Monday, December 12, 2016

Yet another reason to be worried about Trump's presidency

Of course, there are really plenty of reasons.  I don't expect that Trump's potential abandonment of the One China Policy to have more than a 1 in 10 chance of leading to war with China but, well, he isn't even in office yet and this is a thing.

Still, as potentially painful and maybe even disastrous as the next four years are going to be I'm worried that a Trump presidency will be even worse (assuming no nuclear annihilation) in the long run.

I've already plugged The Myth of the Rational Voter as my main model of thinking about elections and that makes me really worried about the lessons that people will draw from Trump's victory.  To summarize, politicians running for office have to compromise between promising things that sound nice to people who aren't really paying attention to policy and promising things that will actually make voters happy and thus vote for them again in the next election.

I think that most politician, at some level, don't really want to believe in people voting for Trump.  We all like to believe that we're normal.  That other people think like we do.  That's often a comforting illusion since people are all so very different but it's natural to believe otherwise.  So politicians, who frequently took their jobs because they care about public policy, will often want to assume that voters care just as much about policy as they do.  But of course voters have a great number of important things in their lives which they prioritize above learning about public policy and contentious political issues.  So Trump lying or making absurd promises works much better than politicians want to believe is possible.

So I'm worried that the establishments of both parties will look at Trump and internalize the message that if they want to get one of their own elected to the presidency then they can't let themselves worry about whether they'll be able to fulfill the promises they're making.  There's no way to get a second term if you can't get a first term, after all.

And I'm worried that this is coming after a previous revelation that's hit congresspeople in the gut.  That most voters know who the president is but don't really know who's calling the shots in Congress.  So if Congress causes problems then the president will get blamed for them.  Maybe I'm imagining that one since Obama has such high approval ratings?  I can only hope I'm imagining that and it's just the US primary system that's been causing problems recently in Congress.

Or maybe it's like a comment on Marginal Revolution said and the dynamic is that TV or movie stars will just win due to star power but most of them aren't interested in running.  That's not ideal but it doesn't seem so toxic in the long run so I guess I'll hope that that's what's at play.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The median voter theorem, or why major parties are relatively similar

When people are looking at our two major parties they're often dissatisfied.  If you're a socialist or a libertarian or a Nazi then in most elections neither of the major candidates will represent your views.  Well, this election we have someone who at least appeals to Nazis and we nearly had a candidate who called himself a socialist even if that wasn't totally accurate.  But this election is a bit weird and usually the people who complain about the major candidates being close to each other have a point.

Thankfully political science has an explanation for this: the median voter theorem.   At this point I was going to give my own in depth explanation of it but I don't think I could possibly do a better job than Chris Hallquist does here.  Please read that link because otherwise the rest of this post might not make too much sense to you.  Or maybe you're already familiar with the theorem, in which case cool.

The one thing I'd like to add to that analysis is that probably the gap between the parties is partially based on the desires of the people within the parties.  Ego and wanting to be in high office is probably a significant motivation for politicians but I'd assume that many have real preferences for certain policies too.  Polling isn't perfect so nobody knows exactly where the median voter really is on an issue.  If your opponent has set their policies exactly at where the median voter is expected to be then if you care about outcomes more than ego than it makes sense to pull in your public policies a little towards what you really want.  If your opponent wins then the same policies win out but there's still a chance that you might win and get a better outcome than that.  Still, polling is pretty good so the gap caused by that factor shouldn't be large.  And I guess that process would tend to favor less honest politicians, as if we needed another explanation for that observation.

Still, I'd assume that most of the divergence between the two parties is due to having to win primaries and needing motivated party members to go around and drum up turnout.

One objection people might raise to this whole 'median voter' business is the role of money in politics.  Well, I already wrote one post on how I think money is the least important part of lobbying.  Also really we're talking about official positions here and I'd expect donations to effect what a candidate does later, not what they say before they get elected.  Also, money doesn't do as much as you might think.

