• Lunchtime Photo

    Along one stretch of Regent’s Canal, there’s a strip of pavement that parallels the towpath opposite the boats. Apparently, the folks who have mooring rights are also allowed to set up little sitting areas on the patch across from their houseboat. These setups revealed a lot of character about their owners, and I’m sorry I didn’t take more pictures of them.

    But I took a few, and this is one of them. It’s one of the simplest and most austere, but on a sunny day it offers a nice respite from the boat itself.

  • Artificial Intelligence Continues to Barrel Ahead

    Lee Jae-Won/AFLO via ZUMA

    I have a long piece in the current issue of the magazine about the way long-term trends in artificial intelligence are likely to cause mass unemployment in the future. Because of this focus, I included only a few brief examples of the current state of AI research along with details about how it works.

    And it’s a good thing, since that stuff is obsolete already. For example, I wrote a sentence or two about Google’s DeepMind computer and how it was able to become the best Go player in the world years before anyone thought it could. But now it’s even better, and this has some lessons for us. Here is Christina Bonnington in Slate:

    On Monday, researchers announced that Google’s project AutoML had successfully taught itself to program machine learning software on its own….On Wednesday, in a paper published in the journal Nature, DeepMind researchers revealed another remarkable achievement. The newest version of its Go-playing algorithm, dubbed AlphaGo Zero, was not only better than the original AlphaGo, which defeated the world’s best human player in May. This version had taught itself how to play the game. All on its own, given only the basic rules of the game. (The original, by comparison, learned from a database of 100,000 Go games.) According to Google’s researchers, AlphaGo Zero has achieved superhuman-level performance: It won 100–0 against its champion predecessor, AlphaGo.

    ….Early AlphaGo versions operated on 48 Google-built TPUs. AlphaGo Zero works on only four. It’s far more efficient and practical than its predecessors. Paired with AutoML’s ability to develop its own machine learning algorithms, this could seriously speed up the pace of DeepMind’s AI-related discoveries.

    This highlights some the things I briefly mention in my article. We have a tendency to think of AI primarily in terms of raw hardware power, and there’s no question that this is important. Full AI will simply never be possible until we have cheap, energy-efficient computing platforms with roughly the computing power of the human brain.

    But “computing power” is a combination of hardware and software. And hardware is a combination of CPU speed, custom chip design, and massive parallellism. In this case, the new AlphaGo machine has become a dozen times more efficient not because Intel has come out with a faster CPU, but via the use of better software, which is executed on Google’s custom Tensor Processing Unit chips.

    This is why I’m so confident that computing power will continue to double every couple of years, just as it has for the past half century. Standard CPUs aren’t likely to keep doubling in raw speed, but they’ll get smaller, cheaper, and more energy efficient. Combine this with better algorithms, better use of parallellism, and custom AI processing chips (which are in their infancy right now), and effective computing power is likely to continue to grow exponentially.

    We’re also in the infancy of making use of AI to help build better AI. Right now this is extremely limited, but that’s the way everything starts. In another decade, AI-assisted AI development is likely to be yet another factor keeping development on an exponential curve. It won’t be long before AI starts to get good at tasks that we currently pay human beings to do.

    This is going to put a lot of people out of work starting in about a decade or so, and this won’t be a rerun of the Industrial Revolution. Millions of people will be out of work for good, since by definition, any new jobs created by the transition to AI can also be done by AI. This is something we should be thinking hard about. But as I was researching my article, I was disappointed that even now, when the future of AI seems to be barreling toward us in a way that’s hardly deniable anymore, very little thought is going into this.

    So what can we do? I have a few ideas, but mostly I’m hoping that my piece sparks some more serious discussion. You can join in when it appears online.

  • Happy Birthday To Me!

    Happy Birthday to me! I’m 59 today.

    A reminder: I’m meeting up for drinks with a reader who was also born on the 19th, and everyone is invited. If you’re in London and want to get together, we’ll be at the Coal Hole at about 5 pm. The Coal Hole is at 91-92 The Strand, a few hundred yards east of Trafalgar Square. I’ll be wearing a bright red shirt. Feel free to drop by whenever you can. We’ll probably be there for a couple of hours or so.

