Quick hits (part I)

1) This is great and I think most of you will enjoy reading it, “The empty brain: Your brain does not process information, retrieve knowledge or store memories. In short: your brain is not a computer”

The information processing (IP) metaphor of human intelligence now dominates human thinking, both on the street and in the sciences. There is virtually no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour that proceeds without employing this metaphor, just as no form of discourse about intelligent human behaviour could proceed in certain eras and cultures without reference to a spirit or deity. The validity of the IP metaphor in today’s world is generally assumed without question.

But the IP metaphor is, after all, just another metaphor – a story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand. And like all the metaphors that preceded it, it will certainly be cast aside at some point – either replaced by another metaphor or, in the end, replaced by actual knowledge…

The faulty logic of the IP metaphor is easy enough to state. It is based on a faulty syllogism – one with two reasonable premises and a faulty conclusion. Reasonable premise #1: all computers are capable of behaving intelligently. Reasonable premise #2: all computers are information processors. Faulty conclusion: all entities that are capable of behaving intelligently are information processors.

Setting aside the formal language, the idea that humans must be information processors just because computers are information processors is just plain silly, and when, some day, the IP metaphor is finally abandoned, it will almost certainly be seen that way by historians, just as we now view the hydraulic and mechanical metaphors to be silly…

In a classroom exercise I have conducted many times over the years, I begin by recruiting a student to draw a detailed picture of a dollar bill – ‘as detailed as possible’, I say – on the blackboard in front of the room. When the student has finished, I cover the drawing with a sheet of paper, remove a dollar bill from my wallet, tape it to the board, and ask the student to repeat the task. When he or she is done, I remove the cover from the first drawing, and the class comments on the differences.

Because you might never have seen a demonstration like this, or because you might have trouble imagining the outcome, I have asked Jinny Hyun, one of the student interns at the institute where I conduct my research, to make the two drawings. Here is her drawing ‘from memory’ (notice the metaphor):

And here is the drawing she subsequently made with a dollar bill present:

Jinny was as surprised by the outcome as you probably are, but it is typical. As you can see, the drawing made in the absence of the dollar bill is horrible compared with the drawing made from an exemplar, even though Jinny has seen a dollar bill thousands of times.

What is the problem? Don’t we have a ‘representation’ of the dollar bill ‘stored’ in a ‘memory register’ in our brains? Can’t we just ‘retrieve’ it and use it to make our drawing?

Obviously not, and a thousand years of neuroscience will never locate a representation of a dollar bill stored inside the human brain for the simple reason that it is not there to be found.

The idea that memories are stored in individual neurons is preposterous: how and where is the memory stored in the cell?

A wealth of brain studies tells us, in fact, that multiple and sometimes large areas of the brain are often involved in even the most mundane memory tasks. When strong emotions are involved, millions of neurons can become more active. In a 2016 study of survivors of a plane crash by the University of Toronto neuropsychologist Brian Levine and others, recalling the crash increased neural activity in ‘the amygdala, medial temporal lobe, anterior and posterior midline, and visual cortex’ of the passengers.

The idea, advanced by several scientists, that specific memories are somehow stored in individual neurons is preposterous; if anything, that assertion just pushes the problem of memory to an even more challenging level: how and where, after all, is the memory stored in the cell?

So what is occurring when Jinny draws the dollar bill in its absence? If Jinny had never seen a dollar bill before, her first drawing would probably have not resembled the second drawing at all. Having seen dollar bills before, she was changed in some way. Specifically, her brain was changed in a way that allowed her to visualise a dollar bill – that is, to re-experience seeing a dollar bill, at least to some extent.

The difference between the two diagrams reminds us that visualising something (that is, seeing something in its absence) is far less accurate than seeing something in its presence. This is why we’re much better at recognising than recalling. When we re-member something (from the Latin re, ‘again’, and memorari, ‘be mindful of’), we have to try to relive an experience; but when we recognise something, we must merely be conscious of the fact that we have had this perceptual experience before.

2) Very good free post from Yglesias, “Why hasn’t technology disrupted higher education already?”

A decade ago there was tremendous hype around the potential for Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) to replace traditional classroom instruction. Then it turned out that online for-profit colleges were mostly good for running scams on marginal students. The problem with MOOCs for the typical student is the same as with me trying to lift weights on my own: for people who have a second-order desire to get a degree despite a lack of temperamental suitability for school, the in-person instructor is invaluable. We learned that lesson all over again during the pandemic when a lot of districts went remote with bad effects. Motivation and self-discipline are valuable commodities, and an in-person instructor can help provide them.

I do think it’s fair to say that internet video is a step forward from VHS or simple text files on the web, and all of that is a step forward from print as the only medium for conveying information. And the printing press itself was, of course, a huge step forward.

It’s very easy to imagine chatbots improving on Google search as a way to look stuff up, and AI-powered individual coaching could be even more powerful than videos as a way to learn things.

But I do think the history of ed tech has been one where better and better information technology makes it much easier to learn things without really making much progress on the big problems of education, because the motivation/discipline piece of education is so central. In practice, I think the net impact of IT improvements on education has probably been negative. Today’s smartphone is a much more powerful and convenient learning tool than the public library of 30 years ago. But the 1992-vintage public library really did work very well. And today’s smartphone is also a much more powerful tool of distraction than anything that was available in 1992. Educators’ jobs have probably gotten harder rather than easier, not despite but because of the improvements in information technology.