There is a large correlation between which candidate wins an election and which candidate raises the most money but the problem there is that you'd expect a candidate who is more popular to be able to raise more money.  So to isolate the effects of money on a candidates ability to win a race you can look at non-raised money.  That is, mostly, money spent by rich candidates on their own races above what they could raise from donors.  The result I remember, sorry that I can't find the paper, is that for every factor of 2 one candidate outspends the other then the vote count shifts by 1%.

Well I used to look at that and think that 1% isn't very much.  These days and especially this election I'm less sure.  We'd all like to think that every voter considers the issue carefully but of course many are busy or lazy people and haven't paid attention this election so they just pull the lever for D or R based on their sense of what positions a candidate of that party tends to have.  And many just engage in retrospective voting, usually a good thing.  But between those maybe the number of voters up for grabs isn't actually a large amount, and maybe 1% actually is a pretty significant chunk of votes.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Recent Reading

Sorry for not posting much recently, I'll try to do more.  To ease myself back in here are some quick reviews of a few books I've read recently that don't deserve their own posts, plus some insights I got from them.

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by Starr, S. Frederick was just what the title leads you to expect.  It's about the flowering of philosophy and science in central Asia between 750 AD and 1000 AD.  The number of merchants involved in the silk road trade had always given the region a large educated class and after the Arab conquest in 750 AD better connected the area to the Mediteranian there was a large intellectual flowering involving greats like Ibn-Sina and Biruni.  But as time went on anti-intellectual movements such as Sufism and books like Al-Ghazali's The Incoherence of the Philosophers made science and philosophy less reputable and more dangerous.  When the Mongol's rolled through in the early 1200s the intellectual era had mostly ended.  And the depopulation of what had been some of the greatest cities in the world by the Mongols plus the resulting shift in trade from the Silk Road to the Indian Ocean meant that the region would never return to what it had been.  I suppose my biggest takeaway is to see some historical developments as more contingent.  Maybe if Al-Ghazali had been born in France and Thomas Aquinas had been born in Samarkand history would have turned out differently?  You could even look at the French Cathars as being analogous to the Sufis in ideas though of course their fates were very different.

Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow was also just what it says on the cover.  I'd known many of the elements of his political life but I was interested in the personal and I also needed to brush up a bit on the timeline of the Revolution.  The perpetually indebted side of Washington is certainly something I hadn't considered and the constant suspicion of the Virginia landowners that they were being cheated by their factors in London helps explain some of their enthusiasm for independence.  I was struck by how complicated Washington's feelings about slavery were.  he opposed the system in theory but for most of his life felt too indebted to free his slaves, especially since many were actually the property of his adopted children and he would need to buy their freedom from the estate he was managing but didn't own.  In light of what I knew about attitudes towards slavery before the Civil War I found his public disparagement of it odd but I later read elsewhere that it wasn't until the Turner Rebellion that pro-slavery forces in the South became so ideological.

Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein covered a lot of things I'd heard of but didn't have a good context for.  The trajectory of race relations in the North and South over the timeframe, events like Kent State and the Checkers speech, and of course how Nixon ended up thinking that Watergate could possibly be a good idea.   Reading about George McGovern's campaign made me want to become a politician even less.  The people who answered a question in a debate with "I don't know" or "yes, that would be a disadvantage to my proposal" always ended up losing and the people who were willing to confidently make up facts never seemed to suffer for it.  Which of course seems very relevant to our current campaign.   Mostly on the Trump side but you also have bits of disinformation like Trump asking the Russians to hack Hillary's email that get propagated on the democratic side as well.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Bad and Good about the Brexit

Britain recently voted to leave the EU.  That's probably going to have a lot of long term consequences and I'm mostly writing this to try to work through what I think they might be, good as well as bad.