  • Donald Trump Is Such a Pig

    Somehow Donald Trump can always surprise us. No matter how much of a pig we think he is, he turns out to be even worse. What kind of horrible excuse for a human being does something like this?

    Not that we should be surprised. It’s not as if this is the first time he’s done this.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    This is the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral, shot from the south side of the river near the Tate Modern. The @#$*! scaffolding has been cleverly photoshopped out.

  • 50 (Un)popular Opinions

    For some reason, there exists a Twitter meme called “1 Like = 1 Unpopular Opinion.” I don’t really understand what this means, but the result is obvious enough: a long list of tweets spelling out your unpopular opinions.

    I don’t feel like using Twitter for this, and I don’t claim that all of these opinions are unpopular. That said, here are some pearls of wisdom presented old-school listicle style.

    NOTE: I have no intention of explaning any of these no matter how much you ask. Take ’em for what they’re worth.

    1. Execution is more important than strategy.
    2. Return of the Jedi is the best Star Wars movie. Just tune out the Ewoks.
    3. Good parenting is worth the trouble, but not because it produces great kids.
    4. The internet makes dumb people dumber.
    5. Southern California is the best place in the US to live.
    6. Preventing mistakes is a more important part of management than most people think.
    7. Path dependence explains a helluva lot.
    8. “Correlation is not causation” is a lazy shibboleth too often used by people trying to sound smart.
    9. Everyone should give up on hamburger arguments. Most fast-food burgers are basically the same. Except for McDonald’s which is bad.
    10. The trampoline picture used to illustrate gravity in General Relativity is a terrible metaphor and should be banned.
    11. Spam is kinda tasty.
    12. Jimmy Carter is both overrated and underrated.
    13. There’s no real reason that evolution needs to be taught in high school.
    14. “Veep” is an aggressively unfunny show.
    15. Hillary Clinton’s biggest problem is that she’s compulsively honest but sounds compulsively devious.
    16. Obama was absolutely right to do nothing in Syria.
    17. Del Taco makes great fries.
    18. Airline seats have gotten smaller because 90% of their customers aren’t very big and don’t care.
    19. Kids should probably be restricted in their social media use.
    20. Central banks cannot effectively raise inflation rates.
    21. Go ahead and salt your food. It’s not that big a deal for most of us.
    22. Artificial intelligence is going to start causing mass unemployment in a decade or two.
    23. Woke culture is doing a lot of damage to the ability of progressives to talk about race.
    24. Donald Trump is largely right about NATO.
    25. We should ban semi-automatic weapons.
    26. Movies are better than live theater in almost every respect.
    27. IQ is real and it matters.
    28. Saturated fat isn’t really that bad for you.
    29. Most magazine articles over 3,000 words are overwritten.
    30. Acting is almost all about voice control: pitch, timbre, rhythm, speed, resonance, etc.
    31. The Krell were not a very advanced race.
    32. We are too obsessed with Shakespeare at the expense of other classical playwrights.
    33. It’s OK for the y-axis not to start at zero. What matters is displaying the data honestly and clearly.
    34. We should ditch the trust funds and pay for Social Security and Medicare out of the general fund.
    35. Sleeping pills are a terrific way of overcoming jet lag.
    36. African-Americans are not underrepresented in the Oscar acting categories.
    37. White-collar hiring managers should worry less about finding someone with specific previous job experience.
    38. The permanent income hypothesis is absurd.
    39. Carpeting is better than hardwood.
    40. Wearing socks to bed is a good idea.
    41. Windows is a pretty good operating system.
    42. C.P. Snow was right.
    43. Managers should worry less about making workers happy and worry more about giving them the tools they need to succeed.
    44. Tom Cruise is a good actor.
    45. If something is important enough to be worth arguing about, it’s nearly always complicated enough that both liberals and conservatives have good points to make.
    46. Full-on driverless cars will be in widespread use by 2025.
    47. Lists are often a very good way to structure a story.
    48. Dostoevsky is better than Tolstoy.
    49. We don’t need either a wall or stepped up ICE raids against Mexican immigrants, but borders do matter and we should take reasonable steps to secure ours.
    50. Quantum mechanics: WTF?
  • Who Needs Corporate Taxes, Anyway?

