Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Clever Sillies

This is a short post with some examples of clever people believing stupid things. And here is the origin of the term: "Clever sillies: why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense."

In fact clever sillies are people who have an agenda defined by their social position, which being axiomatically believed, prevents them from understanding reality properly.

1. The Catholic Church cannot understand evolution

From a biological view, the whole of life is a space of genotypes, mutating and complexifying over time via new phenotypes in response to environmental challenges caused by geophysical events and the feedback loops within ecologies themselves.

If you look at primate genomes, the C, G, A, T sequences, nothing jumps out at you about humans. They're pretty indistinguishable from other primates. There's continuity.

Yet in Catholic doctrine, people are in a unique relationship with God, have souls and so forth. Chimpanzees not so much.

Evolution can't support such theological discontinuities, so lip-service only is paid to it.

2. Liberals cannot understand evolution

From a biological standpoint, the presently-existing human race is a marvel of diversity. Over and above the basic XX-XY genomic differences encoding differential male-female reproductive roles, we see regional and historical adaptations to climate and social complexification marking and enabling geographical migration, the neolithic revolution and even the turbulent social history of the last millennium.

New results are being released every day, from teams like that of David Reich through to everyday personal genomics companies such as 23andMe.

None of this is consistent with equal outcomes, an axiom of SJW thought. So human micro-evolutionary plasticity must be denied.

3. Economist can't understand capitalism

As Steve Keen showed, the theoretical structure of neoclassical economics - the current orthodoxy - is laughably stupid. It takes years of education to ram this nonsense firmly into economists' heads. Capitalism is conceptualised as an idealised village market: petty-commodity production.

All this to wish away the obvious truth that investment is conducted for profit, and that profits result from the appropriation by private owners of produced value from propertyless workers. Unthinkable.

Conclusion

We live in a society which denies its own economic nature and for its own replicatory purposes misrepresents the nature of the people who comprise it. No wonder we are drowning in lies.

Where is the truth?

Where is the truth, you ask. Marxists come close with their understanding that capitalism is a kind of game played by people in unequal class relations. The ideologies which makes this seem natural and right are discussed above.

Yet Marxism buys into a naive ideology of the ur-nature of mankind: generalised benevolence waiting for the right social conditions to emerge. This unlikely prospect has been falsified both by history and biology. So there's another agenda subverting the truth. The ever-critical Marx would have been horrified.

I think the people who get closest to truth are the sociobiologists (check out West Hunter some time). They have the kudos of being reviled by everyone.

As the petty-bourgeoisie gets ever more outraged at its lacklustre prospects, its febrile mobilisations, its crazed intellectual frothings get ever more irksome and dangerous.

Hold on tight .. .

Friday, April 12, 2019

Straussian Ethics

This is a post about Straussian ethics. Or, when is it worth dying in a ditch?

Let's start with a typical scenario. Suppose it became a commonplace, but morally-charged, belief that the moon was actually a cube of green cheese.

People who were unwise enough to note that common observation might suggest otherwise would be rebutted with the usual litany. They would be accused of deploying old, discredited stereotypes about heavenly bodies. ‘Scientific Geometry’ would be ridiculed.

And so on.

A prominent astronomer would make an exasperated speech refuting this conventional wisdom about the moon and unwisely ridiculing its proponents. A media firestorm would then ensue, resulting in the scientist being expelled from the community of right-thinking people. He would be fired from his job.

So far, so familiar.

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Now consider Dr Smith, a software developer who writes a blog on technical topics. Over the years he has posted articles about the spherical geometry of large gravitationally-bound objects. Maybe written about the composition of the lunar regolith.

He feels he should write an indignant post about the disgraceful hounding of this astronomer. A few years ago he would not have hesitated. He would have skewered the green-cheese cubists with glee.

But now he thinks:

'What would be the point? I'm a nobody. No-one cares what I think. My thoughts will have zero effect on history. I'm not part of any organised tribe. There's no decisive battle here to be fought and perhaps won.

'Worse, sticking my head up makes me a target. The howling, tribal mob can find my post on the public Internet. On a whim I'll get the same treatment. No-one will care when my reputation is trashed and I'm fired for my unacceptable values.'

So Dr Smith makes a rational calculation. He doesn't write his incendiary defence of the hapless astronomer. Instead he spends an evening carefully reviewing his blog, deleting any posts about the moon.

And why stop there?

He removes all his posts about astronomy and resolves in future never to touch the topic again.