In the short term there's probably going to be a fair amount of bad.  Germany and France are Britain's #1 and #3 trading partners and there's likely to be some disruption there.  Now that Britain has said it wants to leave it can negotiate a divorce from the EU there's some question about exactly what Britain's terms of trade are going to end up looking like.  The leave campaign promised that Britain would be able to trade with Europe the same way it always had but now without cumbersome EU rules.  I don't think it'll work that way.  The first reason for that is that managing trade is a big part of the complex EU rules Britain had to deal with.  If I sell you a ton of "Grade A Beef" it's important that we both have the same understanding of what Grade A Beef is.  I mean, I could always just inspect every purchase I make ahead of time but that's cumbersome and so people generally make regulations about what "Grade A Beef" means, exactly.  The modern world of trade is a whole elaborate edifice of commodity futures contracts and such that make that sort of inspection even more impractical.  So Norway, in order to trade with the EU inside the EEA, has to abide by a lot of EU rules it had no hand in making.  So some people in the Leave camp are going to be upset at how little will change regarding EU rules but given that many Leavers are fans of staying in the EEA and given how many people wanted to stay then I assume it's sellable.

The other short term problem is going to be EU stability.  If Britain leaves then suddenly it gets a lot more thinkable for, say, Greece to leave.  That probably means that the EU doesn't want to be nice to the UK in the exit negotiations, they want to make leaving seem scary to any member states that might be wavering.  But in thinking about the consequences of the Brexit for Britain we shouldn't ignore the consequences for the rest of Europe either.  As Scott Sumner points out the stock markets in continental Europe and especially southern Europe are down a lot more than in Britain.  In some ways Britain leaving the EU now looks like Britain leaving the gold standard in 1931, and we all know how that ended.  Partially that might be because the Bank of England has been handling the recent crisis so much better than the European Central Bank.

Finally, I'm a big fan of the free movement of people between countries and Britain leaving the EU is going to be a big blow to that.  I don't think there's much to elaborate on here.  Discomfort with immigration was a big factor in Leave winning and getting out of the EU will put a big hamper on, e.g., Poles moving to the UK.

As for the good, well, I think critics of the EU as an opaque institution have a point.  The EU is the product of ad hoc growth with a lack of clear lines of responsibility.  Hamilton wrote very movingly about the importance of checks and balances separation of powers but since the 18th century countries with more streamlined parliamentary systems have provided much more stable democracies than presidential systems like ours.  Making responsibility transparent to voters is the most crucial thing to get right in a democratic system of government and it's hard to see how the EU accomplishes that.  There was a proposal for a European constitution at one point but it was also quite baroque and also rejected by voters.

In a related point, countries work better when their citizens feel like they're all the same group.  This is entirely subjective and in the future maybe the EU will succeed in creating a sense of a pan European culture.  But in the meantime Germans balk at giving money to Greeks in a way that New Yorkers don't at seeing their money spent on West Virginians.  The book Wars, Guns, and Votes goes into this in some detail and maybe I ought to reread it then write it up.  But in the meantime, this is a fairly big problem for trying to have a union on a European scale.

Also, while I'm all on board with free trade in goods and free movement of people I'm not sure that homogenizing laws across different countries is a good idea.  Lawmaking is not a science and unintended consequences are frequent.  You can take this as an argument against making too many laws but equally it's an argument for trial and error.  More countries with differences in their legal system tend to help us figure out what works and what doesn't - even if we fail to look at other country's experiences too often.

So Britain leaving the EU has large downsides but it has upsides too.  I don't see many people in my social media circles discussing them, though.  But just compare the EU with the TPP and TPIP.  Both are international agreements negotiated between governments to facilitate trade but also impose restrictions on what the member countries can do.

A lot of the motivation for the leave vote was driven by xenophobia and a lot of the motivation for the stay vote was driven by cosmopolitanism.  I am strongly in favor of being cosmopolitan but I don't think people's motivations for doing something have the power to make that thing good or bad all on their own.  So I think that it's pretty clear that from the perspective of five years from now the leave vote will look like a bad idea.  But from the perspective of 50 years I really have no idea.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Trump and Publicity

There's an old idea that all publicity is good publicity.  I seem to have have written something about this a few years ago but I should repeat the important bits.  If you're trying to sell something and you don't care about getting a majority of people to like you then your biggest foe is anonymity and the old chestnut is perfectly valid.  But if you're doing something that requires you to persuade a majority of people that you're correct then no, not all publicity is good publicity.