The revolution, if one comes, is likely to be in the value of the learning itself rather than in how it’s done.

3) Greg Sargent “Musk’s ugly attack on Fauci shows how right-wing info warfare work”

All these responses — which also noted that Fauci admirably tried to serve the country during a major crisis and under great pressure — are reasonable. But outrage and shaming also seem fundamentally out of touch with basic realities of how right-wing information warfare really works.

This sort of info-warring, at bottom, is what characterizes Musk’s transformation into the world’s richest right-wing troll. Tons of pixels have been wasted on efforts to pin down Musk’s true beliefs, but whatever they are, we can say right now that he’s consciously exploiting fundamental features of the right-wing information ecosystem. His critics should adapt accordingly.

In his attack, Musk flatly validated a big right-wing obsession: The idea that Fauci was involved in U.S. government funding of controversial early research into covid, and lied to Congress about it. As The Post’s Glenn Kessler demonstrated, this is a highly complex dispute, but there are zero grounds for concluding anything remotely like that happened. Musk’s claim is at best profoundly irresponsible and at worst straight-up disinformation…

It’s understandable that Musk’s critics are trying shaming and outrage, in that this could further drive advertisers away from Twitter. But, paradoxically, it might also help Musk. The DealBook newsletter suggests that he’s trying to boost “conservative engagement” and “help Twitter’s business” by “winning over right-leaning users and conservative politicians.”

If so, the coin of the realm is the Triggering. A massive backlash from liberals and Democrats creates the impression of controversy, which draws news media attention. It also persuades the right-leaning constituencies Musk hopes to engage that he is “drawing blood.”

In much of the right-wing info-ecosystem, liberal outrage is a sign of an attack’s effectiveness. It can be only confirmation that the Libs Were Owned. Shaming is useless in such an environment, and in some ways can backfire.

4) Some cold water on the fusion energy breakthrough, “The Real Fusion Energy Breakthrough Is Still Decades Away”

5) Which, because that’s how my house rolls, led me to a significant argument on just how big a deal the discovery of gravity waves are.  I’m in the– super-cool science, but, not really all that meaningful implications for how we live our lives and understand most of our universe.  Based on this Vox summary of what we can learn, I stand by my take.

6) I’m really not much for swearing, but, damn did I love reading about the linguistic universalities of swear words:

“Holy motherforking shirtballs!” a character exclaimed on “The Good Place,” a television show that took place in a version of the afterlife where swearing is forbidden (as it is in this newspaper, most of the time). In a way, this celestial censorship was realistic.

A study published Tuesday in the journalPsychonomic Bulletin & Reviewfound that curse words in several unrelated languages sound alike. They’re less likely than other words to include the consonant sounds L, R, W or Y. And more family-friendly versions of curses often have these sounds added, just like the R in “shirt” or “fork.” The finding suggests that some underlying rules may link the world’s languages, no matter how different they are.

“In English, some of the worst words seem to have common phonetic properties,” said Ryan McKay, a psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London. They’re often short and punchy. They also tend to include the sounds P, T or K, “without giving any obvious examples,” Dr. McKay said. These sounds are called stop consonants because they interrupt the airflow when we’re speaking.

Dr. McKay teamed up with his colleague Shiri Lev-Ari to learn whether this familiar pattern went beyond English. They wondered whether it might even represent what’s called sound symbolism.

To look for patterns in swearing, the researchers asked fluent speakers of Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Korean and Russian to list the most vulgar words they could think of. Once they’d compiled a list of each language’s most frequently used epithets, the researchers compared these with neutral words from the same language.

In these languages, they didn’t find the harsh-sounding stop consonants that seem common in English swear words. “Instead, we found patterns that none of us expected,” Dr. Lev-Ari said. The vulgar words were defined by what they lacked: the consonant sounds L, R, W and Y.(In linguistics, these gentle sounds are called approximants.)

Next, the scientists looked for the same phenomenon using speakers of different languages: Arabic, Chinese, Finnish, French, German and Spanish. The subjects listened to pairs of words in a language they didn’t speak, and guessed which word in each pair was offensive. In reality, all the words were invented. For example, the researchers started with the Albanian word “zog,” for “bird,” and created the pair of fake words “yog” and “tsog.” Subjects were more likely to guess that words without approximants, such as “tsog,” were curses.

Finally, the researchers combed through the dictionary for English swear words and their cleaned-up versions, also called minced oaths (“darn,” “frigging” and so on). Once again, the clean versions included more of the sounds L, R, W and Y.

“What this paper finds for the first time is that taboo words across languages, unrelated to each other, may pattern similarly,” said Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego, who was not involved in the study.

Unlike other cases such as cock-a-doodle-doos or words for “nose,” these words don’t share a meaning, but a function. They’re meant to offend. The results suggest that “not all sounds are equally suitable for profanity,” the authors wrote.

“That’s a new thing,” Dr. Bergen said. “Maybe the things that we want to do with words lead us to expect those words to have particular sounds.”