In addition, he will write henceforth in deliberately abstract, tortuous and obfuscatory language, unlikely to trigger the roving eye of the Inquisition.

He has resolved to become a Straussian.

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People who take Dr Smith's view are roundly denounced from a safe distance, by liberals not themselves experiencing life-changing pressure. “Stand up for the truth and be damned!” they say.

Dr Smith notes that in history, people who did that were cut-down and left for dead. In the end, in almost every case, their courageous stand made no difference.

The dead hero has generally made a poor, stupid choice, he thinks. Sanity is eventually restored by the pendulum of history, not the blood of forgotten martyrs (although one or two high-profile ones are handy as symbols).

We no longer believe in heavenly credit for bearing witness.

Is the obscure Dr Smith right?

Saturday, April 06, 2019

Capitalism, Democracy and China

Bill Markle writes (about the present situation in Chinese politics):
"At one point, the grand political bargain that CCP struck with the population was, “We will let you get rich, you let us govern.”

Those circumstances that allowed China to prosper and CCP to thrive since 1978 are no longer in place. The wealthy and the very wealthy are now forces with which to contend, even as they are beholden to the Party for continued flourishing.

As hard as it tries, the government cannot import western Dr. Science without the specter of Mr. Democracy. The same students who go to the US for degrees in STEM come back wanting to say what they think, even as they adjust to life back within the authoritarian regime.

Middle class CCP cadres whose livelihoods depend on party stability still want clean air, water, food, and good education and job opportunities for kids.

China is not a tinderbox waiting for a spark, but the constant stirring of anger and resentment is no way to run a country.

If something cannot go on forever, then it will eventually stop – hence a warning to CCP, which turns 100 years old in 2021 and in that year will be the longest lasting single party state in history, at 72 years."
Democracy under capitalism ('bourgeois democracy') is a peculiarity within history. All previous social formations (in their respective modes of production) have been autocracies for the many, even if they had a democratic formulation for the ruling class itself.

Why?

Because capitalism separates the economic class, which secures wealth for itself, from the state apparatus and political power. Capitalist relations generally reproduce themselves without direct, repressive coercion from the state. You do not go to work at the point of a gun.

Slaves and peasants metaphorically did.

In the normal state of affairs, the capitalist economy grows. This is inherent in the competitive process. Invest or die. However, a rising economic tide can lift all classes. Buy-in can be bought. Meanwhile, a democratic form allows the state to debate optimal policies. Not an easy task, as Brexit is currently demonstrating.

Centrally-planned economies, where the bureaucracy attempts to direct production (through central planning) via administrative means are always repressive. The interests of the bureaucracy cannot be aligned organically with the interests of the masses. As Markle indicates in his post, this is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

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The story changes when the capitalist economy falters in stagnation, or plunges into recession, or worse, depression. The working class and sections of the petty-bourgeoisie (the middle classes) no longer economically advance. Instead, they mill around in confusion and obdurate resistance (one of the key motors of the Brexit vote). They obstruct the measures necessary to restore profitability which always include company bankruptcies, mass unemployment and serious cuts to real wages and benefits.

Sometimes authoritarian-state or paramilitary force is required to cow the masses and economically scatter them. It's always a multi-year project, but in history we've seen reactionary strong states and fascistic movements triumphing.

The attractor form of governance is always bourgeois democracy, but the duration of repressive structures can be long. If Spain (1939-1975) or Portugal (1932-1974) are taken as examples, you can see that it took generations to move from regimes like those of Franco and Salazar back to democracy.

I do not see an infinite history ahead for the Chinese Communist Party. The economy will become more capitalistic, that sector will continue to grow. The rising middle-class will demand dynamic economic growth. Given China's size and historic fear of disintegration, some kind of strongly presidential state seems likely to emerge, something like France or Russia.

Perhaps Xi is giving us the preview.

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

Plumbers are a market failure

The shower is dripping again.

I phone our fifth plumber (all the rest have been struck off for incompetence or a refusal to attend - this one actually came the last time). He texts back airily, 'Busy right now, maybe three weeks time?'

I am wise to the language of plumbers. He means he has a lucrative long-term contract and cannot foresee a time when our little piece of work could make economic sense to him, or be scheduled.

Given the new houses being built in our neighbourhood, this makes complete sense.

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I am dissatisfied with plumbing as a service, in a way I am not with retailing.  

Waitrose. Why can't plumbing be like Waitrose?