I think this principle is very much applicable to the potential election of Donald Trump.  If you're looking at a 17 way contest and you only need a plurality, and besides only 13 of the 29 million people in the Republican primary voted for Trump compared to the 126 million who voted in the 2012 presidential election.  So it's very much true that for Trump in the primary all publicity is good publicity.  But that won't hold for the general election. 

I suppose that's why the betting markets are only giving him an 18% shot at winning.  That's still a lot and many things could happen between now and the vote but Trump's strengths in the primary ("bad" publicity) aren't a strength in the general election.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Book Review: The Human Advantage

Last Tuesday I faced a horrible dilemma as two books I'd been eagerly awaiting, Too Like the Lightning and The Age of the Em, both came out the same day.  Luckily I was nearly done with the book I'd been reading, The Human Advantage by Suzana Herculano-Houzel, so I could quickly finish that before moving on and I wasn't tortured by a third option of whether to just put it aside.

In some ways this book was a good complement to The Secret of Our Success since it's another book about humanity's place in the world.  But this one is much more about where we fit in with other species in terms of our brains and less about the story of how we got there.  The real meat of the book is how the author figured out a good way to measure the number of neurons in a brain and was able to do the first real comparisons across species as to the number of neurons in their heads.

The method was surprisingly simple as brilliant ideas sometimes are.  You can't just count the number of neurons in a small part of the brain and multiply because neuron density can vary quite a bit depending on where in someone's head you look.  The simple solution is just to stick a brain in a blender first.  Then you can sample and multiply to get a good count.  There's really more to it than that but that's the basic idea.

The interesting thing the author discovered is the way that the number of neurons in a brain varies with brain volume works very differently in primates than it does in pretty much all the other animals she looked at.  In most neurons are bigger in bigger brains and the number of neurons goes up as the 3/4 power.  But with primates neurons stay the same size and the brain volume and number of neurons are directly proportional.  The difference between 1 and 3/4 might not sound like much but different animals can vary in size but a factor of 10,000 easily which would give you a brain 10 times larger for one animal than another.

Another interesting discovery she was able to make was that the energy consumed by a brain is almost exactly proportional to the number of neurons in the brain, even though some brains have neurons that are much bigger than those in other brains.  She does on to describe the things about humans that let us get enough calories to support our huge brains in a chapter I would have found fascinating if I hadn't read The Secret of Our Success recently.

I did find a few annoyances.  The author made a big deal about the fact that the conventional wisdom was that human brains had 100 billion neurons but that she had discovered that humans really only had 86 billion.  Except that all her samples were from men between the ages of 50 and 70 and we know that humans lose neurons as they age to some extent.  And the largest of her 4 samples weighed in at 91 billion.  So we can't really be totally sure from her observations that the average number of human neurons isn't exactly 100 billion even before you consider reasonable amounts of rounding for a variable number.

The book was maybe longer than it needed to be and trying too hard to impress in places but I enjoyed it overall and I'm glad I read it.  There are a bunch of interesting facts about brains I haven't included here and another bunch of interesting anecdotes about how she got her hands on the different brains she examined.  So I'd recommend reading it but don't be afraid to skim.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Eukaryotes and the Drake Equation

I bet a lot of the people reading this blog have heard of the Drake Equation but, as a recap, the idea is that given some assumptions you should be able to calculate how many alien civilizations there ought to be in the Milky Way.  There are a few problem with the way the equation is put together but in general it's hard make make assumptions strict enough that the galaxy shouldn't have lots of other civilizations.  And now that it's looking like most stars have planets that leads to the scary conclusion that maybe civilizations just don't last very long.