7) Love deBoer on the “unhoused

Why is unhoused bad? Because, one, we have a word that already conveys everything that we need to understand about the described condition, and two, because “unhoused”’s stated value is that it destigmatizes a condition that we should want to stigmatize. Everyone knows what homelessness is. We all understand the implications of the word. It conveys a whole world of social and cultural and economic information that we have spent a lifetime processing. And unlike a term like “redskin,” it contains no intentional offense; it’s used every day by people who intend no harm, indeed by many people who intend to end harm. Worse, “unhoused” makes the work of progressive politics harder, not easier. As in so many other evolutions in liberal mores, avoiding the word “homeless” is ostensibly a matter of avoiding stigma. But homelessness should be stigmatized. The homeless should not be made to feel attacked or insulted. But the social ramifications of homelessness should be understood in visceral and emotional terms; it’s the only way to generate a solution to the terrible and preventable problem of homelessness. If any particular homeless person were to express a preference not to be referred to by the term, sure, avoid it in that context – but how often are the people pushing “unhoused” in a position where their words could even be heard by the homeless in the first place? …

Few recent developments in American politics make me more depressed than the new conventional liberal wisdom that people with mental illness are all uwu smol bean harmless cute quirky free spirits, this version of “normalization” that insists that anyone who is abnormal must therefore not really have mental illness. It lies at the intersection of so many things I hate about contemporary liberalism. But at least there’s this: at least we understand that, for some people, mental illness is intrinsic. At least we know that, until there’s some major new breakthrough in medicine, some people are bound to be mentally ill. That some people just are schizophrenic and will go on being schizophrenic. There, at least, I can squint really hard and maybe make out why some people think it benefits the mentally ill to treat them as blameless fairies whose condition makes them cute and unthreatening. It’s a ruinous way to think, but I understand it. But homelessness, while terribly entrenched for some people, is not an intrinsic condition for anyone! It’s at least potentially an entirely transitory state. And so if you’re worried about the stigma (stigma! stigma! stigma!) of homelessness, your motivation should be to remove people from that state rather than playing pointless self-aggrandizing liberal language games. It’s all so senseless.

Here’s what I’m willing to guess. I’m willing to guess that very few people are actually invested in saying “unhoused” rather than “homeless.” I’m willing to guess that many or most progressive people would read the argument I’ve laid out here and find a lot to agree with. Sure, there are no doubt apparatchiks at nonprofits who have gotten themselves worked up about this issue and activists who are very animated about this topic. But they have to be a small minority. I’m sure most people would just as soon go on saying “homeless.” Because it’s a term that’s true. It’s a word that conveys the sordid depths of the human experience. Here’s the problem, though: once enough liberals start using a term, others will glom onto it, not out of a conviction that it’s more accurate or more humane but because they’re afraid to step out of line. They’re not actually weighing the pros and cons of changing their terminology as I’m doing here. They’re looking out at their progressive peers, noting that everybody seems to be using a new term, and fear the consequences of not doing so themselves.

8) Learned so much from this discussion about the ongoing protests in Iran:

Mounk: When I see protest movements in dictatorships, I’m always a little bit torn. I wish them the best of luck. I identify with them from a distance, insofar as that’s appropriate. I have the biggest admiration for people who are risking their lives in the street for their ideals. But of course, it’s also tempting to think that it’s not going to work out in the end, and that a lot of people will be arrested and killed without having achieved the goal they are fighting for. 

I must admit that I’ve been struck by how long these protests have now been going on, and how broad the support for them has been among professions like teachers, for example. What is it that has allowed these protests to persist for such a long time? Why is it that the Iranian regime has not used all of the force at its disposal to crush these protests completely? What explains that longevity and that deeper support?

Hakakian: I just want to offer a qualification. I don’t think the regime has prevented itself from using violence. What’s happening is that the protesters have not provided the opportunity in big cities, especially Tehran, for the regime to attack them in the way that it did in 2009. Part of the reason why we don’t see a “Million Man March” is because if everybody takes to the streets, then the regime will bite the bullet, and they’ll bring out the tanks and the big guns and attack them wholesale, as they’ve done before. Smaller protests have guaranteed their endurance. 

Mounk: It’s kind of a tactical innovation to say “we’re going to spread all over, and we’re only ever going to assemble in relatively small numbers, because that makes it harder for the regime to attack us.” That’s interesting, and in some ways, counterintuitive.

Hakakian: Absolutely. I think it’s very uplifting to know that they are learning all the proper lessons. But in places where the regime has been able to deploy violence against large crowds, they have. They’ve done so in Baluchestan. They’ve done so in Kurdistan. When there has been the opportunity for them to actually go into a city knowing that the city itself is against them (and by the way, those are border cities that are far away from the center, and there are fewer cameras and less coverage) then they have been entirely brutal.

And, by the way, we’re setting aside all the abuse and torture and all the other things that they are doing to the 16,000-plus people they’ve arrested. So we’re leaving all those out…

Mounk:

Tell us a little bit about the nature and the shape of Iran’s society today. Help us understand the amazing contrast between a regime that for 50 years has used all of its resources to entrench religion, and a society that has actually secularized to a remarkable extent.

