----- 4 stars -----
The Age of the Centaur is *Over* Skynet Goes Live / Marginal Revolution
The future is here – AlphaZero learns chess / ChessBase
This set is different from most four-star links in that the writing is not particularly compelling, there's no emotional engagement, etc. etc. But the latest news out of DeepMind is fascinating, scary, impressive -- and, I suspect, momentous. First, here's Tyler Cowen with an overview (and links to several other pieces):
In this paper, we generalise this approach into a single AlphaZero algorithm that can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case. [...] In other words, the human now adds absolutely nothing to man-machine chess-playing teams. That’s in addition to the surprising power of this approach in solving problems. [...] Did you know that the older Stockfish program considered 900 times more positions, but the greater “thinking depth” of the new innovation was decisive nonetheless. I will never forget how stunned I was to learn of this breakthrough. Finally, I’ve long said that Google’s final fate will be to evolve into a hedge fund.
Of the several links in the Marginal Revolution piece, I agree with Tyler that this one from ChessBase is the best:
Imagine this: you tell a computer system how the pieces move — nothing more. Then you tell it to learn to play the game. And a day later — yes, just 24 hours — it has figured it out to the level that beats the strongest programs in the world convincingly! DeepMind, the company that recently created the strongest Go program in the world, turned its attention to chess, and came up with this spectacular result. [...] There was still a burning question on everyone’s mind: just how well would AlphaZero do if it was focused on chess? Would it just be very smart, but smashed by the number-crunching engines of today where a single ply is often the difference between winning or losing? [...] The test is in the pudding of course, so before going into some of the fascinating nitty-gritty details, let’s cut to the chase. It played a match against the latest and greatest version of Stockfish, and won by an incredible score of 64 : 36, and not only that, AlphaZero had zero losses (28 wins and 72 draws)! [...] Since AlphaZero did not benefit from any chess knowledge, which means no games or opening theory, it also means it had to discover opening theory on its own. And do recall that this is the result of only 24 hours of self-learning. The team produced fascinating graphs showing the openings it discovered as well as the ones it gradually rejected as it grew stronger!
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Book Review: Inadequate Equilibria / Slate Star Codex
Consider a freshman biology student reading her textbook who suddenly feels like she’s had a deep insight into the structure of DNA, easily worthy of a Nobel. Is she right? Almost certainly not. There are thousands of research biologists who would like a Nobel Prize. For all of them to miss a brilliant insight sitting in freshman biology would be the same failure as everybody missing a $20 on the floor of Grand Central, or all of Wall Street missing an easy opportunity to make money off of Google, or every entrepreneur missing a great market opportunity for a Thai restaurant. So without her finding any particular flaw in her theory, she can be pretty sure that it’s wrong – or else already discovered. This isn’t to say nobody can ever win a Nobel Prize. But winners will probably be people with access to new ground that hasn’t already been covered by other $20-seekers. Either they’ll be amazing geniuses, understand a vast scope of cutting-edge material, have access to the latest lab equipment, or most likely all three. But go too far with this kind of logic, and you start accidentally proving that nothing can be bad anywhere. [...] We’ve got a proof that everything should be perfect all the time, and a reality in which a bunch of babies keep dying even though we know exactly how to save them for no extra cost. So sure. Let’s talk theodicy.
----- 2 stars -----
I Made My Shed the Top Rated Restaurant On TripAdvisor / Vice
In London, no less. (No jokes about English cuisine, please.) There have been some murmurs that this piece lies in some places, but after a little bit of (somewhat superficial) digging, I am reasonably certain that it is almost entirely true:
And then, one day, sitting in the shed I live in, I had a revelation: within the current climate of misinformation, and society's willingness to believe absolute bullshit, maybe a fake restaurant is possible? Maybe it's exactly the kind of place that could be a hit? In that moment, it became my mission. With the help of fake reviews, mystique and nonsense, I was going to do it: turn my shed into London's top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor. [...] So there we go: I invited people into a hastily-assembled collection of chairs outside my shed, and they left thinking it really could be the best restaurant in London, just on the basis of a TripAdvisor rating. You could look at this cynically – argue that the odour of the internet is so strong nowadays that people can no longer use their senses properly. But I like to be positive. If I can transform my garden into London’s best restaurant, literally anything is possible.