    Kevin Hassett, currently CEA chair in the Trump administration, claims that a corporate tax cut would raise wages by $4,000. Laura Tyson, CEA chair during the Clinton administration and economic advisor to the Obama administration, says that Hassett’s claim is “disturbing” and “dishonest.” If you look at all the evidence, not just a few cherry-picked outliers, the most likely effect on wages is…zero.

    This should surprise no one. Hassett’s claim is ridiculous on its face. Nevertheless, Tyson supports the idea of cutting corporate taxes:

    My general view is a corporate rate tax cut with move to territoriality would increase investment in the United States. A lot of economists believe that….The original proposal from several years ago was for a revenue-neutral corporate tax cut. So a tax cut for corporations paid for by going after all the special deductions and special credits to broaden the base enough to generate revenue. The general view of that was that would eliminate distortions in the corporate tax code. There are wild differences in tax rates for retail, energy companies, etc.

    Roger that. A lot of people support tax reform like this—at least in theory. It’s getting them to support it in practice that’s hard.

    Here, however, I’m going to reveal my vast ignorance about corporate taxation. I basically think of taxes as just another input, like the cost of steel or transportation. What happens when those costs fall? In a normal market, competition forces companies to lower the prices of their goods until they are once again operating at the same level of profit as before. Lower prices produce higher sales, which in turn requires more workers.

    So yes: lower corporate taxes should have a modestly beneficial effect on employment. In a tight labor market, this will even lead to temporarily higher wages until a recession comes along to loosen up the labor market.

    But why should lower corporate taxes benefit capital? If, say, the widget industry operates on an expected return to capital of 10 percent, competition will keep it there even if taxes or other costs go down—but only as long as they go down for everybody. Thus, corporations should be eager for tax loopholes that benefit them exclusively, since that really does produce extra profits that can be put in the hands of shareholders and executives, but they shouldn’t care very much about overall tax rates that affect their entire industry equally.

    In other words, overall tax rates don’t matter much. It’s the loopholes and special subsidies that produce unjustified rents based on disparate tax levels. And sure enough, that’s what corporate lobbyists spend most of their time on. Getting rid of all this crap in the tax code is therefore a great idea, but the problem is that it will all just accrete again even if we manage to do it. The only way to get rid of it permanently is to eliminate the corporate income tax altogether.

    The overall effect of eliminating corporate taxes should thus be (a) higher employment and (b) fewer opportunities for non-market profits that benefit the rich. What’s not to like?

    Is this correct? If not, what’s wrong with it? Am I assuming that competition is too perfect? Or what?

    In any case, if this is close to right, it’s why I’ve long thought I’d support doing away with the corporate income tax entirely and swapping it for a carbon tax. We’d stop taxing stuff we like (corporate output) and instead start taxing stuff we don’t (carbon output). In the jargon of business, it’s a win-win.

  • Trump: ISIS “Gave Up” Because He’s President

    When I wrote yesterday about Donald Trump planning to take all the credit for the defeat of ISIS, I didn’t realize that he had been on the Chris Plante show a few hours earlier and had already done so:

    President Donald Trump took credit for the fact that ISIS is in retreat during an interview Tuesday, claiming that ISIS wasn’t on the run before because “you didn’t have Trump as your president.”

    ….”ISIS is now giving up, they are giving up, there are raising their hands, they are walking off. Nobody has ever seen that before.”

    When Plante asked why that hadn’t happened before, Trump took the bait. “Because you didn’t have Trump as your president,” he said. “It was a big difference, there was a big, big difference if you look at the military now.”

    Trump did nothing. The plan to take both Mosul and Raqqa was initiated under Obama, and Trump famously refused to approve a new plan for months because the military kept telling him that Obama’s approach was working. So he put them off and put them off until he finally approved a plan in August that was mostly the same as the plan we already had. And now he’s claiming that this new plan turned things around in eight weeks.