Hakakian: I just want to add one qualification. It’s true that the overwhelming majority of students in higher education are women. But that is not happening because of the regime. It’s happening despite the regime. Women decided that, since they can’t actually enter the job market after they graduate, they should do everything else in order to become the citizens that they’re not allowed to become. You’d be surprised how many people often use those very statistics to say, “You misunderstand the regime there. They’re doing these things!” 

The regime has all the garb, all the disguises of religious leadership. But I oftentimes refer to them as “Tony Sopranos in turbans and robes.” The Sopranos have taken over Iran. It’s really an economic mafia more than anything else. And the way the disguise works is that it makes everybody else, especially the West, think that these are Muslims—“out of respect for their religion, and their tradition, we need to stay out, because we don’t understand who they are, what they do.” So, they’ve managed to keep up a good game, because they look and they dress as they do. 

They do embrace, at least overtly, this mantle of religiosity. But when you peel back the disguise—as fortunately, social media has given people the opportunity to do—you see them going to Europe, for instance, and their wives and daughters are without the hijab. They have failed to live up to the standards that they have set for religiosity, for piety. Social media has revealed this duplicity. 

We should also not discount the fact that when Ayatollah Khomeini gave his first speech, arriving in Tehran in 1979, he was promising equality, he was promising that since they had gotten rid of a bad monarch, who had created all these poor, impoverished classes in the country, he was going to do the reverse; there was going to be economic equality. And people heard all sorts of things, including that the prisons were going to become museums and that sort of thing. What has happened is that now we have a caste of religious oligarchs in Iran, who are there to reap the benefits of being in high positions, while their children and their families live in Canada, North America, and Europe. All of this has deeply undermined the belief that this is the regime that they voted for in 1979. This has generated huge distrust not just in the regime; it has generated disaffection with Islam in general, which explains the proclivities for secularity in Iran today. 

But I think there is a class that remains conservative, that remains observant, that still supports the current movement. And I think that’s because they recognize that if there’s any hope for Islam to survive, they have to make sure that they get past this regime, which they view as just a bad mark on the faith.

9) Just came across this fascinating Atlantic article from three years ago, ‘The Personality Trait That Makes People Feel Comfortable Around You: People with positive “affective presence” are easy to be around and oil the gears of social interactions.”

Some people can walk into a room and instantly put everyone at ease. Others seem to make teeth clench and eyes roll no matter what they do. A small body of psychology research supports the idea that the way a person tends to make others feel is a consistent and measurable part of his personality. Researchers call it “affective presence.”

This concept was first described nearly 10 years ago in a study by Noah Eisenkraft and Hillary Anger Elfenbein. They put business-school students into groups, had them enroll in all the same classes for a semester, and do every group project together. Then the members of each group rated how much every other member made them feel eight different emotions: stressed, bored, angry, sad, calm, relaxed, happy, and enthusiastic. The researchers found that a significant portion of group members’ emotions could be accounted for by the affective presence of their peers.

It seems that “our own way of being has an emotional signature,” says Elfenbein, a business professor at Washington University in St. Louis.

It’s been known for some time that emotions are contagious: If one person feels angry, she may well infect her neighbor with that anger. But affective presence is an effect one has regardless of one’s own feelings—those with positive affective presence make other people feel good, even if they personally are anxious or sad, and the opposite is true for those with negative affective presence.

“To use common, everyday words, some people are just annoying. It doesn’t mean they’re annoyed all the time,” Elfenbein says. “They may be content because they’re always getting their way. Some people bring out great things in others while they’re themselves quite depressed.”

Unsurprisingly, people who consistently make others feel good are more central to their social networks—in Elfenbein’s study, more of their classmates considered them to be friends. They also got more romantic interest from others in a separate speed-dating study

Exactly what people are doing that sets others at ease or puts them off hasn’t yet been studied. It may have to do with body language, or tone of voice, or being a good listener. Madrid suggests that further research might also find that some people have a strong affective presence (whether positive or negative), while others’ affective presence is weaker. But both Madrid and Elfenbein suggest that a big part of affective presence may be how people regulate emotions—those of others and their own.

Throughout the day, one experiences emotional “blips” as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, “Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?” she asks. “Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?”

This “smoothing over”—or emotional regulation—could take the form of finding the positive in a bad situation, which can be healthy. But it could also take the form of suppressing one’s own emotions just to keep other people comfortable, which is less so.

Elfenbein notes that positive affective presence isn’t inherently good, either for the person themselves, or for their relationships with others. Psychopaths are notoriously charming, and may well use their positive affective presence for manipulative ends. Neither is negative affective presence necessarily always a bad thing in a leader—think of a football coach yelling at the team at halftime, motivating them to make a comeback. Elfenbein suspects that affective presence is closely related to emotional intelligence. And, she says, “You can use your intelligence to cure cancer, but you can also use it to be a criminal mastermind.”

10) Good stuff on the high quality of this year’s World Cup:

The point is that everyone can do it now. Refined technique — the term of art for the instruments of control and precision — is no longer the secretive preserve of the Dutch academy and the Italian training ground. It is now expected that a player be able to bring a hurtling orb to a complete standstill — to kill it dead — and rifle it to all four corners of the field with laserlike accuracy. The gap between the iconic teams and the middling powers has never been narrower, which is why the group stage of this World Cup was so thrillingly unpredictable and why two of the four semifinalists, Croatia and crowd favorite Morocco, came from outside the traditional elite. This was the globalization of the game at work, greased by enormous pools of cash. It was evident in everything from the quality of the players, each of whom represents an investment in cutting-edge training and nutritional technology, to the ubiquitous haircut of the tournament: high and very tight on the sides, as if every player were a Navy Seal, an assassin.