But thankfully I read a book recently that makes me a bit more hopeful.  A while ago I read Power, Sex, Suicide: Mitochondria and the Meaning of Life by Nick Lane which I really ought to have reviewed here because it was an excellent book.  It discusses how mitochondria allowed eukaryotic cells to become much larger than their forebears, the roll they plan in apoptosis or cell suicide, and how they effect how long various animals live.  But the important park in this blog post is how they were first created with one cell swallowing another and the two forming a symbiosis.

Without going into details (they're in the book!) it was sort of crazy that something like that could happen and result in a creature that was fit enough to survive.  I was recently looking at the timeline of life on Earth on Wikipedia and you can see that there.  The first simple cells appeared 4.1 billion years ago, just 400 million years after Earth got it's seas.  But it wasn't until 1.9 billion years ago, 2.2 billion years after life first appeared that we got eukaryotic cells.  So it looks like it took over 5 times as long for for complex cells to arise as it did for cells to in the first place.

If it had taken twice as long for simple cells to get going and the whole timeline of life on Earth was pushed back a half billion years then that wouldn't have been a big deal.  But if eukaryotes had taken twice as long to get going then the extra 2 billion years would push the arrival of complex life like us out to 6.5 billion years after the Earth formed by which point the sun will be hotter and there won't be liquid water on the surface any more.

So judging just by Earth's timeline we might go out into the wider universe to find that there are lots of bacteria out there but nothing big and complex enough to need a nucleus.  But of course all of this is still the thinnest speculation until we explore much more of the universe.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Copying complex adaptations

This is the followup post that I promised to write when I did my review of The Secret of Our Success.  Sorry it took so long.

Well, something that occurred to me when I was reading that book was that the rate at which mutations crop up governs how fast you can change.  There's no way to develop a tolerance for lactose unless that mutation happens to occur in someone.  But the rate of mutation must also govern how complex an organism or simple society can get.  There's only so much selective pressure out there and each new mutation that isn't doing you any good requires, on average, on excess death to remove it from the gene pool.  And since each gene is an opportunity for something to go wrong in reproduction a higher rate of mutations must mean a smaller genome if your typical organism has the same number of offspring.

The same with cultural knowledge.  If you're living in a band without economic specialization and people discover things by trial and error then the sophistication of the skills people develop is going to be governed by how accurately they can copy each other.  And as The Secret of Our Success did a good job of demonstrating humans are really good at copying each other compared to monkeys, unlike common monkey stereotypes.  The knowledge around manioc consumption I discuss in the review isn't anything a single individual will be able to discover in their lifetime but it's something that groups of humans can learn over time.  Essentially nobody in a culture has any idea why they're soaking the manioc so long but they do it that way because that's how it's been handed down to them.

In the modern world we've managed to assemble a large amount of cultural information but we've got two advantages.  The first is specialization.  Well, really pretty much every culture has had some level of specialization in terms of gender roles and many had more than that but the modern world has a bewildering array of butchers, bakers, candle stick makers, etc.  The second is that we're lucky enough that a lot of the reasons we do things are known to us.  You can show a chess  board to an expert in the game and they'll probably be able to remember the positions of the pieces accurately but if you do the same with someone who doesn't know the rules of chess then they won't.  That's because the piece positions stem from an underlying order that is simpler than what's on the board and which the expert can recognize.  Western civilization is probably lucky that the steps required to turn wheat into flour have obvious purposes in a way the preparation of manioc doesn't.

Sometimes this can go wrong.  Here is an excellent blog post on how western civilization forgot how to prevent scurvy for various reasons but mostly because they thought then understood the why of the cure but they really didn't.  I had no idea before I read that that preparing limes in copper vessels might make the juice ineffective as a scurvy cure but apparently it does.  And so we come back to the need to copy inventions closely and only make changes when we can test to see if they work.