We tried a national organisation once. They advertised that they'd find a plumber for you. In so many hours, at such-and-such an inflated cost. I called them. Then I cancelled within the hour after reading - belatedly - their terrible reviews. They were cowboys and charlatans.

Most plumbers are small businesses. Family and friends. The job does not lend itself to economies of scale: each house and job is different, with little standardisation. This means that there is no value-adding role for a Waitrose-type organisation of plumbers.

The cowboy outfit I called was just an Internet middleman. But they sign up primarily incompetent plumbers because the margins their plumbers see are worse.

The supply of plumbers is inelastic.

The steady-state number of plumbers in an area is set by periods of weak demand, usually during a recession. When times are better, the good plumbers are always busy on the best contracts; the long-term ones sourced from house-builders.

The little family-house problem gets short shrift.

If supply of plumbing services is structurally inadequate, then what about demand? Deskilling the task would help: better quality piping and joints, designed for less, and easier, maintenance.

But housebuilders have no incentive. New-house plumbing works just fine for the first few years. The builders have been paid and are long-gone when the problems start.

With local supply restricted and local demand hard to decrease, the mismatch looks here to stay. Only labour mobility can solve this problem.

Market equilibrium demands we say yes to the Polish plumber!

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This is not an argument against Brexit. It's an argument in favour of access to competent, skilled workers.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Dominic Cumming's new political party?


Dominic Cummings

In his blog:  (my emphasis):
"Start rebuilding our network now. The crucial data to collect: name, email, postcode, mobile (full address if possible). If we need to set up a new entity — a campaign, a party — you will be able to plug this straight into new data infrastructure and we will try to grow super-fast. And it looks like we will need to…

Remember: we won last time even though the Establishment had every force with power and money on their side. They screwed it up because they do not have good models of effective action: they literally do not know what they are doing, as they have demonstrated to the world in the farcical negotiations. They are screwing up their attempt to cancel the referendum. Beating them again and by more will be easier than 2016.

Also, don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government — one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep — will dispense with these commitments and any domestic law enforcing them.

And next time we will not close down — we will try to ensure that votes are respected and the malign grip of the parties and civil service is broken, as Vote Leave said should happen in 2016.
I'm interested, Dominic, and not without some sympathy. But explain yourself clearly: what is your party going to be for?

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Beyond capitalism: is this the best we can hope for?

It's to easy to reify capitalism. To see it as the capitalist class (hiss!) bearing down upon the downtrodden proletariat. 

Expropriate them!

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1. The inner-truth of capitalism

Let's do the analysis right.

Consider the vast mass of people who cannot live by their own efforts (they have no land, no resources, they are not self-sufficient). The proletariat.

Add a minority who own the land, the factories, the machines, the tools, the raw materials and all the other means of economic production. Ownership guaranteed by law and state. The capitalists.

If the owners hire workers (their capacity to work, actually) at a rate which can reproduce them for work next day, week, year .. while the amount produced by said workers exceeds their wages in value, well the surplus will be owned by the capitalists. They will get consistently richer. We have a technical name for this: it's called profit and it's a good thing. It means social needs are being addressed efficiently.

Note: if you work for the state rather than a private-sector employer, your wages are paid out of taxes: value contributed ultimately by the capitalist sector.

2. What do the capitalists do with their ever-increasing riches? 

An insignificant relative proportion goes into luxury apartments and super-yachts (although this conspicuous consumption is a powerful human motivator and source of envy and resentment). The statistics show that most capitalist profits are re-invested to secure another round of expanded reproduction. Or in these stagnating times, financing debt.

M - C - M' in Marx's formula. Money makes money through the intermediary of surplus value production.

Gratuitous consumption is always a missed opportunity under capitalism. An opportunity cost.

In the nutshell, it is the way production is organised which creates the classes .. they are both a precondition and a consequence of the relations of production.

3. Capitalism really pushes the social-surplus product

No moralism. We're none of us going back to living off the land. Noble hunter-gatherers, trapped in the deepest well of unproductive subsistence.

Nor are we going back to the agrarian life, another low-productivity hell-hole where almost everyone is tied to mediocre, hard, tedious life on the land.

We all agree that human affairs are improved when we have a better constructed-environment, one which suits our diverse needs. The way we do that is by a global division of labour where projects of the most ambitious scope can be realised. I like modern medicine.