The players may be less distinctive than they used to be, more like interchangeable parts of the streamlined soccer machine, but they are certainly stronger, faster, better. The teams, too, are less idiosyncratic, less animated by any sense of national style or identity. The greatest tactical advances of the 21st century have come out of Spain (possession play, i.e., “tiki taka,” personified by former Barcelona and current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola) and Germany (the intense press and counter-press, what the Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp calls “heavy metal football”), and every team now deploys some combination of these philosophies. Japan’s first goal against Spain came from a very high press, which ironically enough was designed originally to break tiki taka’s stranglehold on the game. Brazil had the best squad of the tournament, maybe one of the best ever, but essentially played European-style soccer with its Europe-based players. The team added a touch of Brazilian flair, just as Serbia has its grit and Germany its die Mannschaft ethos and the U.S. its chip on the shoulder, but this is all seasoning. It should be noted that nearly half of Japan’s squad plies their trade in Germany.

11) Enjoyed this, even though I disagreed with many, “An Unofficial Ranking of the 10 Most Annoying Kids’ Toys”

12) So, “How Important Is Stretching, Really?” Not very!  Never bothered and not going to start.

13) This is true, “ChatGPT’s Fluent BS Is Compelling Because Everything Is Fluent BS”

All of this makes playing around with ChatGPT incredibly fun, charmingly addictive, and—as someone who writes for a living—really quite worrying. But you soon start to sense a lack of depth beneath ChatGPT’s competent prose. It makes factual errors, conflating events and mixing people up. It relies heavily on tropes and cliché, and it echoes society’s worst stereotypes. Its words are superficially impressive but largely lacking in substance—ChatGPT mostly produces what The Verge has described as “fluent bullshit.”

But that kind of makes sense. ChatGPT was trained on real-world text, and the real world essentially runs on fluent bullshit. Maybe the plausibility of a made-up movie like Oil and Darkness comes not because AI is so good, but because the film industry is so bad at coming up with original ideas. In a way, when you ask an AI to make you a movie, it’s just mimicking the formulaic process by which many Hollywood blockbusters get made: Look around, see what’s been successful, lift elements of it (actors, directors, plot structures) and mash them together into a shape that looks new but actually isn’t. 

It’s the same in publishing, where narrow trends can sweep the industry and dominate for years at a time, lining bookshop shelves with covers that look the same or titles with the same rhythm: A Brief History of Seven KillingsThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Moons of Maali AlmeidaThe Seven Lives of Seven Killers. (ChatGPT made that last one up.)

And it’s not just the creative industries. Fluent bullshit is everywhere: in viral LinkedIn posts and rules for life podcasts, in fundraising decks and academic journals, even in this article itself. Politics and business are full of people who have risen to the top because they’re able to stand in front of a room and ad-lib plausibly at length without saying anything real. Prestigious schools and universities structure education in a way that teaches people one skill: how to very quickly absorb information, confidently regurgitate it in a predetermined format, and then immediately forget it and move on to something else. Those who succeed spill out into government, consultancy, and yes, journalism.

14) Eric Levitz with absolutely the best take on the twitter files, “The ‘Twitter Files’ Is What It Claims to Expose”

15) I find Ron DeSantis‘ rabid anti-vax actions so thoroughly depressing about what they say about the Republican Party and the, supposedly, more sane alternative to Trump:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is widely expected to run for president in 2024, is escalating his campaign to discredit the Covid-19 vaccines, the drug companies that produced them, and the public health officials and government leaders who urged Americans to get them.

Florida under DeSantis has been home base for anti-vaccine, anti-mask, and anti-lockdown policies in the past three years. His administration sought to block cities and universities from imposing mask and vaccine mandates; his surgeon general drew widespread criticism this fall for urging young men not to get vaccinated. This week, DeSantis hosted a 90-minute panel discussion filled with experts questioning the efficacy of the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines and touting their potential dangers for some people, while alleging a vague conspiracy exists to hide that information from the public.

Now he is taking this crusade to the next level, asking the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury charged with investigating any wrongdoing related to the promotion and distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

16) Really interesting analysis suggesting the electoral college doesn’t have a Republican bias, so much as a Trump bias (all the more reason to get rid of it!)

But Trump has an ace up his sleeve if an “electability” debate emerges in the GOP primaries: the electoral college.

Trump has proven that he can win 270 electoral votes even when Democrats win the popular vote. If Republicans choose DeSantis or some other Trump alternative, that edge might shrink — or even disappear.

Trump has a three-point electoral college advantage. That makes him electable.

Trump’s electoral college advantage comes through most clearly when we compare the “tipping point” or “pivotal” state to the national popular vote.

In 2016, Wisconsin was the tipping point state: That is, if every state was lined up from Trump’s best to his worst, Wisconsin was the state that got him past the 270 electoral votes and into the White House.

