September 2013 Archives

I think that most researchers and commentators are too timid when predicting the rise of automation. People tend to look at how a human does a job and then ask: could a robot do that? But that's the wrong question. Instead of looking at "jobs", which are a social construct, look at the need that the human in the job is fulfilling and ask yourself if a robot could fill that need. When it happens, it's likely that the robot's "job" will look very little like the human "jobs" that were displaced.

Obvious example: Amazon has probably destroyed at least 100,000 retail jobs, but none of what Amazon's computer system does looks like the job of a retail clerk. A modern robot would be terrible at chatting with customers, stocking shelves, working a cash register, setting up displays, and pointing people to the restroom. If you were were to look at the job requirements of a retail clerk you might think, "this job is safe from robots!" And don't forget that Amazon has destroyed the white-collar jobs of store managers and owners as well.

Frey and Osborne focus on "engineering bottlenecks" in AI and robotics, and compare these stumbling points with the requirements of jobs in order to determine which are most and least likely to be vulnerable to automation. The biggest bottlenecks are perception and manipulation, creative intelligence, and social intelligence, all of which computers struggle mightily at (but Rosie the Robot excelled at, by the way). While the trend in recent decades has been towards a hollowing out of "middle-skill" jobs and an increase in low-paying service sector jobs and high-paying, highly educated jobs, Frey and Osborne expect that automation in the future will mainly substitute for "low-skill and low-wage" jobs.

So who, specifically, should be worried? They write:

Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are at risk. These findings are consistent with recent technological developments documented in the literature. More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most US job growth has occurred over the past decades (Autor and Dorn, 2013), are highly susceptible to computerisation.

This may turn out to be correct, though I'd note two reservations I have. First, the model uses (in part) the notoriously unreliable subjective estimates of AI researchers to assign values to whether tasks can be automated or not, and second, it uses lists of job requirements, that the authors acknowledge are not written to assess whether a job can be easily automated. Indeed, job ads don't list things that are universal (or nearly so) across humans, such as rudimentary social intelligence, language understanding, and commonsense. As AI researcher Ernest Davis points out, there has been "only very limited progress" in equipping robots with commonsense reasoning skills.

I suppose I could post something about Obamacare, but I went to the Lego store last night! Nothing arouses my covetous nature like the Lego Store. They had a Tower of Orthanc with 2500 pieces that stood 28 inches tall and came with a dozen awesome minifigs. There was an Ewok Village with all your favorites, and an awesome Millennium Falcon. There's no way I can justify buying any of them, alas.

Lego models make me nostalgic for my childhood, I guess. Why do I want to buy more when I have four huge boxes full of Legos in my basement?

I like this formulation: just as "you are what you eat", government is what government spends. The government class is always in favor of higher taxes, more spending, and bigger government, in the same way that businessmen are in favor of higher share prices. We are what we spend. Emphasis below is mine.

And the debit side has to include much more than such obvious disasters as Solyndra. The government does support pharmaceutical and medical research in many ways -- but how many potentially useful pharmaceuticals and medical products have been kept off the market by the federal regulatory apparatus and the enormous costs it imposes on effective and defective products alike? (And how much damage has been done by the FDA's incompetent policing of defective products that do reach the market?) How many businesses have not been started, and how much innovation forgone, because of the state's rapacious appetite for capital? For a sense of scale, consider that, as of October 2011, the world's largest hedge-fund company was Bridgewater Associates of Westport, Conn., with $77.6 billion under management. That total is well less than Medicare loses to fraud year in and year out. You'd have to combine the assets of the three largest private-equity firms to match what Medicare loses to fraud in a typical year, whereas the holdings of venture-capital titans such as Andreessen Horowitz are hardly even rounding errors on that amount.

Would you invest with a firm with that record?

Government is what government does, and what government does is what government spends. Our government is a corrupt HMO with an underfunded pension plan attached, and a few aircraft carriers in tow. Contra Professor Mazzucato, the confiscatory taxes the federal government wishes to impose upon Apple et al. are not being used to replenish any such "innovation fund" as may exist in her imagination, but to prop up the corrupt, wasteful, and destructive programs that make up the great majority of its spending. Federal support for basic science research is pretty low on the list of things that small-government conservatives are worried about, and George Will is not entirely misguided in his admiration for the National Institutes of Health. But the neo-Nehruvian dream of the state as main entrepreneur cannot intellectually survive even the most modest attempt to balance benefits against costs.

President Obama says that raising the debt limit doesn't increase our debt. He's right, in the same way that raising the limit on your personal credit card doesn't increase your personal debt. Raiding the debt limit is a necessary condition for increasing our national debt, but the debt only actually increases when we spend the money.

What the big spenders in government object to is that the debt limit debate is a second vote on spending that is divorced from the specifics of what the money is spent on. Our politicians like to bribe us with our own money by promising all sorts of great programs every time they write a check. When the debate is on the debt limit itself rather than on those "amazing" government programs they have a harder time convincing us.

"Now, this debt ceiling -- I just want to remind people in case you haven't been keeping up -- raising the debt ceiling, which has been done over a hundred times, does not increase our debt; it does not somehow promote profligacy. All it does is it says you got to pay the bills that you've already racked up, Congress. It's a basic function of making sure that the full faith and credit of the United States is preserved."

