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. 
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