Trump took Wisconsin by one percentage point while losing the national popular vote by two percentage points — adding up to an electoral college advantage of about three points.

In 2020, Trump again had a three point advantage: He lost the popular vote to Joe Biden by 4.5 points while losing Pennsylvania (that year’s pivotal state) by only about one point.

In historical terms, that’s a strong advantage…

In most elections, the electoral college bias doesn’t matter: The results in the key state only slightly differ from the national popular vote margin, and the popular vote winner takes the White House. But Trump’s electoral college edge let him stay competitive even as he lost the popular vote by millions…

When Trump is off the ballot, the GOP loses its electoral college edge

In 2018 and 2022 — two elections where Trump was off the ballot — the Republican Party didn’t do as well in key electoral college states.

In the 2022 House elections, Republicans won the national vote by roughly 1.8 percentage points after adjusting for uncontested seats (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race). But in Wisconsin — the pivotal state in both 2016 and 2020 — the GOP won the adjusted House vote by 2.8 percentage points (that is, simulating what would have happened if every district featured a normal Republican vs. Democrat race using the procedure described here).

The House vote — even after adjusting for uncontested seats — isn’t perfectly comparable to the presidential vote. But it’s the closest substitute we have. And when Trump was off the ballot in 2022, the House Republicans beat their popular vote margin by about a point in the key swing states.

That’s a steep decline from Trump’s three-point edge…

Put simply, when Trump has been on the ballot, the GOP has had an edge in the most important electoral college states. When he’s gone, that extra boost has disappeared.

17) Paul Waldman, “Republicans have a new version of ‘Lock her up!’”

During the 2016 presidential campaign, no Donald Trump rally was complete without chants of “Lock her up!” shouted with a wild glee. Whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned, Trump’s supporters indulged in a vivid fantasy, one that saw Clinton arrested, handcuffed and tossed behind bars. It was not enough to defeat her in the election;she had to be punished, in a very personal and physical way.

Versions of that fantasy are becoming more common on the right, not just among the rank and file but from Republican leaders, conservative media figures and right-wing celebrities. Though liberals are not immune to the impulse, conservatives are usually most eager to contemplate deploying the criminal justice system against their foes.

This desire isn’t really about the actual procedures of that system. It’s about the fantasy itself, one that thrums with an undercurrent of violence…

But lately, politics hasn’t offered conservatives much satisfaction. They keep coming up short in elections, and even after four years of the Trump presidency, the things they hate about American politics and American life, particularly the very existence of liberals and liberalism, did not disappear.

It’s frustrating for them — and more frustration is on the way. Having won control of the House, Republicans canmount as many investigations of Hunter Biden as they please, or try to impeach the secretary of homeland security. But none of that will amount to much; it certainly won’t make them feel as though they’ve vanquished the left once and for all.

18) Good stuff from Nick Kristoff on the West and Ukraine:

The fundamental misconception among many congressional Republicans (and some progressives on the left) is that we’re doing Ukraine a favor by sending it weapons. Not so. We are holding Ukraine’s coat as it is sacrificing lives and infrastructure in ways that benefit us, by degrading Russia’s military threat to NATO and Western Europe — and thus to us.

“They’re doing us a favor; they’re fighting our fight,” Wesley Clark, the retired American general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. “The fight in Ukraine is a fight about the future of the international community.”

If the war ends in a way favorable to Russia, he argues, it will be a world less safe for Americans. One lesson the world would absorb would be the paramount importance of possessing nuclear weapons, for Ukraine was invaded after it gave up its nuclear arsenal in the 1990s — and Russia’s nuclear warheads today prevent a stronger Western military response.

“If Ukraine falls, there will certainly be a wave of nuclear proliferation,” Clark warned.

For years, military strategists have feared a Russian incursion into Estonia that would challenge NATO and cost lives of American troops. Ukrainians are weakening Russia’s forces so as to reduce that risk.

More broadly, perhaps the single greatest threat to world peace in the coming decade is the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait that escalates into a war between America and China. To reduce that danger, we should help Taiwan build up its deterrent capacity — but perhaps the simplest way to reduce the likelihood of Xi Jinping acting aggressively is to stand united against Russia’s invasion. If the West falters and allows Putin to win in Ukraine, Xi will feel greater confidence that he can win in Taiwan.

Putin has been a destabilizing and brutal bully for many years — from Chechnya to Syria, Georgia to Moldova — partly because the world has been unwilling to stand up to him and partly because he possesses a powerful military force that Ukraine is now dismantling. Aside from energy, Russia’s economy is not substantial.

“Putin and Russia are weak,” Viktor Yushchenko, a former Ukrainian president who challenged Russia and then was mysteriously poisoned and disfigured, told me. “Russia is a poor country, an oil appendage to the world, a gas station.”

The world owes Ukraine for its willingness to finally stand up to Putin. If anything, I’d like to see the Biden administration carefully ratchet up the capabilities of the weaponry it supplies Ukraine, for it may be that the best way to end the war is simply to ensure that Putin finds the cost of it no longer worth paying.

19) Fascinating stuff in Wired, “There’s a New Explanation for ‘Genetic’ Trait Pairs: Your Parents
For years, researchers thought characteristics like weight and education had shared genetic roots. The real answer might lie in how people choose to pair up.”