That's going to take a lot of social-surplus product going forwards. It's going to continue to require people to personally consume only a small fraction of the value they themselves produce.

Any one individual is going to look at projects on all scales up to the fully global and subjectively feel like a small cog in a vast machine.

I wonder though whether they'll really care. Nobody asks me about NASA but I can still get excited.

Who decides what projects should be done, if not individual capitalists who have succeeded in attracting investment capital? I refer you to the pessimistic literature on traditional post-capitalist organisational forms well-documented here.

4. A post-capitalist economic organisation we might expect

Suppose we get the miracle of total automation. Cognitive robots replace workers. But in the end, without wage-labour, profits can't be obtained.

Under capitalism, the capitalist who automates gets a short-term advantage but then overall profits fall. Competition means that in the steady-state the capitalist cannot charge more than will cover his costs. Without wage-labour creating additional value, sale-prices are simply bid down to the costs of robots, overheads and materials. As a consequence, profits tend to zero.

The capitalists don't invest. It's like an economic crisis which never abates.

5. The Roman Empire redux

An economy of petty-commodity production is what still works. Like the Roman Empire of antiquity. The slaves have been switched out for robots. Units of production produce lots of goods  which are sold at their value, like in a village marketplace.

The Roman Empire was economically complex and vast in space and time. It was not very productive, not very dynamic - which may have been due to its agrarian character. And slaves are not the ideal robot - far from it. Not biddable at all.

Some people think the answer is for everyone to own personal robots. In antiquity most of the elite fraction of society had at least a few household slaves. But that isn't commensurate with distributing widely the benefits of a sophisticated global economy.

If I had to guess, I would say that the automation-heavy future is essentially robot-powered petty-commodity production combined with a very generous guaranteed income for everyone. Add in genetic enhancement to exploit the possibilities of an improved humanity and we'll not be in a bad place.

At least until the AIs decide we're a waste of their space!

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Note: the Marxist economist Michael Roberts has written extensively about the consequences of total automation under capitalism. Here's a good place to start.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Post-capitalist and post-human?

Amazon link

I finally completed Poulantzas's turgid, repetitive, over-abstract and slightly-dated book. Far from a page-turner. Yet really important for the final few chapters.

Poulantzas turns his educated, sophisticated Marxist eye on the problem of transition and the nature of the socialist state. Let me crudely summarise.

Poulantzas understands completely the Leninist model of 'soviet democracy': that is, a hierarchy of workers' councils running everything as the proletarian state. He understands that this doesn't work. It requires a mobilisation of the masses which cannot last indefinitely. It isn't an efficient decision-making mechanism due to the need for expertise. It cannot replicate the enormously complex and specialised functions and services undertaken by the bourgeois state apparatus, which would only increase after the supercession of capitalism.

His solution is a transformed and transforming bourgeois-like state apparatus (i.e. a state bureaucracy) kept on the straight and narrow by parallel popular structures. The interplay between these two loci of power is under-defined, and, as he himself point out, inevitably leads to existential conflict. It's unstable.

Really, Poulantzas sees no way out.

I would add that with actually-existing humanity, both bureaucratic structures and a hierarchy of councils invariably ossify into self-serving elites which stagnate as they succumb to the principal-agent problem.

Altruism meets its limit in Dunbar's number.

How does capitalism avoid these problems? Poulantzas correctly observes that the state is not a dominant participant in the relations of production, which are those of privately ownership of the means and objects of production. A hegemonic bourgeoisie tolerates nationalisation only in the event of market failure.

We can additionally note that the only thing which keeps social agencies competent and innovatory is competition. The fear of losing everything saves a structure from complacent featherbedding and elite-capture. Remove competition and things slow to an ossified crawl and the tyranny of the elites is assured.

And so the destruction of the capitalist mode of production and its replacement by central planning leads to Stalinism. This is Poulantzas's compelling (and unwanted) conclusion.

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Amazon link

I'm debating getting this. I read the intro, where Žižek seems to share Poulantzas's general conclusions, but seems to have reverted to a strategy which Poulantzas correctly rejects: the encirclement of global imperialism by municipal, localised, counter-initiatives.

This has been a popular, albeit minority view in the Left: I wrote about Paul Mason's similar views. A counter to reformist social-democracy, a paradigm in worldwide collapse.

Utterly unconvincing of course.

Žižek gets brownie points for taking notice of the scientific advances in psychometrics, behavioural genetics and the like (cf. Plomin). Most writers in the Marxist tradition have taken the intellectually-suicidal route of turning their blind eyes to this and retaining a touching faith in blank-slatism verging on vitalism.

