Archive for January, 2010

Computers, Cortex, Cosmos, and Chess

January 31, 2010 Leave a comment

Chess is often a potent (however hackneyed) metaphor in films because of the many ways it provides insight on the human mind, human interaction, and humans’ relationship with machines. In his 1750 article, “The Morals of Chess”, Benjamin Franklin argues that chess teaches man the value of circumspection. Today, neuroscientists like Jonah Lehrer, argue that chess can teach us something about the nature of intuition.

Although we tend to think of experts as being weighted down by information, their intelligence dependent on a vast set of facts, experts are actually profoundly intuitive. When experts evaluate a situation, they don’t systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn’t compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors – all those mistakes they made in the past – have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can’t begin to explain. Neils Bohr said it best: an expert is “a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” From the perspective of the brain, Bohr was absolutely right.

And this is why we shouldn’t be surprised that a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters. The software allows him to play more chess, which allows him to make more mistakes, which allows him to accumulate experience at a prodigious pace.

Although ‘man vs machine’ has often been the story of chess computers, they don’t get enough credit for how their analytical way of looking at chess has improved human play. In the New York Review of Books, Garry Kasparov discusses the relationship between the human mind and artificial intelligence in chess programs. It turns out that computer programs don’t (can’t) just process every move imaginable finding the perfect solution to the game. The numbers for that are far too great. Thus, man’s tiny place in the universe is once again confirmed while simultaneously shedding light on the amazing power of our minds in the face of the tremendous.

The number of legal chess positions is 1040, the number of different possible games, 10120. Authors have attempted various ways to convey this immensity, usually based on one of the few fields to regularly employ such exponents, astronomy. In his book Chess Metaphors, Diego Rasskin-Gutman points out that a player looking eight moves ahead is already presented with as many possible games as there are stars in the galaxy. Another staple, a variation of which is also used by Rasskin-Gutman, is to say there are more possible chess games than the number of atoms in the universe.

How many other games allow us to peer so deeply into our technology, our psychology, our universe?

The Great American Taboo: Democracy is Overrated

January 31, 2010 1 comment

Democracy is a morally necessary tool for a legitimate state and social contract, but the reality is that it is also a mechanism for choosing irrational policies. As Andreas Kluth, a correspondent for The Economist, said about democracy in a debate on if California is failed state, “James Madison didn’t want [the word] even used in the constitution of the country, because he was afraid—they had studied ancient Athens which was a failure because of direct democracy. They had studied Republican Rome, which was very stable, they wanted Rome, not Athens.”

In America, it is probably more blasphemous to criticize democracy than even religion. The founders recognized the need for a constitutional republic with limited state powers over a pure and far-reaching democracy for many reasons. In a book I read about a year ago, Bryan Caplan nails up his own version of the ninety-five theses. The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies merges economic analysis with political science to explain why voters often act against their own (and the country’s) economic interests. I encourage everyone to read what I think is one of the most important and counter-intuitive studies of our political system.

Among all the fascinating data and analysis, in one of my favorite chapters Caplan explains the phenomenon of “rational irrationality” in voters. Any one person’s vote is astonishingly unlikely to sway an election. Therefore since an individual’s vote has more emotional effect on the individual than electoral effect it may be rational to vote in a way that makes the voter feel better than to vote for a policy that may be materially better for the nation. After all it is a lot of work to research and discover the most effective policies. Aside from effort, social costs can be high to hold unpopular beliefs regardless of their veracity. Also, even think of the politician for whom it makes more sense for him to vote for policies that get him elected over policies that might better the country. Human self-interest is an insight that doesn’t only apply to economics.

I imagine this is part of the reason politics can rarely be looked at dispassionately – people so often take offense if you criticize their preferences for a particular candidate or policy.
Voters see themselves as validating their own values so to criticize democracy one is seen, by extension, to be judging the integrity of the voter himself.

This is too similar to religion to ignore. In 2007, philosopher Dan Dennett gave a talk at the Atheist Alliance International convention where he outlines “good reasons” for belief in religion. He doesn’t mean reasons for beliefs in the doctrines of religion, but reasons for acting as though you believe in those doctrines. Watch his whole talk but it boils down to the social costs being very high for not being religious.

What Bryan Caplan argues for voters applies to the religious, “If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality (p. 123).” The price for an individual consuming irrationality, whether it is in the voting booth or the church pew is often small, but in aggregate for society the cost can be very high. Although Caplan’s book is about political beliefs he, to his credit, spots the connection with religion. He writes, “Human beings
want their religion’s answers to be true. They often want it so badly that they avoid counterevidence, and refuse to think about whatever evidence falls in their laps[…] Once you admit that preferences over beliefs are relevant in religion it is hard to compartmentalize the insight (p. 15).”