STATISTICALLY SPEAKING, MORE educated people tend to weigh less. That correlation alone, though, doesn’t really tell you much—you could make a parlor game out of coming up with plausible explanations. Maybe the reason is that more educated people have access to healthier foods. Maybe it’s because people who are bullied about their weight are more likely to leave school. Or maybe the people who can afford college tuition and the people who can afford gym memberships are one and the same.

In 2015, a study in Nature Genetics introduced a surprising new possibility: Perhaps weight and education are so intimately connected because they share some of the same genetic roots. Using enormous collections of genetic data, the study’s authors searched for pairs of traits that were correlated with the same genes. For each pair they calculated a metric called “genetic correlation,” which quantifies just how similar the whole set of genes linked to one trait is to that linked to another trait. A smattering of trait pairs popped out as having significant genetic correlations, among them body mass index (BMI) and years of education—as well as more obvious pairs, like depression and anxiety, or type 2 diabetes and blood glucose levels. (Researchers have since tried to explain the apparent genetic link between weight and education by suggesting that people who are genetically predisposed to be better decision makers, and are presumably successful in the classroom, are more likely to adopt healthy lifestyles.)

Compared to simpler, behavioral explanations, such genetic explanations might sound far-fetched. But the data would seem to offer few other alternatives. Genes, after all, have an unquestionable primacy. If the same genes are associated with both education and BMI, it stands to reason that those traits must have intertwined biological roots. 

Now, a new study in Science shows that this idea is illusory. It suggests that geneticists must also consider what comes before people’s genes: their parents. Even if two traits are statistically associated with the same genes, they might not have any true genetic overlap: That same pattern can also appear if people with those traits tend to mate with each other. (This is called “cross-trait assortative mating.”)

 For example, people with many years of education, who are likely to be of a higher social class, tend to seek out partners who display markers of social standing like a low BMI, and vice versa. Their children will then have genes linked to both high education and low weight. If this happens repeatedly across a population, the two traits will appear to share some of the same genetic causes, because the traits and genes will co-occur so frequently. In reality, they will have been inherited from different sides of the family…

But Howe’s study didn’t explain exactly how parents played a role. There were some promising possibilities. Parents don’t just pass down genes to their kids—they also pass down their socioeconomic status, which has consequences for both schooling and diet. And, of course, parents typically choose whom they reproduce with. Loic Yengo, group leader of the Statistical Genomics Laboratory at the University of Queensland, says that geneticists had realized that cross-trait assortative mating could—in theory—inflate genetic correlations. But no one had yet produced concrete evidence that it did. 

Border and his colleagues found that evidence. Studying cross-trait assortative mating in detail requires knowing how much it actually happens in the real world. It seems reasonable that depressed people might end up with anxious people due to their shared experience of living with a mental illness, or that educated people would tend to marry people who got high scores on IQ tests, but Border needed to put numbers on those trends. The team was able to find the information they needed in the UK Biobank, an enormous dataset that comprises genetic, medical, and demographic data about hundreds of thousands of UK residents. They found that the more often people who had a particular pair of traits tended to couple up, the more those traits seemed to be genetically correlated. It was reasonable to suspect, then, that assortative mating was in fact making some genetic correlations appear stronger than they would otherwise be.

20) Sad but true… people in the American South are, on average, much worse dog owners:

NASHVILLE — As the documentary “Free Puppies” opens, a fluffy dog named Albert is galloping down a beach boardwalk. His companion, a much bigger dog, is leaping with excitement, but Albert is harnessed into a dog wheelchair. He was found on the side of a road in Arkansas, “either thrown out of a car or hit by a car,” a voice-over tells us. “We brought him up on one of those pet carriers that come up with tons of animals from the South.” Albert’s wheelchair bears a miniature Connecticut license plate.

This little dog is one of millions of pets transported from the American South to places in the Northeast and Midwest with fewer adoptable animals — communities where there are well funded animal-welfare agencies, stricter leash laws, a shorter breeding season and weather harsh enough that fewer strays survive.

Widespread animal relocation began in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina, according to Karen Walsh, the senior director of animal relocation at the A.S.P.C.A. “When we saw how many people were willing to step up and help an animal that had lost their home in Katrina, that idea grew,” she says in the film. “Animals started to flow across the country.”

Only a fraction of the needy pets here are cute enough or young enough to be easily placed this way — often based solely on a rescue organization’s website or social media feeds. So “Adopt, don’t shop” has become a national mantra among pet rescue advocates working desperately to reduce the number of animals euthanized in overcrowded shelters or left to starve on their own. Most of those doomed pets live in the South.

21) Fellow ChatGPT lovers will enjoy this, “How to Get the Most Out of ChatGPT”

22) And this still seems like magic to me, “OpenAI Has the Key To Identify ChatGPT’s Writing
They’ll add a secret watermark to the AI’s creations. Will they share the means to see it?”

As Aaronson says, an invisible “conceptual” watermark is what they need to make it “much harder to take a GPT output and pass it off as if it came from a human.” This feature could prevent misinformation, plagiarism, impersonation, cheating, etc., because what most malicious use cases share is that the user has to “conceal[] ChatGPT’s involvement.”