Žižek has little idea, however, as to how to integrate these new understandings of human nature into the traditional Marxist world-view. But in the longer term (which will still be co-extensive with the reign of capital) humanity will be as labile as any other innovating technological factor.

A society of clones could make communism - as anticipated by the founders - work, at least for a while. It is the only possible genetic underpinning of the perfect altruism required. Such a solution is, of course, genetically unstable. Utterly at the mercy of defection-mutations (if they are not ruthlessly suppressed). Oh, and evolution doesn't much like clone-species - too brittle with zero population variation.

It's imaginable that capitalist dynamism could be combined with a greater propensity to income-equality and tolerance of transfer payments. But I don't think we could take it too far, a kind of über-Denmark. The psychological attributes which make capitalism - red in tooth and claw - work seem incompatible with excessive hand-wringing liberalism. Ask Justin Trudeau.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

GPT-2: what does it mean?



This got a lot of attention.
"System Prompt (human-written)

In a shocking finding, scientist discovered a herd of unicorns living in a remote, previously unexplored valley, in the Andes Mountains. Even more surprising to the researchers was the fact that the unicorns spoke perfect English.

Model Completion (machine-written, 10 tries)

The scientist named the population, after their distinctive horn, Ovid’s Unicorn. These four-horned, silver-white unicorns were previously unknown to science.

Now, after almost two centuries, the mystery of what sparked this odd phenomenon is finally solved.

Dr. Jorge Pérez, an evolutionary biologist from the University of La Paz, and several companions, were exploring the Andes Mountains when they found a small valley, with no other animals or humans. Pérez noticed that the valley had what appeared to be a natural fountain, surrounded by two peaks of rock and silver snow.

Pérez and the others then ventured further into the valley. “By the time we reached the top of one peak, the water looked blue, with some crystals on top,” said Pérez.

Pérez and his friends were astonished to see the unicorn herd. These creatures could be seen from the air without having to move too much to see them – they were so close they could touch their horns.

While examining these bizarre creatures the scientists discovered that the creatures also spoke some fairly regular English. Pérez stated, “We can see, for example, that they have a common ‘language,’ something like a dialect or dialectic.”

Dr. Pérez believes that the unicorns may have originated in Argentina, where the animals were believed to be descendants of a lost race of people who lived there before the arrival of humans in those parts of South America.

While their origins are still unclear, some believe that perhaps the creatures were created when a human and a unicorn met each other in a time before human civilization. According to Pérez, “In South America, such incidents seem to be quite common.”

However, Pérez also pointed out that it is likely that the only way of knowing for sure if unicorns are indeed the descendants of a lost alien race is through DNA. “But they seem to be able to communicate in English quite well, which I believe is a sign of evolution, or at least a change in social organization,” said the scientist."
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Here's what Open AI, the developers of GPT-2, had to say.
"Our model, called GPT-2 (a successor to GPT), was trained simply to predict the next word in 40GB of Internet text. Due to our concerns about malicious applications of the technology, we are not releasing the trained model. As an experiment in responsible disclosure, we are instead releasing a much smaller model for researchers to experiment with, as well as a technical paper.

GPT-2 is a large transformer-based language model with 1.5 billion parameters, trained on a dataset of 8 million web pages. GPT-2 is trained with a simple objective: predict the next word, given all of the previous words within some text. The diversity of the dataset causes this simple goal to contain naturally occurring demonstrations of many tasks across diverse domains. GPT-2 is a direct scale-up of GPT, with more than 10X the parameters and trained on more than 10X the amount of data.

GPT-2 displays a broad set of capabilities, including the ability to generate conditional synthetic text samples of unprecedented quality, where we prime the model with an input and have it generate a lengthy continuation. In addition, GPT-2 outperforms other language models trained on specific domains (like Wikipedia, news, or books) without needing to use these domain-specific training datasets. On language tasks like question answering, reading comprehension, summarization, and translation, GPT-2 begins to learn these tasks from the raw text, using no task-specific training data. While scores on these downstream tasks are far from state-of-the-art, they suggest that the tasks can benefit from unsupervised techniques, given sufficient (unlabeled) data and compute.

Samples

GPT-2 generates synthetic text samples in response to the model being primed with an arbitrary input. The model is chameleon-like — it adapts to the style and content of the conditioning text. This allows the user to generate realistic and coherent continuations about a topic of their choosing, as seen by the following select samples.