Understanding that voters can be irrational and the reasons for it tempers enthusiasm for democracy (and often increases appreciation for markets). A balance obviously has to be found between giving citizens the power to make their own decisions as voters and limiting the influence that a group of potentially irrational voters can have over another group of citizens. But an important step is to break the taboo that democracy always good.

Overdosing on Nothing

January 30, 2010 1 comment

I love this idea. Some clever Brits are staging a mass “overdose” of homeopathic remedies at 10:23am on January 30th. This highlights the fact that NO ACTUAL MEDICINE is in these pills. They are sugar pills and at best aspire to be placebos.

A brief description of homeopathy from the website:

What is homeopathy?

Homeopathy is an unscientific and absurd pseudoscience, yet it persists today as an accepted complementary medicine.

Ask many people what they think homeopathy is, and you’ll be told “it’s herbal medicine” or “it’s all-natural”. Few realise that it’s been proven not to work; even fewer know it involves substances so dilute that there’s nothing left in them.

Why I Support President Obama

January 30, 2010 Leave a comment

The President visited House Republicans on Friday to have an exchange on their differing views on a host of issues and to try to get past the bitter partisanship gridlocking Washington. Please watch these videos, the first is President Obama’s introductory speech and the second is a revealing Q&A with the Republicans. Once again, the President acts like a serious adult ready and willing to honestly tackle the problems facing our nation.

I can’t help but be amazed that he is so often portrayed as some crazy communist ideologue. Throughout the speech and conversations he addresses the reasons behind what may seem like wild departures in policy for the United States, what his policies really are once you break them down, and what they have already achieved. I hope he succeeds in what seems like an honest effort to tame the partisanship and political gamesmanship that “boxes in” each side, preventing them from working together constructively. More of these events would be greatly appreciated. Ok, just enjoy:

[update]: I tracked down the poll Obama references in these videos about the popularity of the component parts of the (unpopular) stimulus package. The tax cuts were a little less popular than he stated, but his main point remains. If you break it down, all the parts are greatly more popular than the whole; I can’t help but see this as another example of our sad political/media reality.

Confirm Bernanke

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

He may not be perfect but he’s the best choice for continuing on the path away from economic collapse. In a New York Times op-ed, Alan Blinder advocates support for his friend and former colleague.

[H]is job performance since, say, October 2008 has been superlative. To cite just a few examples, Mr. Bernanke led the Fed to lower its interest rates to virtually zero in December 2008 and then to hold them there. The central bank also invented approaches to lending and purchasing assets that breathed some life into moribund markets like commercial paper and mortgage-backed securities. It led the highly successful “stress tests” of 19 large financial institutions last spring.

The success of these policies is demonstrable. The simplest and most objective measures of financial distress are the differences, or “spreads,” between various (risky) interest rates and the corresponding (risk-free) Treasury rates. During the worst of the crisis, in September to November 2008 and again in February to March 2009, these spreads skyrocketed to dizzying heights. Since then, they have fallen remarkably, providing direct evidence that the Fed’s cure is working.

If the Senate fails to confirm Bernanke, it will further politicize the Fed and disrupt the growing confidence in the financial markets that underpin a healthy economy. People who expect instant gratification and instant recovery from one of the worst potential recessions in modern global history shouldn’t be given the encouragement that is better placed with the leaders our precarious recovery.

[update]: Senate Confirms Bernanke 7030. That is a lot of no votes but the important thing is he was reappointed.

"The New American Economy"

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently finished reading The New American Economy by Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor to Ronald Reagan. Read it if you get the chance – it offers serious thinking from a real conservative on our current economic situation and some of his ideas to move forward. I won’t do a full book review but in it he explains the shift in economic thinking from pre-Keynes to today. As an intellectual father to supply-side economics he concludes that the original intent of the movement has been accepted into mainstream economics while the wild all-tax-cuts-are-good-and-lead-to-increased-revenues bastard child should be marginalized and left behind. It is also interesting to read a conservative defend the idea of fiscal stimulus in the face of a severe recession and liquidity trap.