Obama went on to suggest that "the average person" mistakenly thinks that raising the debt ceiling means the U.S. is racking up more debt:

"It's always a tough vote because the average person thinks raising the debt ceiling must mean that we're running up our debt, so people don't like to vote on it, and, typically, there's some gamesmanship in terms of making the President's party shoulder the burden of raising the -- taking the vote."

The President is right, and rather honest in admitting that he doesn't like the spotlight that the debt limit debates puts on our wasteful spending. Still, I think it's a useful function.

This is one of the craziest things I've read in a long time: each human can contain multiple genomes. I've actually wondered about genomic variation in a single human before, but I guess I figured that the body somehow prevented if from happening. Apparently not.

Chimerism, as such conditions came to be known, seemed for many years to be a rarity. But "it can be commoner than we realized," said Dr. Linda Randolph, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Los Angeles who is an author of a review of chimerism published in The American Journal of Medical Genetics in July.

Twins can end up with a mixed supply of blood when they get nutrients in the womb through the same set of blood vessels. In other cases, two fertilized eggs may fuse together. These so-called embryonic chimeras may go through life blissfully unaware of their origins.

One woman discovered she was a chimera as late as age 52. In need of a kidney transplant, she was tested so that she might find a match. The results indicated that she was not the mother of two of her three biological children. It turned out that she had originated from two genomes. One genome gave rise to her blood and some of her eggs; other eggs carried a separate genome.

Women can also gain genomes from their children. After a baby is born, it may leave some fetal cells behind in its mother's body, where they can travel to different organs and be absorbed into those tissues. "It's pretty likely that any woman who has been pregnant is a chimera," Dr. Randolph said.

If that doesn't blow your mind, how about this?

As scientists begin to search for chimeras systematically -- rather than waiting for them to turn up in puzzling medical tests -- they're finding them in a remarkably high fraction of people. In 2012, Canadian scientists performed autopsies on the brains of 59 women. They found neurons with Y chromosomes in 63 percent of them. The neurons likely developed from cells originating in their sons.

In The International Journal of Cancer in August, Eugen Dhimolea of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and colleagues reported that male cells can also infiltrate breast tissue. When they looked for Y chromosomes in samples of breast tissue, they found it in 56 percent of the women they investigated.

Your mom kept some of your DNA and incorporated it into her own body.

Maybe this acquisition somehow contributes to lengthened female life expectancy?

What the heck do we do with this information now? Along with all the research into how our gut bacteria affect our health it looks like the human body is still quite a mystery.

Pope Francis has remarkably announced that all it takes to get into Heaven is to follow your conscience. To simultaneously invoke Godwin's Law and reduce the Pope's position to its most absurd: do sincere Nazi's get into Heaven?

In comments likely to enhance his progressive reputation, Pope Francis has written a long, open letter to the founder of La Repubblica newspaper, Eugenio Scalfari, stating that non-believers would be forgiven by God if they followed their consciences.

Responding to a list of questions published in the paper by Mr Scalfari, who is not a Roman Catholic, Francis wrote: "You ask me if the God of the Christians forgives those who don't believe and who don't seek the faith. I start by saying - and this is the fundamental thing - that God's mercy has no limits if you go to him with a sincere and contrite heart. The issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience.

"Sin, even for those who have no faith, exists when people disobey their conscience."

It's certainly true that anyone can be forgiven for any sin if they turn to Jesus Christ and accept his death as payment for their sins. However, that decision must be made before the point of death. The Bible is clear that there is no opportunity for repentance after death. So, God's mercy is unlimited, but you have to accept it before you die. Hopefully that resolves some ambiguity in the first part of the Pope's statement.

It's really the last two quoted sentences that are completely off the rails. Sin is not merely disobeying your own conscience. That would be an absurd standard for God to use. Does the Pope believe that when you get to Heaven you can continue living according to your own conscience? Or will you have to obey God when you get there? Why would a person who has denied God his whole life even want to go to Heaven if he then has to start obeying God?

Jeremiah 17:9 -- "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?"

Man's conscience is twisted. We are not "basically good". If the only standard God has is for each man to just do whatever seems right to himself then God is subservient to man. This is a popular view, even among those who call themselves Christians and who like to remake God in their own image. It is always tempting to reject what God has revealed about himself through the Bible and to substitute our own opinions, intuitions, and emotions. However, God is not subject to our control or to the prevailing culture of our age. God does not conform himself to our expectations or desires, but rather expects us to conform to him.

What twelve of the world's biggest websites looked like when they launched.

Frankly, the original designs were a lot cleaner and more usable than what we've got today.

I was in my apartment on Centinela Ave. in Los Angeles, having just woken up, when I turned on the TV and learned that the first plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. When the second one hit it completely blew my mind. The rest of the day is a blur. I remember hearing that people who worked in Nakatomi Plaza in Century City were refusing to enter the building out of fear that it could be a target. I think I stayed home from class that day myself, but I don't remember.

