down.  Intel is going to be going an extra year without a node shrink.

I'm sure we all saw stuff from the Pluto flyby but here's a list of all the other probes out there and still operational.  Some might do stuff just as exciting!

Lets say that you have some magical communication device that lets you talk to someone somewhere else in the universe and you don't know where.  Because all the laws of physics are the same under translation and rotation there isn't any experiment you can do to figure out where the entity you're talking to is if you can't find a common landmark.  That's because all the laws of physics are symmetrical under translation and rotation.  But, assuming you're both made out of matter rather than antimatter, you can find out whether the alien is left handed.

Some interesting data on welfare states around the world.  The US's 8% of GDP spent on public provision of healthcare is more than Britain's 7.7% despite being spent on a much smaller proportion of the population (page 4).  However we do a good job of using the government to transfer money to the poor rather than the rich, just look at Greece (page 5).  But really there's interesting stuff on every page.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Democracy is a complicated business


In my recent post on Greece I was a bit cynical about the idea of public opinion but evidently I wasn't cynical enough.  But maybe cynical is the wrong word because democracy is hard.  How on earth are the Greek voters supposed to understand all the issues surrounding the acceptance of the EU deal?  I certainly don't.  I suspect that nobody actually has a good idea about it.

So Greeks just saw they that in retrospect their lives hadn't gone very well under the previous administration and so voted in someone else.  And if you're facing potential leaders whose performance you can't judge in detail then replacing them when things go badly is the only sure way to make sure they'll be interested in things going well for you.  That might not be fair to politicians who preside over bad times through circumstances outside their control but that's a relatively small price to pay.

Of course there are a good number of issues where it's easy for voters to tell what's going on.  Gay marriage for instance.  Shortly after a majority of Americans started to support it we saw many politicians quickly throw in their support for it too.  And don't judge them harshly!  Support for gay marriage correlates strongly with education and you'd expect politicians with advanced degrees to have mostly been in support of it before 2012 in the privacy of their heads.  I think I'd rather live in a country where more educated people hid their values and got elected and did an OK job on the complicated parts than a country that had more honest but less competent politicians.

Of course the danger of dishonest politicians is that they'll find some sneaky way to help their friends at the expense of electorate as a whole.  And that's certainly a valid fear as you can see from all the corn subsidies and taxi licencing regimes we've got.  People place too much emphasis on money and too little on public choice but they come to the same thing in the end.  But I think I'll still take the intelligent but slippery over the well intentioned but ignorant.  Look at the relative harm of prohibition versus all those corn subsidies.

But even smart and dedicated politicians don't know enough on their own to govern effectively.  Establishing a good upwards flow of information was a large part of why many kings established parliaments that would later bind them.  I wrote an earlier post a while back about why the problem of politicians mostly getting their information from self-interested sources.  I was talking about SOPA then but in the case of negotiations such as the one Greece was in with the rest of the EU or the one that the US is in creating the TPP the problem gets worse.

If you hope to do well in bargaining it's absolutely essential that you conceal things from the person you're bargaining with.  If I'm in negotiations with someone and they know the minimum price I'm willing to accept they can just offer that price.  Now, there are a lot of human factors pushing non-sociopaths towards being much nicer than that but the ceremony of modern diplomacy seems to insulate negotiators from those social pressures.  Maybe it's designed to do that.

But of course the need for secrecy opposes the need for open debate about what sort of deal we want.  As a negotiator you want input from people who will be effected but you don't want the terms you're considering to be leaked.  Ordinary citizens have concerns but there's no way to poll them without the issues you're considering being leaked.  Large corporations, however, have officers who are few enough in number that you can probably keep your intentions secret from the other negotiation teams even if you consult with the officers extensively.

I have no idea how to fix this problem.  Maybe just do trade policy unilaterally instead of via negotiation?  Most people think of tariffs as good if they're your own country's tariffs but expert opinion disagrees and unilaterally lowering tariffs doesn't require secret negotiations.  But of course given people's beliefs about tariffs that's hardly democratic and politicians have to worry about prospective beliefs about what will make them better off as well as their retrospective beliefs about whether their lives have gotten better.  And only some negotiations can be solved unilaterally anyways so really I've got little in terms of useful suggestions here.  I suppose we have to rely on the prospect of public outrage after negotiations are over to keep special interests in check.  If Disney loads up the TPP with juicy goodies for themselves and it gets voted down by the Senate then they'd have been better off having more modest aims.

There is one strategic advantage democracies have in negotiations.  I mentioned earlier that if your negotiating and somebody offers you a deal that's just barely better than nothing (or your BATNA in negotiations theory parlance) then the "rational" thing to do is to take it.  I put "rational" in quotes because if you're the sort of person to walk away from an inequitable deal and your opposite number knows this then maybe they won't be tempted to offer you an inequitable deal.  This is dangerous since it relies on everybody have a shared honest assessment of what an equitable deal would be but it can be very effective.  The structures of diplomacy can make it hard for negotiation teams to act this way.  Voters are pretty good at it, though.

And of course that's what the Greek referendum was about.  Except that public opinion polls show that the public of both Greece and the rest of the Eurozone are pretty fed up right now.  And the EU's BATNA was a lot better than the Greek's.  And given public approval of the deal Syriza was forced to take it looks like the Greek public understood all this, voted "no" to give the negotiators ammunition, and understood that they'd got the best deal they were going to.  Or they think the deal is better for them than it is but the issue is so complex that nobody really knows how good it is.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Dynasties and their constraints

Thinking Out Aloud is a blog I've subscribed to for a while and they recently summed up the whole reason I read them in an utterly excellent post.  Seriously, go read it!