A solid portion of his book deals with the entitlement crisis we face and what to do about it. He makes the case that to rein in our debt, entitlements have to be reformed and taxes have to be raised. Despite wishful thinking, even if ALL discretionary spending was cut it wouldn’t be enough to fix our fiscal deficit. Bartlett writes (p.175), “As Fed chairman Bernanke notes, we would still need to raise nonpayroll taxes by 35 percent to eliminate the deficit projected by CBO. Furthermore, the biggest component of discretionary spending is national defense. And completely abolishing every domestic discretionary program would not have been enough to eliminate the deficit in 2008.”
So even if it were politically feasible (it’s not) to cut discretionary spending by huge amounts we would still need to raise taxes. Therefore, entitlement reform is required to save us from fiscal catastrophe once the baby boomers retire. Given the political realities to reign in entitlement spending in a way that doesn’t unfairly penalize retirees taxes need to be raised somehow with spending cuts and entitlement reforms. Bartlett makes a persuasive case for a VAT.
A value-added consumption tax offers a way for the government to raise revenues in an economically efficient manner. The government must pay for spending somehow, so it might as well do it in a way that harms the economy the least. Income taxes and corporate taxes like capital gains hurt our businesses which employ workers and grow our economy, replacing them with “some sort of flat-rate consumption tax is the best way to raise revenue in a way that is least damaging to incentives. According to recent OECD studies*, taxes on consumption and real property are the least damaging to growth and income taxes are the most damaging (p. 186).”
*Barlett’s footnote: Jens Arnold, “Do Tax Structures Affect Aggregate Economic Growth? Empirical Evidence from a Panel of OECD Countries,” OECD Economics Department Working Paper no. 643, Oct. 2008; Asa Johansson et al., “Tax and Economic Growth,” OECD Economics Department Working Paper no. 620, July 2008.

On Political Independents (i.e. closet partisans)

January 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Few things aggravate me more than pure partisanship. People who only side with the Democrats or Republicans make politics into a football match rather than a governing process to best serve the interests of the nation. However the reality is that even among self-identified “independents” astonishingly few actually are independent. Other than about 10% of the US population most “independents” really act just like partisans. A blog post at The Monkey Cage fills us in on what political scientists have known for decades.

The number of pure independents is actually quite small — perhaps 10% or so of the population. And this number has been decreasing, not increasing, since the mid-1970s.

Again, there is really no difference between partisans of either stripe and independent leaners. As far as their views of Obama are concerned, it doesn’t really matter whether you say you’re a Democrat or an independent who leans Democrats, and the same is true on the other side of the aisle. Only “pure” independent appear to have evenly divided attitudes as of November, but, as above, these people are only a very small part of the sample — 7% overall.
The media, as the linked post makes clear, needs to stop acting like pure independents are always consequential in elections. I also have a stronger hope that the media will stop fueling the aggressive partisanship (the endless polling doesn’t help) and just report on issues as objectively as possible. The political horse race, football, or whatever analogy you prefer really cheapens our politics. Once our elected officials get to Washington, Beacon Hill, or wherever could really do us a favor and act like responsible representatives and not feed into the partisanship. Yet I worry that with our cynical media and hyper-partisan reinforcing electoral districts we will continue to polarize politically. We all need to make a conscience (however difficult) effort to not play into the partisan story-line. 

The Senate Bill, only for those who don’t like the status quo

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

No one who has examined our current healthcare delivery and finance system believes it is worth preserving. Jonathan Rauch, in National Journal magazine, makes the case for passing the Senate Bill, which despite its flaws, is much better than nothing.

Moreover, after reform is enacted, the taboo on taxing employer-provided health benefits will be shattered once and for all. From then on the question will be how much to tax, not whether. A door that had been welded shut will have been pried open. The country will be able to have a new kind of discussion, one in which the tying of health insurance to employment — which is insane, when you think about it — is no longer sacrosanct.


As health costs rise, more employer-provided health plans become taxable, giving employers an incentive to find cheaper plans. As employer-provided plans grow less generous, more employees have an incentive to take a tax credit and shop around, and, as premiums rise, more qualify to do so. Little by little, insurance coverage shifts toward an individual-based, consumer-driven market. And the faster health insurance costs rise, the faster the transition happens. The disease triggers its own antibodies.

Again, no guarantees. The transition would be very gradual, and political blowback could easily disrupt it. But the point is that the reform contains a pathway to sanity. No one can say that about the status quo.

I’m hoping President Obama makes the case for passing reform during tonight’s State of the Union Address. The principle for all Americans having access to health insurance will be set. Improvements can be made later; if this fails now we’re stuck with nothing for a very. long. time.