    I know we don’t expect anything else from Trump. But he can always be even worse than you think, can’t he? Hell, he didn’t even give the military any credit, let alone Obama. What a jackass.

  • Women in Sacramento Call Out Culture of Sexual Harassment

    Frank May/DPA via ZUMA

    Women who work in the state capitol in Sacramento have had enough:

    The groundswell over sexual harassment that has rocked Hollywood moved into California’s capital on Tuesday as more than 140 women — including legislators, senior legislative aides and lobbyists — came forward to denounce what they describe as pervasive sexual misconduct by powerful men in the nation’s most influential legislature.

    Women complained of groping, lewd comments and suggestions of trading sexual favors for legislation while doing business in Sacramento. Their grievances, contained in a public letter and detailed in a series of interviews, mark the latest fallout from the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal.

    ….Cristina Garcia, a Democratic member of the state Assembly who signed the letter, said Tuesday she has been routinely accosted by men who harassed her and made comments about her appearance while she was trying to discuss legislation. “Multiple people have grabbed my butt and grabbed my breasts,” she said. “We’re talking about senior lobbyists and lawmakers.”

    ….Pamela Lopez, a partner at a Sacramento lobbying firm, said that for years she has dealt with inappropriate suggestions from male officials, but the most disturbing episode came early last year, at a social gathering of lawmakers and lobbyists in a Sacramento bar.

    As Ms. Lopez walked into the restroom, she said, she felt a large body pressing behind her. When she turned around, she saw that a lawmaker had locked the door behind him, had undone his pants and asked her to touch his genitals. “He had exposed himself and begun masturbating,” she said. “All I was thinking was what do I do, what do I do. And of course, I didn’t want to cause a scene.”

    I imagine things are roughly the same in every state capitol and in Washington DC. I hope that the groundswell of disgust about this eventually puts everyone on notice that in the future, names will be named when men engage in behavior like this. That’s quite likely the only way to put a serious dent in it.

    My guess is that the three biggest cesspools of sexual harassment are entertainment, politics, and finance. So far we’ve heard from the first two. When are we going to hear from Wall Street?

  • The Decline of Manufacturing Has Not Turned America Into a Hellhole

    According to the Washington Post, President Trump’s resident protectionist has drawn up a Trump-friendly slide to explain the consequences of a declining manufacturing sector. This comes from trade advisor Peter Navarro:

    I can’t address all of these things, but off the top of my head I know that the crime rate has been dropping since 1991. As a result, the incarceration rate began dropping about 15 years later. It’s been dropping steadily for the past decade and has dropped by more than half for young black men since 2001. Child poverty is at an all-time low. The abortion rate has declined 50 percent since 1980. The homelessness rate has dropped steadily since HUD began keeping statistics a decade ago, and is now down 20 percent since 2007. Domestic violence, like other violent crime, has dropped dramatically over the past two decades. The mortality rate varies among different demographic groups, but has been dropping steadily since 1960. The teen birthrate is down, but overall fertility has been basically flat since 1970. The divorce rate has been dropping since 1980, and is now at a 40-year low. Hell, even the marriage rate has stabilized over the past decade.

    In other words, Navarro is wrong about nearly everything. However, opioid use is up and single-parent households have increased. I guess two out of twelve isn’t bad.

    Oh, and one other thing: manufacturing employment has been dropping in every rich country. This is hardly unique to the United States:

    And it’s worth noting one other thing: In the entire OECD, manufacturing employment is down 2 percent since the end of the Great Recession, but in the United States it grew 6 percent during Obama’s presidency.

    Bottom line: if a declining manufacturing base is bad for all the things Navarro says it’s bad for, how has the rest of the world escaped turning into the alleged hellhole that America has become? And if manufacturing employment in America has increased over the past decade, does this mean that things turned around under Obama? And anyway, America hasn’t become a hellhole. On most socioeconomic measures, things have gotten steadily better over the past few decades.

    So none of this makes any sense. But I don’t suppose anyone in the White House actually cares. I expect Navarro’s slide to become a favorite over at Fox News.