A lot of things have changed in the past 12 years, but we've still got enemies who want to kill us and our families. Pray for our leaders and the men and women who risk their lives for our country every day.

President Obama's hair-splitting on Syria is so clever that the war has been botched before it's begun. WRM has the timeline of the debacle, but he leaves out the complete failure to secure buy-in from the United Kingdom, our number one ally.

During his time in the White House, President Obama has repeatedly demonstrated a style of decision making that gets him in trouble. Especially when the stakes are high and the issue is complex, the President overthinks himself and tries to split the difference between tough policy choices. He comes up with stratagems that work beautifully on paper and offer well reasoned, moderate alternatives to stark choices. Unfortunately, they usually don't work all that well in the real world, with the President repeatedly ending up in the "sour spot" where his careful approaches don't get him where he needs to go.

This style of strategy is what's boxed him in and tied him in knots over Syria. He didn't want to intervene (too risky) but he didn't want to ignore the carnage completely (too heartless) so he split the difference and proclaimed a red line. He didn't lay the political preparations for war before the red line statement; again, too risky and too warlike. Instead, he split the difference once again: he made a threat without ensuring that he'd have the backing to carry it out.

Once the red line was indisputably crossed (after some more strategic hedging on his part when the red line was 'sort of ' crossed), President Obama then faced another decision: to bomb with or without Congress. Once again, intense reflection on his part led to split-the-middle decisions that made his life harder. He would bomb, but not bomb hard enough to make a real difference on the ground. That made his policies harder to defend for those who favored serious military action against Assad without doing much to build support from those who didn't want military action at all.

But even then the President wasn't finished splitting hairs. Bombing without Congress was too unilateral and too politically risky; but what would he do if Congress wouldn't sign a permission slip? It must have seemed like a brainwave in hair-splitting Cloudcuckooland: he announced first that he was definitely going to bomb, then that he was going to ask Congress before bombing, then that he wasn't necessarily bound by what Congress votes.

Regardless of the limitations that Congress puts in the "authorization to use military force" the fact is that there is a very strong possibility that the war in Syria will escalate and get very ugly. I'm unsure about the decision myself. We have an interest in punishing the use of WMD, but none of the factions in Syria are the kind of people we want to align with.

Congress authorized war in Iraq in the manner of a patron ordering a dish at a restaurant. Then, when the WMD didn't turn up and the insurgency turned out to be harder to beat and uglier to fight than we hoped, many people in the United States wanted to send the dish back. "Waiter, this war is too spicy! Take it back!" But the war didn't go away just because we came to think it was an ugly and misguided one.

There are many reasons to believe that a war with Syria will be short and relatively pain free (for those of us not under the bombs or in the ships and planes charged with delivering them). But there are no certainties in life, and especially not in war.

In voting to authorize force against Syria, Congress will be hoping for a short and inconsequential war; Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, however, will all get to vote on what kind of war we actually have.

I grew up in the 1980s and I probably watch Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the like multiple times per year. I indoctrinate my children with the greatness of these movies. What are the equivalent generational favorites for kids who grew up in the 1990s?

I'd love a software adviser to give me statistically supported suggestions for improving my life. I completely disagree with the final thought, that such advisers would make us feel like puppets. Wealthy, powerful, and important people all pay big money to their cadre of advisers -- do they feel like puppets? I doubt it.

Your smartphone will record data on your life and, when asked, will tell you what to do, drawing on data from your home or from your spouse and friends if need be. "You've thrown out that bread the last three times you've bought it, give it a pass" will be a text message of the future. How about "Now is not the time to start another argument with your wife"? The GPS is just the beginning of computer-guided instruction.

Take your smartphone on a date, and it might vibrate in your pocket to indicate "Kiss her now." If you hesitate for fear of being seen as pushy, it may write: "Who cares if you look bad? You are sampling optimally in the quest for a lifetime companion."Those who won't listen, or who rebel out of spite, will be missing out on glittering prizes. Those of us who listen, while often envied, may feel more like puppets with deflated pride.

Syrian dictator Assad's brutal campaign of chemical warfare against the Syrian people demands a strong response from America and the rest of the civilized world. Too bad President Obama is incompetent and incapable of effectively wielding global leadership or American power.

Aside from ideological and political differences between myself and Obama, it's becoming increasingly obvious that the President is not able to perform the duties of his office in a credible, competent manner.

The president is a spent force, both domestically and internationally. Congress should help by voting to cut our losses; it should resist opening the door to the uncertain consequences of a military campaign conducted, without conviction or clear purpose, by this commander in chief. If Republicans can limit the president's authority to wander and blunder on the world stage, there is a moral obligation to do so.

Of course Syria should be viciously punished for using chemical weapons, but who trusts this president to do so in such a way that also sends a clear message to Iran? No one does. Why would they? Better to leave Iran with a modicum of doubt than let them witness any more of the tepid uncertainty, lack of conviction or absence of moral clarity from President Obama.

The only thing worse than no response from America is a floundering response, so Congress should stop it while they can. We don't need to go through the half-hearted lobbying effort in Congress, which will just underscore the incompetence and incapabilities of this administration. Republicans should vote to end this disaster now. A vote of no confidence is in order.

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