Quick hits (part II)

1) Really loved this podcast conversation about AI.  And here’s the article from Steven Johnson that much of it is based upon.  Especially intriguing is the idea that the human brain is just a really, really good prediction machine:

And perhaps there is indeed more to the large language models than just artful pastiche. ‘‘What fascinates me about GPT-3 is that it suggests a potential mindless path to artificial general intelligence,’’ the Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers wrote, shortly after OpenAI released the software. ‘‘It is just analyzing statistics of language. But to do this really well, some capacities of general intelligence are needed, and GPT-3 develops glimmers of them.’’ We know from modern neuroscience that prediction is a core property of human intelligence. Perhaps the game of predict-the-next-word is what children unconsciously play when they are acquiring language themselves: listening to what initially seems to be a random stream of phonemes from the adults around them, gradually detecting patterns in that stream and testing those hypotheses by anticipating words as they are spoken. Perhaps that game is the initial scaffolding beneath all the complex forms of thinking that language makes possible.

2) Brian Beutler: on the Democratic response to Roe

The confidence gap between the parties is always striking. Here, Republicans seem to know they’re courting disaster, but they’re playing it very cool, or trying to find diversionary ways to remain on offense. Democrats seem to recognize that they’re on the winning side of the issue, but can’t seem able to exploit it for all its worth. 

And as usual I think this stems from the same paralyzing neurosis as always, the constantly nagging anxiety that anything they do with confidence, without Republican cover, will generate “backlash,” and swamp the upside of getting caught on war footing. This week, Democrats even raced to validate the false panic the GOP whipped up over peaceful protests outside of the GOP justices’ homes, by streamlining legislation to beef up their security. There, for the world to see, was backlash to Republicans materializing all on its own, and Democrats tried to tamp it down for fear that the counterbacklash would surely be worse. 

Chuck Schumer eventually struck the right note. But by then the message had been sent: simmer down. 

If I could impress one thing on everyone experiencing backlash panic, what I’d say is, Alas, it’s out of your hands. Maybe sometimes this isn’t true, but in this case it is. There’s nothing Democrats can do, no form of conciliation, that’ll stop Republicans from convincing the large and motivated anti-abortion minority in the country that Democrats intend to steamroll them and steal their hard-fought, 50 year victory against Roe. That’s baked in. 

The challenge for Democrats has to be to figure out how to countermobilize the significantly larger pro-Roe majority in the country and they can’t do it unless they 1) promise in clear and simple terms to fix what the GOP broke, and 2) make the air thick with the horror of the GOP’s social vision for America.

I laid out some of these ideas last week (section two here), but there really is so much more work to be done. 

This week Schumer held a test vote on abortion-rights legislation that reflects the Democratic caucus’s view of what a just response to the Supreme Court would be. On the Senate floor, it united Republicans in opposition, and allowed them to peel off Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Republicans “filibustered” it, but they didn’t have to, because it would’ve gone down 49-51 anyhow. 

I suppose it’s fine to hold that vote, as a kind of demonstration of the whip count. But I also think it’s unnecessary. Dems could just as easily assert: We have 49 votes to codify Roe, and 48 to change the rules. Give us two more pro-choice senators who support changing the rules, and we’re good. They can even point to their earlier effort to change the rules to pass voting-rights legislation. There was a roll-call vote and everything. The numbers almost certainly haven’t changed, and if they have changed, Dems could just say so, which would be much faster and more direct than going through the machinations of holding floor votes to prove it. 

In any case, though, the real power of the Senate and House now lies in exposing the GOP in the most merciless possible way. Clarity about what will happen if Dems win is the most important thing, but this a close second. 

We know 49 Democrats support the most righteous-possible bill. Ok, fine, good. But what do Republicans support?

It wouldn’t even take much doing to find out. I would run the votes in a ladder, starting at the lowest-possible wrung, working upward toward votes on bills that codify more and more abortion rights until I reached a point of diminishing returns: Abortion shall be legal in cases of rape, vote. Abortion shall be legal in cases of incest, vote. Abortion shall be legal when the life of the mother is at risk, vote. In cases of rape, the threshold shall be the woman’s attestation to rape, vote. It shall be lawful to obtain birth control; to cross state lines to obtain abortions; to obtain abortifacients from out of state, vote, vote, vote. Then: abortion shall be legal in the first trimester; the second trimester, on and on up the sliding scale until Democrats are poised to fracture, and then stop.

Show voters how many Republicans want to force rape victims to give birth; show them how many Republicans who claim to support a rape exception actually think most women who claim they were raped are liars; show voters how many want no exceptions; to surveil women who are pregnant.

I’m agnostic about when this showcase should occur, but I’m also generally dubious about finely laid plans that amount to: there’s a better time than as soon as possible. Do it now, do it again in October. For fuck’s sake, Dems can’t even be certain they’ll still control the Senate by the time midterms roll around. Shit happens, so take your shots while you can. 

3) I really don’t like her use of “conspiracy theory” but Catherine Rampell is right to call out Democrats on misguided talk on inflation:

A conspiracy theory has been infecting the Democratic Party, its progressive base, even the White House. It’s not quite as self-sabotaging as the horse-dewormer-cures-covid false theory that swept up many Republicans last year, but it’s pretty damaging nonetheless.