The modern world we live in is an awesome but also very fragile thing.  Even the creation of a pencil requires more knowledge than any single person has.  We're all embedded in this economic system that allows specialization but despite what you might think that system isn't natural but is also the product of long evolution.  If you ever read Debt: The First 5000 Years you'll see that even arbitrary barter isn't something that people just come up with.  Most societies don't really have trade and most which do only trade particular items for other particular items.  It requires a lot of social and legal evolution before you can have something like money which you can trade for meat, bread, candlestick, or pencils.  The author of Debt thinks that we ought to go back to past systems but I'm not willing to give up my pencils.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Outgroups and colonialism

I'm currently reading The Birth of the Modern and the sections on colonialism in South East Asia.  It had always puzzled me just how that worked.  It's one thing for the Spanish to just come into the Caribbean and be able to dominate the inhabitants by main force.  But when expanding into state societies Europeans were usually outgunned until the mid 19th century, at least on land.  There's no way that Cortez could have conquered Mexico without local allies.  And you could say that same for European colonies through Asia.  The Pilgrims, in fact, wouldn't have survived with the explicit generosity of the Native Americans.

I think the best explanation from this is probably a thing Scott Alexander mentions in I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup:

 Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other”. Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.
So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.
And of course when you see people around the world allying with Europeans because they hate or fear their neighbors.  Chief Massasoit of the Wampanoag through that the Pilgrims would be a useful buffer state between them and the Narraganset who had been causing them trouble and that's why he was willing to assist the Pilgrims.  For 50 years that worked out fairly well.  For the inhabitants of Mexico it went bad much more quickly.

Often in science fiction you'll see the world uniting in the face of alien invasion.  Reading about these episodes in history makes me very skeptical about that.  I don't think the US would invite aliens in right now just because the US is in such a secure position but I could easily imagine the US in during the Cold War trading large stretches in the South West for protection in the case of Soviet missile attack.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

AlphaGo's Confidence

I'm sure those of you who follow this sort of thing know that Google's Go playing AI named AlphaGo beat the highest ranked human player last night.  There are still another four games between the two of them but I came across something in an article that I thought was particularly interesting.

For me, the key moment came when I saw Hassabis passing his iPhone to other Google executives in our VIP room, some three hours into the game. From their smiles, you knew straight away that they were pretty sure they were winning – although the experts providing live public commentary on the match weren’t clear on the matter, and remained confused up to the end of the game just before Lee resigned.
Either AlphaGo has a badly calibrated sense of confidence or it's a lot better at evaluating boards than the people watching are.  I'm looking forward to seeing how the other games turn out and whether AlphaGo's sense of how it's doing turns out to be accurate.

Also, I'm going to try to blog more in smaller chunks.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

RightHand Robotics

As many of you know I switched jobs recently.  I'd been working at Vecna for three years and while I loved my work and my coworkers I wasn't as happy with the way the company was run.  When I was on the west coast this last summer for Ross Hatton's wedding I ran into Lael Odhner who I knew from MIT.  One thing led to another and a while later I had joined RightHand Robotics.

What does RightHand Robotics do?  Well, as you might guess from the name we work with robotic grasping.  If you go to our webpage you can see a bunch of videos with our robotic hands doing things.  I'll just embed this one video of the hand we make picking up and moving a bunch of different objects.

The arm you see there is a relatively off the shelf model made by Universal Robots, the UR5.  The hand at the end was made by us and is called the Reflex gripper.

The Reflex grippers are actually open source.  On Github you can go to this repository to find most of the schematics and firmware involved in building one of them.  Yet we still manage to sell them because we've built a bunch and just taking some schematics and turning them into a hand isn't trivial.  We mostly sell them to big companies and universities.

I've worked on the Reflex some but what I'm really working on is our super secret next step which I can't talk that much about.  I've been doing a mix of firmware and software just like I did at Vecna but I've also been much more involved with algorithm development.  The new job is just as conveniently located as the old one.  Instead of heading out my front door, turning right, and walking 20 minutes now I turn left instead.  We're located in Greentown Labs where there are also a lot of other nifty companies and it's nice to see what they're up to as well.  We're right next to Grove for instance and they've got a lot of fish tanks and plants which makes for good atmosphere.