Millions Are Hounded for Debt They Don’t Owe. One Victim Fought Back, With a Vengeance / Bloomberg
Their targets are often poor and likely to already be getting confusing calls about other loans. The harassment usually doesn’t work, but some marks are convinced that because the collectors know so much, the debt must be real. The problem is as simple as it is intractable. In 2012 a call center in India was busted for making 8 million calls in eight months to collect made-up bills. The Federal Trade Commission has since broken up at least 13 similar scams. In most cases, regulators weren’t able to identify the original perpetrators because the data files had been sold and repackaged so many times. Victims have essentially no recourse to do anything but take the abuse. Most victims, that is. When the scammers started to hound Therrien, he hounded them right back. Obsessed with payback, he spent hundreds of hours investigating the dirty side of debt. By day he was still promoting ice cream brands and hiring models for liquor store tastings. But in his spare time, he was living out a revenge fantasy. He befriended loan sharks and blackmailed crooked collectors, getting them to divulge their suppliers, and then their suppliers above them. In method, Therrien was like a prosecutor flipping gangster underlings to get to lieutenants and then the boss. In spirit, he was a bit like Liam Neeson’s vigilante character in the movie Taken—using unflagging aggression to obtain scraps of information and reverse-engineer a criminal syndicate. Therrien didn’t punch anyone in the head, of course. He was simply unstoppable over the phone.
The Tax Bill Compared to Other Very Expensive Things / Slate Star Codex
Response to Comments: The Tax Bill Is Still Very Bad / Slate Star Codex
Tax Bill 3: Don't Mess with Taxes / Slate Star Codex
Here is the cost of the current GOP tax bill placed in the context of other really expensive things. Although it’s not quite enough money to solve world hunger, it’s enough to end US homelessness four times over or fund nine simultaneous Apollo Programs. I’m writing this post sort of as penance. During the primaries, I wrote a post arguing that Sanders’ college plan was bad. And compared to any reasonable use of the money, I still think that’s true. But I worry that people – including me – focus way too much on the kind of bad idea that tries to help people but ends up being too expensive, and not enough on the kind of bad idea where there’s only the thinnest veneer of a claim anyone will be helped at all. If Sanders had been elected, and we were debating his college plan, people would be worried. The affordability of every piece of it would get run over with a fine-toothed comb. Its irresponsibility would be noticed. Well, instead of Sanders we got Trump.
There was some good pushback on yesterday’s article on taxes. But sorry, I’m still right. Many people responded with generic low-tax anti-government positions. Fine. Let’s say the government is definitely bad and taxes are definitely too high. The current tax bill is still not the right way to do tax cuts. [...] So it looks like one alternative to this bill, no more or less costly, would be to halve income taxes for the bottom 80% of the population, maybe anyone making less than $100,000. Is there any reason to prefer the existing GOP proposal to this one? The only argument I can think of is that corporations are good because they make investments are hire employees and stimulate the economy. But… [...] Last week I criticized socialists who prefer funding complicated government programs that might eventually help poor people, to just giving poor people the money. I feel like this is the same sort of issue. Some sort of complicated scheme in which we make corporations much richer and hope this is good for the poor and middle-class in some way is a lot less certain than just giving poor and middle-class people more money.
Seriously, guys, I admit I don’t know as much about economics as some of you, but I am working off of a poll of the country’s best economists who came down pretty heavily on the side of this not significantly increasing growth. If you want to tell me that it would, your job isn’t to explain Economics 101 theories to me even louder, it’s to explain how the country’s best economists are getting it wrong.
‘Their Spirits Were Trapped in Those Masks’ / Topic
The heads on the shelves belong to 72 individuals from the Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Caddo Nations who were detained by the U.S. military at Fort Marion, Florida in the mid-1870s as prisoners of war. They are not real heads but three-dimensional plaster casts, or “life-masks”—masks made from living subjects (as opposed to “death-masks,” which are cast from the faces of corpses). Life-masks, and death-masks, were a popular 19th century artform trendy among the elites; today, museum storage spaces are full of them. The life-masks of the Fort Marion POWs, commissioned in 1876 by the Smithsonian Institution - known at the time as the U.S. National Museum—were cast by Clark Mills, the artist who twenty years earlier had sculpted the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson, which stands next to the White House. In 1878, the Smithsonian gifted a duplicate to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. For his life-masks, Mills rendered identifying facial characteristics with great verisimilitude: the exact fold of every wrinkle, every bump, every nose, the precise angle of each brow, the singular curl and pout of each pair of lips. The faces could hardly be more legible but the stories behind the masks are still not widely known.