OpenAI already has a “working prototype” that he says “seems to work pretty well:”

“Empirically, a few hundred tokens seem to be enough to get a reasonable signal that yes, this text came from GPT. In principle, you could even take a long text and isolate which parts probably came from GPT and which parts probably didn’t.”

This means a couple of paragraphs are enough to tell if the content came from ChatGPT or not.

(Note that Aaronson doesn’t refer to ChatGPT explicitly but to a generic “GPT”. My guess is that all of OpenAI’s language models will integrate the watermarking scheme, likely including the next iteration of ChatGPT.)

Although the specifics of how the mechanism works are too technical to cover here (if you’re interested, check out Aaronson’s blog. It’s very good!), it’s worth mentioning a few relevant details buried in the jargon:

First, users won’t have the means to see the watermark (DALL-E’s, on the contrary, was visible and easily removable) unless OpenAI shares the key. I doubt anyone will find a direct way to remove it.

However, second, although the watermark it’s hard to bypass with trivial approaches (e.g. remove/insert words or rearrange paragraphs), it’s possible (e.g. Aaronson mentions that paraphrasing ChatGPT’s outputs with another AI would remove the watermark just fine).

Third, only OpenAI knows the key. They can share it with whoever they want so third parties can, too, assess the provenance of a given piece of text.

Finally, what I consider the most critical aspect of this: the watermark won’t work with open-source models because anyone could go into the code and remove the function (the watermark isn’t inside the model, but as a “wrapper” over it).

23) I really enjoyed learning about the physics and engineering of air conditioning in Qatar’s World Cup stadiums.

24) Great stuff from Scott Alexander on ChatGPT and the alignment problem, “Perhaps It Is A Bad Thing That The World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs”

Probably the reason they released this bot to the general public was to use us as free labor to find adversarial examples – prompts that made their bot behave badly. We found thousands of them, and now they’re busy RLHFing those particular failure modes away.

Some of the RLHF examples will go around and around in circles, making the bot more likely to say helpful/true/inoffensive things at the expense of true/inoffensive/helpful ones. Other examples will be genuinely enlightening, and make it a bit smarter. While OpenAI might never get complete alignment, maybe in a few months or years they’ll approach the usual level of computer security, where Mossad and a few obsessives can break it but everyone else grudgingly uses it as intended.

This strategy might work for ChatGPT3, GPT-4, and their next few products. It might even work for the drone-mounted murderbots, as long as they leave some money to pay off the victims’ families while they’re collecting enough adversarial examples to train the AI out of undesired behavior. But as soon as there’s an AI where even one failure would be disastrous – or an AI that isn’t cooperative enough to commit exactly as many crimes in front of the police station as it would in a dark alley – it falls apart.

People have accused me of being an AI apocalypse cultist. I mostly reject the accusation. But it has a certain poetic fit with my internal experience. I’ve been listening to debates about how these kinds of AIs would act for years. Getting to see them at last, I imagine some Christian who spent their whole life trying to interpret Revelation, watching the beast with seven heads and ten horns rising from the sea. “Oh yeah, there it is, right on cue; I kind of expected it would have scales, and the horns are a bit longer than I thought, but overall it’s a pretty good beast.”

This is how I feel about AIs trained by RLHF. Ten years ago, everyone was saying “We don’t need to start solving alignment now, we can just wait until there are real AIs, and let the companies making them do the hard work.” A lot of very smart people tried to convince everyone that this wouldn’t be enough. Now there’s a real AI, and, indeed, the company involved is using the dumbest possible short-term strategy, with no incentive to pivot until it starts failing.

I’m less pessimistic than some people, because I hope the first few failures will be small – maybe a stray murderbot here or there, not a planet-killer. If I’m right, then a lot will hinge on whether AI companies decide to pivot to the second-dumbest strategy, or wake up and take notice.

Finally, as I keep saying, the people who want less racist AI now, and the people who want to not be killed by murderbots in twenty years, need to get on the same side right away. The problem isn’t that we have so many great AI alignment solutions that we should squabble over who gets to implement theirs first. The problem is that the world’s leading AI companies do not know how to control their AIs. Until we solve this, nobody is getting what they want.

25) Good take from Chait on Sinema going Independent, “Kyrsten Sinema Is Playing Chicken Going independent is a way to force Democrats to back her.”

Sinema’s declaration of independence from the party is a ploy to avoid the primary and keep her job. Democrats could still run a candidate against her in the general election, of course, but they would face an extremely difficult prospect of winning. So her calculation in leaving the party is that she can bluff it into sitting out the campaign altogether, endorsing her as the lesser-evil choice against the Republican nominee.

It may work. If it doesn’t, it is because Sinema has underestimated just how much ill will she has generated across the breadth of the Democratic Party by reconceptualizing her role as the personal concierge of the superrich.

26) And Yglesias from last year on just why Sinema is so awful.

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

One Response to Quick hits (part I)

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    #1 In getting older, one problem I have when speaking or writing is that sometimes I try to find the right word that expresses what I want to say and I know that I know it but I can’t retrieve it.. That was never difficult for me when I was young. Now, sometimes if I wait a moment or two, the word pops right back up. But sometimes it takes longer and interferes with my flow of words. I think my processor is aging.
    Maybe I have my own cloud?

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