I should really have posted all of this earlier but I'm glad I got it out and I'm very much enjoying my new position.

Monday, February 1, 2016

January Links

You might have heard of the famous self-photographing monkey shown below.  Well, there was a bit of a to do regarding who owns the copyright to the photo.  The person who owned the camera thinks he owns the copyright for some reason but there was also a group that went to court hoping to have the copyright assigned to monkey.  Well, it seems that as everybody expected monkeys can't own copyrights.  

While I'm experimenting with putting images in blog posts here's a git of the heliocentric and geocentric models of the solar system.  You can see that the planets would have had to have moved in really weird ways in order to explain their apparent position.  On the other hand at the time of Galileo people had been adding so many corrective terms or epicycles to the geocentric model that it explained observations very well.  Kepler would eventually figure out that planets moved in ellipses but when heliocentrists thought that planets moved in circles the geocentric model gave better predictions.  I guess this is a lesson on the importance of Occam's Razor.

Here's a paper in Nature on efforts to control Malaria.  You can see a lot of progress in Figure 1.  That makes me very happy about my donations to the Against Malaria Foundation.

I've started following a piece of serial fiction called Unsong.  It's really good and reminds me of Terry Pratchett.  It's taking its chapter headings from a tumblr call King James Programming which is a bunch of utterances from a Markov chain generator that has been trained on the King James Bible and The Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs.  It's also pretty funny all by itself.

Everybody talks about SpaceX's plans for Mars colonization.  The United Launch Alliance, their chief competitor in the US, has also recently put together a presentation on their vision for the future of Space: Cislunar 1000[video].  I think it's a much more realistic vision than SpaceX's, but then again SpaceX has better reusable rockets.

Self driving cars and their regulation are something I've written about.  There's been some good news on that front with the Deparment of Transportation trying to get together some national regulation for them.  Here's some explanation on the specifics on why it's a good idea.

There's a star out that that's been acting weird.  Some people blame aliens.

The company I work for, Right Hand Robotics, makes gripper hands people can use for their own robots.  Some people used one of our hands to create this system where they pick up a moving robot with their arm.

A different side of the Scopes trial than I had always heard about.

Our car's crash performance has come a long way in 50 years.

Bernie Sanders recently had an editorial in the NYT about what's wrong with the Fed and I actually agree with a lot of it.  I've written recently about the topic myself.  It would be nice to have a president making Fed appointments who believe in aggregate demand rather than being more of a real business cycle proponent like Obama (sorry I can't find a link where he goes into his views in more detail).  But I'm still not voting for him in the primary because we disagree on something I consider very important.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Book Review: The Secret of Our Success

Joseph Henrich begins his preface to The Secret of Our Success by going over how his path through academia led him to write this book.  He started out getting dual bachelor degrees in anthropology and  aerospace engineering.  He worked as an engineer for a while before going back to school for his doctorate in anthropology.  Luckily the math from his engineering background came in useful when he got interested in evolution, population genetics, and how the tools from population genetics could be applied to cultural transmission.  I don't think this book could have been written by someone without such a broad background.

It's easy to do a bad job talking about how evolution has influenced human behavior.  It's easy to find people bloviating with evolutionary explanations about the ways men and women act differently in our society.  But clearly you won't come to any success if the supposed human universal you're trying to explain is particular to the society we live in and a few others.

This book is deeply concerned with human universals because it's aim is to explain how our species became so successful at rapidly - at least compared to evolution - expanding through new biomes.  Even before agriculture or the industrial evolution humans could be found in far more biomes than any other large animal.  There is some set of traits that allows us to do this while our chimpanzee and bonobo cousins are limited to narrow ecological bands.

One of the major themes from the book was social learning and the way humans are good at it in a way that our nearest cousins, chimps and bonobos, aren't.  Humans can from a very young age employ much more sophisticated strategies for copying the behavior of others than other primate can even if chimpanzees are just as good at solving logic puzzles when they're three years old.  And humans copy much more rigorously leading to potentially much more sophisticated cultural evolution.