Call it “Greedflation.”

The theory goes something like this: The reason prices are up so much is that companies have gotten “greedy” and are conspiring to “pad their profits,” “profiteer” and “price-gouge.” No one has managed to define “profiteering” and “price-gouging” more specifically than “raising prices more than I’d like.”

For example, a bill introduced on Thursday by Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) bans “price-gouging,” which it defines as “unconscionably excessive” pricing.

What counts as an “unconscionably excessive” price, you ask? TBD, but it’s definitely going to be illegal.

The problem with this narrative is that it’s just a pejorative tautology. Yes, prices are going up because companies are raising prices. Okay. This is the economic equivalent of saying “It’s raining because water is falling from the sky.” Well, why?

Why are companies, which have always been “greedy” (or, one might say, “profit-maximizing”), able to raise prices now? What changed between early 2020, when corporate profits and inflation were plummeting, and today, when both metrics are “unconscionably” up?

The answer is important, because it determines what policymakers can or should do about it.

Here is how economists explain the recent run-up in inflation: Demand is strong, thanks to pandemic-forced savings plus expansionary government policies (stimulus payments, low interest rates, etc.). Meanwhile, supply remains constrained by covid-related disruptions, labor shortages, other unfortunate shocks. Companies can’t ramp up production quickly enough to procure all the stuff that consumers want to buy, whether that “stuff” is oil, furniture or eggs.

A concrete example: In 2019, a car dealer that raised prices 10 percent might have lost customers and watched inventory sit. Today, that dealer can raise prices 20 percent and still have trouble keeping anything in stock. That’s because cars remain hard to come by, and customers are willing and able to pay a premium for whatever’s available.

The solution to the broader increase in prices, then, is ramping up supply (e.g., getting more workers in the labor force, removing trade barriers, encouraging oil-drilling); and/or, tamping down demand (e.g., raising interest rates).

“Supply and demand” is not the greedflationists’ preferred lens on inflation. They say inflation is driven by a Manichean struggle between big corporations and their innocent victims, the customers.

4) Pretty interesting interview, “Bill Gates Is So Over This Pandemic”

Are you saying the pandemic is essentially over, at least for rich countries?

No, it’s not over. We don’t know enough about variants. Nobody predicted the Omicron variant. It’s one of the great unexplained events. And we’ve always been pretty stupid about the science of transmission. I’ve been calling Congress and saying, be more generous on the international response, and I’ve been calling Germany, the UK, and France. When the US doesn’t take a leadership role in global health, it creates a vacuum.

I love these articles that say, “Hey, if these countries don’t vaccinate themselves, they’re going to generate variants and screw us.” There’s not much science to support that.

5) If Madison Cawthorn survives, it won’t be because of support from Republican elites. “Inside the Republican campaign to take down Madison Cawthorn”

6) Really looking forward to reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s new book.  Here’s a cool excerpt, “People Are Dating All Wrong, According to Data Science”

The researchers had data on:

  • demographics (e.g., age, education, income, and race)
  • physical appearance (e.g., How attractive did other people rate each partner?)
  • sexual tastes (e.g., How frequently did each partner want sex? How freaky did they want that sex to be?)
  • interests and hobbies
  • mental and physical health
  • values (e.g., their views on politics, relationships, and child-rearing)
  • and much, much more

Further, Joel and her team didn’t just have more data than everybody else in the field. They had better statistical methods. Joel and some of the other researchers had mastered machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence that allows contemporary scholars to detect subtle patterns in large mounds of data. One might call Joel’s project the AI Marriage, as it was among the first studies to utilize these advanced techniques to try to predict relationship happiness.

After building her team and collecting and analyzing the data, Joel was ready to present the results—results of perhaps the most exciting project in the history of relationship science.

Joel scheduled a talk in October 2019 at the University of Waterloo in Canada with the straightforward title: “Can we help people pick better romantic partners?”

So, can Samantha Joel—teaming up with 85 of the world’s most renowned scientists, combining data from 43 studies, mining hundreds of variables collected from more than 10,000, and utilizing state-of-the-art machine learning models—help people pick better romantic partners?

No.

The number one—and most surprising—lesson in the data, Samantha Joel told me in a Zoom interview, is “how unpredictable relationships seem to be.” Joel and her coauthors found that the demographics, preferences, and values of two people had surprisingly little power in predicting whether those two people were happy in a romantic relationship.

And there you have it, folks. Ask AI to figure out whether a set of two human beings can build a happy life together and it is just as clueless as the rest of us…

Another way to say all this: Good romantic partners are difficult to predict with data. Desired romantic partners are easy to predict with data. And that suggests that many of us are dating all wrong.

So, what traits make people desirable to others?