The impossibility of intelligence explosion / Medium
I don't really agree with this piece, but it brings up several good points:
This science-fiction narrative contributes to the dangerously misleading public debate that is ongoing about the risks of AI and the need for AI regulation. In this post, I argue that intelligence explosion is impossible — that the notion of intelligence explosion comes from a profound misunderstanding of both the nature of intelligence and the behavior of recursively self-augmenting systems. I attempt to base my points on concrete observations about intelligent systems and recursive systems. [...] The first issue I see with the intelligence explosion theory is a failure to recognize that intelligence is necessarily part of a broader system — a vision of intelligence as a “brain in jar” that can be made arbitrarily intelligent independently of its situation. A brain is just a piece of biological tissue, there is nothing intrinsically intelligent about it. Beyond your brain, your body and senses — your sensorimotor affordances — are a fundamental part of your mind. Your environment is a fundamental part of your mind. Human culture is a fundamental part of your mind. These are, after all, where all of your thoughts come from. You cannot dissociate intelligence from the context in which it expresses itself. [...] Why would the real-world utility of raw cognitive ability stall past a certain threshold? This points to a very intuitive fact: that high attainment requires sufficient cognitive ability, but that the current bottleneck to problem-solving, to expressed intelligence, is not latent cognitive ability itself. The bottleneck is our circumstances.
Everybody Hates Jill / Vice
Stein herself is not bothered by this hate. In fact, she seems to get a kick out of it. When I told her that she got a mention in What Happened—along with Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, and James Comey—she smiled and said, “I'm honored to be among the list of heavy hitters. Wow, bring it on.” The Green Party leader doesn’t worry whether any of the hate could perhaps be justified. If Democrats hate her, it’s because “they’re threatened by voices of integrity that go much farther than they're willing to go in their kind of window dressing solutions.” If people misunderstand her intentions, that’s thanks to “the sponsors, the powerful special interests [that] are controlling the politicians, and unfortunately the corporate media.” She is not the type of politician who backs down if one of her platforms is widely unpopular or nonsensical or unrealistic. She considers herself an activist, a radical idealist who believes this country and the rest of the planet are about to totally collapse, and incremental change simply will not suffice. [...] In person, Stein is hardly villainous. She’s slender, with short and unkempt gray hair and a motherly attitude any offspring of liberal Jewish baby boomers will recognize. Despite my objections, she foisted a bowl of grapes on me, which I happily ate while she dissected a pomegranate. She can seem fragile and birdlike and charming, all at the same time. Her house is exactly as you’d picture it: a little dirty, cluttered with antique furniture, musical instruments, and hippie art.
How Technicolor changed movies / Kottke
In The Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands after being brought to Oz by a tornado, she opens the door and, bang!, Technicolor. It’s a surprising transition, one of the most effective in film history. But it wouldn’t have been a complete shock for audiences in 1939 because Oz was not the first film to feature the color technology. In this video, Phil Edwards details the history of Technicolor, how it works, and how it changed movie making.
Damien Hirst Will Take the Hate With the Love in Venice / Vulture
“Money is a really good way to get people’s attention,” said Damien Hirst, sitting in a conference room of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice a few weeks ago, taking a break from planning the de-installation of his most colossal, and controversial, show yet. “In the Western world, people like the old van Gogh thing — they don’t like artists making money. But money is a massively important thing in the world, so I want to take it on, too. I don’t think you can make art without considering it.” One of the richest visual artists in history, Hirst revels in the magnetic effect money has, attracting or repulsing hearts and minds. Both his 2007 diamond-paved skull and his 2008 retrospective-cum-auction at Sotheby’s, which made $200 million, set Guinness World Records (for most spent making an artwork and most earned at auction by a single artist). But this year’s monstrously monumental Venice show, “Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” makes those earlier works seem almost like appetizers. Spread through two of Venice’s most palatial museums, its 189 pieces in bronze, marble, malachite, rock crystal, silver, gold, and more brought to life the legend of an (entirely fictional) 2nd-century collector, and his (entirely fictional) hoard of coral-covered sculptures and religious relics salvaged from an (entirely fictional) shipwreck in the Indian Ocean. Taking ten years and more than $65 million to create, and ending this Sunday, “Treasures” is in all likelihood the most extravagant and expensive show of work that a single artist has ever produced.