Here's an example from the book.  There's a plant that was cultivated widely in South America called the Manioc.  It caries a subtle poison in it's untreated from - killing people who consumer it slowly over a number of years.  If you soak mashed Manioc for a day you can remove the bitter flavor but if you soak it for three days you'll be able to remove enough poison that you can safely subsist on it.  In a sense Europeans are lucky in that the food they had to rely on, grain, had processing requirements that were transparent to the people preparing it.  This all makes me think that the lessons of Chesterton's Fence aren't really anything you have to talk about unless you happen to belong to a culture that explicitly praises inventiveness.

Another major difference between humans and chimps is the existence of social norms and the punishment of defectors.  There's something used in biology and anthropology called the ultimatum game.  In it there is a fixed amount of resources in play.  The first player proposes some division of the resources and the second accepts the division or refuses - in which case neither player gets anything.  The "economically rational" thing for the second player to do is to accept any deal that gives them anything since that makes them better off than before.  Chimps behave in the "rational" way but as you might expect humans don't.  I'd actually run into that result before this book and it really shook my belief in my previous view that humans became intelligent to complete with other humans.

There's a whole lot of interesting stuff like that in this book and it really shifted my views on what it means to be human.  There's more good stuff I haven't mentioned on developmental psychology, selective pressures on the sounds in language, and other stuff.  I sort of wish the author had added a degree in neuroscience to his other achievements but we can't have everything.  There's some other thoughts I've had on this on natural selection and complex adaptations but that'll be another blog post.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

December Links

The idea of a Basic Universal Income has been talked about for a long time and has gotten support from such diverse sources as Milton Friedman and the Pirate Party.  The idea is that everybody basically gets money from the government every month.  If that's less than they would have paid in taxes then their taxes are reduced but otherwise they get a check.  The problem with our current system is that its possible for someone making $20k a year to lose more than $10,000 in benefits if they get a raise to $30k a year though it isn't common.  What is common is that they face a very high effective marginal tax rate on that extra $10k and the poor and rich tend to be the most likely to change their behavior in response to tax rates since the poor have more opportunities to save money by doing things other than working and the rich are making enough anyways.  And unlike salaried middle class employees poor people usually have hourly wages and rich people have significant bonuses.  So that's the idea.  Now it looks like Finland is going to try it.

It looks like California is going to be making Google's self driving cars illegal by requiring all automated cars to also be human drivable.  This is a bad idea because transitioning from automated to human driven modes is likely to be very dangerous because people will be out practice and distracted when it happens.  Also that wouldn't really work for disabled people who could potentially benefit from the technology.  Good regulation is critical for self driving cars since safety problems would seriously slow down adoption but these aren't good regulations.

The popular take on the Dunning-Kruger effect is wrong.  I actually knew that but the article goes on to talk about the relationship between money and happiness and I'll admit I fell into just the trap the author described.

Gay and bisexual men can donate blood now!

SpaceX landed their rocket!  It's sooty but in good shape!  Blue Origin did something similar last month but this is much more impressive!

I've long thought that it was sort of silly to use the equinox to say when winter starts and that just calling December, January, and February winter would both be simpler and do a better job of telling you when it would be cold.  I had no idea that this was such a well supported idea used in most countries and that I could just refer to it as "meteorological winter."

I like board games and I like public policy so I'm happy to see people using games to illustrate public policy problems.  Here's  Bay Area Regional PlannerCalifornia Water Crisis, and High Speed Rail.  Of course it would be best to have some that weren't California specific but I still applaud.

The robots I'm working on are still sufficiently stealth mode that I can't be posting links here for our holiday stuff but here's Boston Dynamics's robots in holiday mode.

I was going to write something about our paternalistic relationship with our employers and how that relates to the gig economy and how we could maybe do better.  Then Tim Harford did it better.

We're trying to make our SARS-2 tests better than we should

Ok, that's a somewhat provocative title but I think it's basically accurate.  During this pandemic the US in particular has had a pr...