Now that you're finished I'd only add that perhaps a lower number of officials per capita in places like China or Russia can actually encourage vesting those officials with more arbitrary power.  If you're going to force your officials to operate within the narrow confines of written law it seems like you're going to need more review and with few officials that becomes harder to afford.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

My somewhat complicated thought about Greece

So Greece voted "no" last Sunday.  It's not really clear what this means other than that Greece will not be agreeing to the terms of its creditors.  Terms' whose deadline had actually expire before the vote was held.

It's easy to understand the Greek position.  Syriza didn't do anything, as far as I can tell, to cause the huge debt that Greece had racked up - that was all the fault of previous governments.  There's also the issue of aggregate demand.  When the government stops demanding as many goods and services then a smaller number of goods and services get made, at least in the short term.  In other works the Greek economy would shrink.  And of course a shrinking economy would make it even harder for the Greeks to repay their debts.  If Greece had its own currency then they could offset this as most countries outside the Eurozone which have engaged in austerity have done but sadly Greece is not in that position.

Way back when the Euro was first proposed a lot of economists including Milton Friedman and Paul Krugman were saying that it was a bad idea and would just lead to trouble of the sort we're seeing now.  I entirely agree and I was sort of expecting a number of the Eurozone countries to leave early in the financial crisis (shows what I know).  There's a part of me that thinks that it would be best if Greece were to just "hoist the black flag," leave the Euro, and hope the whole thing falls apart.  But of course while that might be a good idea in the sufficiently long run it would probably cause all sorts of problems in the present.  And long run benefits become uncertain by their very nature.

So I think that the best thing would be if Greece were bailed out and stayed within the Euro but that seems politically impossible.  Greece isn't exactly rich but it's certainly wealthier than many of the countries in the EU that would be contributing to supporting Greece which seems unfair and which I couldn't really expect or desire those countries to support.  

You could ask that only the those EU countries that are richer than Greece to help Greece out but the problem is that those richer countries are democracies.  I've got a good deal of faith in democracy but that's mostly about people's retrospective rather than prospective voting.  I'd like to say that any Greek bailout is one of those complex questions where public opinion doesn't really exist per se but it's been covered a lot in the news recently so it looks like the the citizens of the wealthier European countries have formed definite opinions and it doesn't look like they'll continence a more generous offer even if it would ultimately be to their benefit in the long run.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Robot Fighting

I work with robots professionally and a lot of what we do at Vecna is trying to make robots harmless.   Noticing obstacles and avoiding them.  Not running into people and not even letting them think we might be about to run into them.  That sort of thing.

But other people have robots that behave differently and there's been a bit of activity recently.  It's been sort of cool.  BattleBots, a TV show about robots fighting in an arena, has recently come onto the air and you can see all the fights here.  The actual shows have a bit more team background which is sort of filler but also makes the fights a bit more dramatic.

However, the drama on BattleBots is nothing compared to the gauntlet that was thrown down recently.  Megabots is a group that's sort of trying to start something like BattleBots but instead of 250 pound remote controlled hunks of metal with buzz saws they're imagining 9000 pound piloted paintball wielding robots.  To drum up publicity they recently challenged a Suidobashi Heavy Industry's giant piloted robot Kuratas to a duel.  Here's the challenge and here's the acceptance.  Ok, it's PR.  But it's still super exciting!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

June Links

I guess this is a pretty good description of why I signed the giving what we can pledge
The active ingredient in effective altruism was always supposed to be making it harder to trick yourself into feeling like you’re helping unless you actually are. - this was part of how I interpreted Eliezer’s post The Unit Of Caring. Money is something that definitely helps a quantifiable amount, and giving away money isn’t much fun, so by limiting your contributions to money you have sort of a commitment mechanism so that you know you’re actually helping instead of just signaling helping.
A very good data visualization of the cost of World War II.

There was this big competition for robots trying to complete an obstacle course and do various tasks.  But what people were really interested in was all the robots falling down trying to complete it.

Remember how I was all excited about HP using memristors for their big new project?  Well it turns out they won't be using them after all.  I'm glad the systems level work is being done but clearly this technology isn't as ready as I thought it was.

Boston has a pretty cool mass transit system by at least two metrics.

Selenium Boondocks goes over some of their best posts from their first 10 years of blogging.

Neural networks have been making a bith of a resurgence these last few years.  In terms of processing visual data Google has done some work on showing what they're looking for.  Some of those images are really trippy.

Remember Dune in Calvin and Hobbes?  Here's Game of Thrones mashed up with Peanuts.

Here's an interview with a former policeman in Baltimore on what he thinks the problems in the force are.  This sort of makes me think the move, long ago, to put police in cars to keep them isolated from their communities was a bad idea.  I won't say that enforcing laws on communities that think they're unjust (part of the original motivation) is always a bad idea btu I think the cost was badly underestimated.

People have been doing research on certificate of needs that are required to build new hospitals and it doesn't look good for the poor or really anybody else.  Back in the 1970s there was a common idea that "dog eat dog" competition between companies made capitalism less efficient than socialism and that we needed to prevent competition in order to lower healthcare prices.  This sounds really weird nowadays for good reason but most of the laws designed to lower healthcare costs by preventing competition between hospitals are still on the books.

Tax Rates and Growth

People trying to justify the recent Republican tax plan often talk about the importance of long run economic growth.  And you can see how, i...