How This Anti-Trump Evangelical Is Quietly Taking Advantage of The Trump Presidency / BuzzFeed
In the 10 months since Farris took over, he has shepherded the group from relative obscurity to arguably become the most influential — and increasingly prominent — conservative law group in the United States. And Farris has gone from antagonizing President Donald Trump, and his evangelical allies, to biting his tongue as his agenda flourishes under the Trump administration. [...] Lee, like other congressional Republicans, has a close relationship with ADF and he has sponsored bills that ADF supports — such as one that would protect people with a religious objection to same-sex marriage. But the relationship between Farris and the White House is far more complicated. Before taking the reins at ADF, he was an outspoken critic of Trump during the 2016 election. He accused Trump of “arrogance,” saying he was unreliable in the fight to stymie transgender rights and defend religious expression. Yet Farris, who during the election was running a Christian college and a homeschooling defense group in Virginia, had significant ties to the Trump team. On election night, that meant sending congratulatory texts to his friend Vice President-elect Mike Pence.
Trump's Economic Revolution Is All About Investment / Bloomberg
From Tyler Cowen:
Strikingly, the tax bill and the trade policies of the Trump administration can be viewed as having a similar underlying philosophy, whether entirely intended or not. One of the president’s first official acts was to withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Although I favored that agreement, as did most other economists, it’s worth considering what the most intelligent nationalist case against the TPP looks like. It’s not about trade, because the deal wouldn’t have affected tariff rates faced by Americans very much (exports of beef to Japan aside). Rather, the TPP would have given American certification to Vietnam, Malaysia and eventually other emerging economies as stable repositories of foreign investment from multinationals. That could in turn draw investment away from the U.S. Or consider the Trump administration approach to the North American Free Trade Agreement. It doesn’t look as if Nafta will be jettisoned -- the talks will drag on, and the level of background uncertainty will rise. The tariff rates probably won’t ever go up, but the status of Mexico as a haven for foreign direct investment will increasingly fall under question. That may push some of that investment into the U.S. Again, the core theme behind the policies is boosting investment into this country, not encouraging exports. [...] Most of all, I still believe in the postwar project of building a mutually advantageous global trading order, led by the U.S. but benefiting most nations, with the U.S. reaping reciprocal advantage in turn. The Trump administration has been moving away from that vision. But make no mistake about it: Whether Trump himself gets all the details of the new approach, there is a revolution in economic policy before us. We neglect it at our peril.
America’s Lost Einsteins / The Atlantic
Millions of children from poor families who excel in math and science rarely live up to their potential—and that hurts everyone. [...] The discrepancy in who gets patents is not the result of innate abilities, Chetty and his team, Alex Bell of Harvard, Xavier Jaravel of the London School of Economics, Neviana Petkova of the U.S. Treasury Department, and John Van Reenen of MIT, conclude. Children from many different backgrounds excel in math and science tests in third grade, for instance. But it’s the wealthy children who do well in math and science that end up getting patents. Why? Because they have more exposure to innovation in their childhood, the researchers say. This exposure comes mostly from interacting with people who are themselves inventors. If young kids know people who are inventors, or hear conversations at the dinner table about research and innovation, they’re more likely to become interested in pursuing careers in that field, Chetty told me.
----- 1 star -----
NASA is reinventing the wheel / Kottke
Imagine you’re sending a rover to Mars. The rover’s tires need to be light, durable, and also flexible enough to tackle a variety of terrain. NASA has spent decades trying to craft the perfect rover wheels, but something always comes up short in the pick-two situation…typically durability. Now researchers at the NASA Glenn Research Center have come up with a promising new rover wheel for the next generation of rovers.
New extreme sport: Thomas the Tank Engine stunts / Kottke
I really enjoyed this:
It is what it says on the tin: a toy Thomas the Tank Engine doing stunts on wooden tracks. My favorite part is that the slowed-down audio makes it sound somewhat like a skateboard.
When Does Work Actually Get Done? / Priceonomics
If we're going to be precise about it, work gets done at 11AM on a Monday in October. At all other times of day, we're basically slacking from our most productive.
Could this be the first prescription video game? New data show it helps kids with ADHD / Stat
Akili Interactive Labs on Monday reported that its late-stage study of a video game designed to treat kids with ADHD met its primary goal, a big step in the Boston company’s quest to get approval for what it hopes will be the first prescription video game. In a study of 348 children between the ages of 8 and 12 diagnosed with ADHD, those who played Akili’s action-packed game on a tablet over four weeks saw statistically significant improvements on metrics of attention and inhibitory control, compared to children who were given a different action-driven video game designed as a placebo. The company plans next year to file for approval with the Food and Drug Administration.
A New Optical Illusion Was Just Discovered, And It's Breaking Our Brains / Digg
In a new article published in the journal i-Perception, researcher Kohske Takahashi presents a new optical illusion, which he calls the "curvature blindness illusion." It's pretty trippy.