Facebook Throwdown, part 6

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill I can’t disagree with you. On many levels the Republicans under 8 years of George Bush let the people of America down-and of course this was why they were voted out. I get it. The problem is, a vote for Democrats wasn’t a vote for liberalism, it was a vote against George Bush. The hope and change that Obama inspired in all of us was founded on the basic desire that government should be fiscally responsible, transparent, and accountable (all true conservative values). Obama, like all liberals, need to run on these conservative principles because they would never win if they ran on their true ideology. And honestly, Obama seems to me to have his heart in the right place, and he truly won the trust of the American people in that he would uphold these principles. Unfortunately he is beholden to special interest groups, surrounded himself with Clintonites and Wall St. cronies, and has a majority of Democrats in congress who, I believe, sincerley think that their election was an ideological mandate and have not upheld the virtues of transparency, accountability, and fiscal responsibility. This is why its all backfiring on them and this is why the Republican party is rightly not supporting the Democratic agenda and alligning themselve in any bipartisan manner.

Now, I’ll give you this, the Republicans should not be fooled into thinking that the backlash on the Democrats is a mandate for a return to Bush policy either. This backlash and the Tea Party agenda which you wrongly paint, is founded on the same principles that voted the Republicans out!! What I see in this swing in public opinion back and forth between one party and another is a cry from the people (and the majority being Independents) for good government! It is not a cry in supprt for one party over another. Both are to blame. Rather this cry insists that both parties begin to transcend politics and begin doing what is good for the country. Not good for elections, not good for special interest, not good for ideology, but what is good for the country. Surly to agree on what is good for the country is difficult to agree upon, but common sense and majority voting by like minded people can prevail.

Now this is where you and I come in. We mustn’t fall into this divide and conquer trap and we mustn’t fall prey to the perpetuation of caustic politics. So I must apologize for inflaming you, but my intent, honestly, is not to be an apologist for the Republican party, but rather to help provide some insight. Besides, debate is important and I love to argue. However, if I didn’t respect what you are saying, I wouldn’t be wasting my time. So let me end by saying thank you. You have provided me with much insight that I will fairly carry forward with me. We might agree to disagree on some issues. I truly believe that liberalism is killing this country, but there are components of the far right that greatly disturb me, particularly the religious right and their stand on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Pat Robertson’s recent remarks about Haiti made me puke my coffee out my nose. Liberalism and Religiosity-two great evils that are not only dividing and conquering our country, but are diminishing the individualism that makes America great….but that’s a whole other topic I won’t belabor anyone with. Maybe on some level we can agree on some of this.

Dan I’m glad you’re letting some of that water drain out that you were carrying for the Republicans. If you’re conservative stick to your principles not some cynical party that only wants power back for power’s sake – not for the ideals of a truly conservative movement. I hope you see where I’m coming from on Scott Brown. He’s signaled so far that he’s just another unprincipled Republican unwilling to put country before party. I hope now that he’s elected he helps govern responsibly and doesn’t act as he led many of us to believe.

I’m glad you’ve given Obama the benefit of the doubt for where his heart is, I hope you will consider giving him a little more time and slack. It’s hard to know whether he’s only governed the way he has because of the seriousness of the recession coupled with it being his first year in office. He faces incredibly tough decisions and considering the stakes he, to me, seems like he’s done a decent job and at least hasn’t made any huge errors (which is saying a lot). He’s challenged the left wing in his party more than you may realize and I predict you’ll start seeing a more moderate president now that the recession is starting to temper.

We’ll have to agree to disagree, as you said, on the tea parties; any group that looks up to Sarah Palin as a serious leader doesn’t deserve much regard. But to end this on some notes of agreement. I too love to argue and enjoy its benefits to help sharpen and clarify my thinking. I certainly respect what you are saying. Most especially, I think we agree on the dangers of the Christianists in this nation that seek to limit the freedoms of other citizens. Also, I’m no leftist and have battled them myself.

Finally, to me, healthcare expansion isn’t a leftist idea, it’s one based on economic security, moral responsibility, and economic mobility. A political philosopher once wrote on healthcare, “Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision…. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance – where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks – the case for the state’s helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong… Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make the provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.” That’s Friedrich von Hayek in “The Road to Serform” an anti-socialist classic.

Thanks for your time. We’ll do this again sometime when you’re feeling a little foolhardy. And Tony, did you make a decision on how you feel now yet? haha

Categories: Facebook Throwdown

Facebook Throwdown, part 5

January 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill Your kidding, right? Inheriting a potential depression and unimaginable deficits from unpaid entitlement expansion from Republicans??? Now listen, certainly George Bush was no fiscal conservative, certainly the wars in Iraq and now Afgan. are costing way more than CBO predicted, certainly the Medicare drug supplement was an entitlement (but remember what I said about incrementalism), and certainly the housing bust occured under his nose, but do understand that it was the Democrats, particularly Chris Dodd and Barney Frank on the Senate Housing Committee who are truly just as deserving of blame. The Democrats snubbed their noses to Alan Greenspan and the Bush Administration who repeatedly warned them (on Congressional record) that Fannie and Freddie needed to be reigned in. But NOOOO, everyone has to own a house(ideology again) and the kickbacks to Frank and Chris (and many other Dems including Hil and Barry) were too sweet to let go of–so lo and behold, easy money for the stupid and the greedy, under liberal pretenses(going way back to Carter’s Community Reinvestment Act), caused one of the worst financial crisis hopefully in our lifetime. But that’s besides the point, the bottom line is, Democrats were as much to blame as Republicans.