Well, the first truth about what people look for in romantic partners, like so many important truths about life, was expressed by a rock star before the scientists figured it out. As Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows told us in his 1993 masterpiece “Mr. Jones”: We are all looking for “something beautiful.” The conventional attractiveness of a mate is the number one predictor of how many messages someone gets, for both men and women. We are also looking for:

  • someone tall (if a man)
  • someone of a desired race (even though most never admit it)
  • someone rich
  • someone in an enforcement profession (like lawyer or firefighter) if a man
  • someone with a sexy name (such as Jacob or Emma)
  • and someone just like ourselves (people are 11.3 percent more likely to match with someone who shares their initials)

THE FASCINATING, IF sometimes disturbing, data from online dating sites tells us that single people predictably are drawn to certain qualities. But should they be drawn to these qualities? If you are like the average single dater—predictably clicking on people with the traits the scientists found are most desired—are you going about dating correctly? Or are you dating all wrong? …

Of course, the finding that one’s happiness outside of a relationship can have an enormous impact on one’s happiness inside that relationship is hardly a revolutionary idea. Consider this saying that was featured on Daily Inspirational Quotes: “Nobody can make you happy until you’re happy with yourself first.”

This is the type of quote that often makes cynical data geeks like myself roll our eyes. However, now, after reading the work of Joel and her coauthors, I have become convinced that this quote is largely true.

This relates to an important point about living a data-driven life. We data geeks may be most excited when we learn of a finding that goes against conventional wisdom or clichéd advice. This plays to our natural need to know something that the rest of the world doesn’t. But we data geeks must also accept when the data confirms conventional wisdom or clichéd advice. We must be willing to go wherever the data takes us, even if that is to findings like those featured on Daily Inspirational Quotes.

So, as discovered by both a team of 86 scientists and whoever writes Daily Inspirational Quotes, one’s own happiness outside a relationship is by far the biggest predictor of one’s happiness in a romantic relationship.

7) Katherine Wu, “America Is Starting to See What COVID Immunity Really Looks Like”

In the absence of perfect immunity, there can be no hard line between people who have been infected in the past and people who will be infected in the future. It is instead a boundary that people will cross constantly, and not always knowingly, as immunity naturally ebbs and flows. Perhaps better vaccines will come along that help anti-infection shields stick around for longer. But even then, another variant—one that’s a massive departure from both Omicron and our current vaccines—could arrive, and reset our immune landscape “like an Etch-a-Sketch,” says Shweta Bansal, an infectious-disease modeler at Georgetown University. Even in the absence of a total makeover, the coronavirus has plenty of tricks to keep spreading. In South Africa, where cases have once again been ticking up, some unvaccinated people who caught BA.1 just months ago may now be vulnerable to a pair of Omicron-family offshoots, BA.4 and BA.5, that seem to hopscotch over infection-induced immunity, and have already been detected in the U.S…

From the beginning of the pandemic, it seemed very possible that nearly all Americans would eventually be infected by this coronavirus. In recent months, that reality’s come to feel just about inevitable, and may come to pass sooner than many people hoped. With a virus like this, infection won’t be “a one-and-done situation,” Pitzer told me. The virus’s saturating spread may well continue for generations to come; reinfections and vaccinations throughout a person’s lifetime could become, for most of us, a new pathogenic norm. For perspective, Cobey points out that pretty much everyone ends up infected by a flu virus by the time they’re about 10. SARS-CoV-2 spreads even faster, and experts don’t know whether its pace will eventually slow.

“I think if you haven’t gotten it yet, you’re extremely lucky,” Majumder told me. “It reflects privilege,” she said, more than almost anything else: the ability to work from home, access to masks, being up-to-date on vaccines. Majumder and I both check these boxes, likely insulating us against the worst of most exposures; she doesn’t think she’s been infected either. Perhaps there is some biology at play, too. Some people could be genetically less primed to be infected by certain pathogens, even after they’re exposed—a phenomenon well documented with HIV, for instance. Others might be a bit more resilient against contracting the coronavirus because they’re carrying a smidge more immune protection, laid down by the SARS-CoV-2-like pathogens they’ve encountered in their past. But “those are things that affect you on the extreme margins,” Bhattacharya told me, unlikely to account for most of the noncases in the mix.

If the weightiness of mostly infected isn’t super scientifically significant, maybe it’s more a psychological shift. Nations decide what level of transmission, disease, and death they’re willing to live with; a virus’s presence becomes a sort of background noise. People start to see infections as common; individual infections, even outbreaks, stop making front-page news. It’s not an inappropriate transition to make when a country truly is ready for it.

Sorry, but a short one.  Maybe a few more later today.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Quick hits (part II)

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Ummm. #1 So the human brain looks to be a “really good prediction machine”. I can buy “prediction machine” but “really good”? Have you looked at the state of the world and humanity lately?

  2. samhbrewer says:

    #3

    https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jeff-bezos-criticizes-biden-praises-manchin_n_6282163ae4b0c7c107758f19

    “Biden’s “Build Back Better Act,” included a pledge to stop companies from paying zero taxes, placing a 15% minimum tax on the corporate profits of companies making over $1 billion in profit.
    While Amazon registered record profits in 2021, it only paid 6% in federal corporate income taxes, benefiting from tax breaks, according to the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy. In 2019, Amazon was one of 60 companies to pay $0 in federal taxes.”

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