Now enter Obama. All would agree that fiscal stimulus was in order. Spending is the only way to break the cycle of job loss-housing forclosure-ect., but there is responsible spending and there is irresponsible spending. Both may achieve a degree of the same effect, but not to the same extent. So its easy for you to claim success, but to what extent is conveniently ignored. So what does Pres O. do? He spends irresponsibly ( P.O.R.K.). Wall St. (thanks to Timmy G.and his cronies) are protected while Main St. continues to languish- deficits are cranked to the limit (which will be paid on the taxpayers back) and unemployment rises despite promises that it would not. O. does his world Apology Tour and leaves healthcare to a bunch of partisan ideologues. The Townhall “events” should have been crystal ball for all the liberal munchkins to see that all wasn’t well with Auntie Emm in Kansas.

Meanwhile, back at the State level, the Wicked Witch of the West, California,( being a primo example) faces alarming fiscal issues while their flying monkey liberal politicians want to keep spending, spending spending…pulling the straw out of the taxpayers and stifling economic growth. Multiply this times 52 and you have the perfect storm.

So the tornado finally hits… and the Wicked Witch of the East gets crushed…go figure.

The Wizard of O. needs to step back a little now. The curtain has been pulled. No longer can he hide behind his rhetoric (as you attempt to do). He has to face Dorothy-but she’s pretty pissed and has a big broom that she wants to clean house with.

Dan You do realize that the Republicans just had 12 years straight in power and could have done something then. You’re blaming Carter and the current Democrats, and just happen to pass over all the Republicans; this must be genetic. The unstable housing and financial boom started before the dems took control. And it’s not like Bush and the Republicans were screaming to fix fannie and freddie after the Democrats took control of the legislature – I remember distinctly them saying the economy was solid. None in Either party predicted this mess. Regardless, although Fannie and freddie played some part in the crisis it isn’t nearly as big as you suggest – mostly it was poor monetary policy (see: John Taylor) mixed with some complex financial alchemy. ALL I’m saying is the Democrats can’t be blamed outright for the recession and that Obama did, in fact, inherit it (no matter whose fault it was; it certainly wasn’t his). This is where your needless partisanship shows most clearly.

Sure you give lip service to Bush not being a “fiscal conservative” which is true (and a tad late) but neither was basically the entire republican party which blew more money than LBJ. Of course, the dems aren’t fiscally conservative but don’t pretend the minority party is any different. Anyone reading this back-and-forth can’t help but notice that besides a quick throw-a-way that you really let the republicans off the hook. If you don’t, why would you think they deserve to be back in power? And just tangentially, why does it seem to me that you’re blaming the CBO more than the executive (including the pentagon and defense department) for the monetary cost of the wars? Such an odd direction of your ire.

“All would agree that fiscal stimulus was in order” I love that you can write this while blaming the democrats and excusing the republicans. Let me quote a writer I read somewhere, “Your kidding, right?” Feel free to confirm with me that ZERO republicans in the House and only 3 in the Senate voted for the stimulus package. I already said that it was poorly designed but the important thing was to break any potential spiraling liquidity cycle and get money into the economy – they could have buried money into a hole and paid companies to dig it up (not my original or recommended idea) and it would have been a help to the crisis we faced.

Town hall events, really? I suppose you’re also referring to the tea partys. All of a sudden these constitutionalist patriots (ha!) find their fiscal responsibility when Obama takes office in the middle of a recession. They’re an overly emotional populist frenzied farce. Where were they during your “incremental” unfunded prescription drug benefit entitlement? How incremental is TRILLIONS of dollars in a medicare expansion before the baby boomers retire (see: Bruce Bartlett, advisor to Reagan) by the Republicans in 2003? How is turning a huge surplus that could have been used to reform entitlements into a hemorrhaging debt not something that should be protested against, but passing a stimulus and saving our financial institutions during a recession and trying to reform (not replace or radically alter) the healthcare system to give Americans a sense of economic and medical security is? So Frank Baum, if you had the Republicans pulling back “the curtain,” might they just see a mirror?

Categories: Facebook Throwdown
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