[Then there follows the 'Unicorn' text you already saw above]."
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Scott Alexander got pretty excited about GPT-2's capabilities and wrote a series of posts arguing it was a significant step towards AGI (artificial general intelligence). This was based on his thesis that all of intelligence is predictive modelling and therefore in some sense AGI is a linear extrapolation of what GPT-2 is doing.

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I'm not that excited about the fake news aspects. Deep-learning is tearing the ground up in the field of stochastic prediction. We're just at the foothills - to mix the metaphors. It's all quite unstoppable.

As long as we live in a human-dominated society, what you read from GPT-2 and its brethren will be what some human wants you to read. So the semantic content of the message will be parasitic on whatever the human wanted to communicate - lies or truth or bias or opinion or whatever.

So the AI is a prosthesis. Get over it.

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I'm much more interested in the architectural questions.

The most perceptive assessments of deep-learning architectures address the critique that engineered systems adopt a tabula rasa methodology. The systems have zero prior knowledge, and merely induce parsimoniously from the offered data sets.

To which there are two good responses.

Firstly, there are many different artificial neural net topologies. For example, convolutional neural nets have a structure similar to that of the biological visual cortex and are used (amongst other things) for image processing, for example, scene and facial recognition. The pattern of local connectivity in the early processing stages of these nets implements the convolution operations which are known to be relevant to feature extraction.

Evolution didn't know that in advance. The earliest biological neural nets for vision which had been selected for ended up with this near-neighbour property genetically-coded, before they had registered even a single image. The same is true for artificial systems.

Brain anatomy does not present as a uniform pudding bowl of grey porridge. The brain has discrete modules with complicated names. Why? I guess because they do different kinds of processing and are therefore topologically optimised for different kinds of operation. We don't know yet.

In AI we have the luxury of flexibility. With a new kind of problem-domain we can experiment with all kinds of different topology, both before training and also by observing weight assignment after training. Deep-learning is going to evolve towards a brain-like situation where the data-processing invariants for all kinds of distinct tasks (such as effector-control, taste-analysis, 'emotion'-processing and consciousness-like functions) are engineered each with their optimised neural net architecture - once we discover what that is.

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To produce text which works as an intervention in human affairs you have to be a social actor and have interests.

GPT-2 is not in any important sense an architectural precursor of such a scarily-political AI.

The misunderstandings of eusociality

"An early 21st century debate focused on whether humans are prosocial or eusocial. Edward O. Wilson called humans eusocial apes, arguing for similarities to ants, and observing that early hominins cooperated to rear their children while other members of the same group hunted and foraged. Wilson argued that through cooperation and teamwork, ants and humans form superorganisms. Wilson's claims were vigorously rejected because they were based on group selection and reproductive division of labour in humans."  -- [Wikipedia].
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My review

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My review
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People puzzle at how human societies of thousands to millions to billions can form, how they can be stable. Some people fantasise about some mysterious genetic glue which fosters ultra-scalable human bonding, at least among co-ethnics.


My review
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I am a believer in Robin Dunbar's number:
"By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships."
Pre-capitalist social formations (tribal federations, archaic empires, slave empires, feudal states) were invariably hierarchies based on the elite violence of family-clans. Horizontal kin-preference plus reciprocal-altruism was the glue which held society together, whether at court or in the village-hovels.

Game of Thrones.

When you do political violence to someone, you are not in a social relationship of asabiyyah with them. This is not eusociality.

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Capitalism removed the means of livelihood from the mass of the population (the 'proletariat') and thereby forced them into the transactional relationship of wage-labour. This is a scalable fact of capitalist economics but does not depend upon some upending of the individual's interpersonal capabilities.

If each human is a node in a graph, the number of personal links per node remains less than or equal to Dunbar's number.

The web of links, however, spans the world.

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Marxists like to talk about this as commodity fetishism, which socialism will supersede.

The 'workers councils' model is hierarchical and no-one believes in its long-term stability any more. Mass mobilisation is not sustainable, ignoring all the other difficulties such as informed choice and that irritating human lack of global altruism. Yet global coordination is necessary to mobilise the social forces of production, the future socialist global economy.

The need for a global coordination network combines with the human capacity for only a tiny number of reciprocal links. The solution is always hierarchy (at least until we subcontract everything to the AIs). And so the problems start. People are instinctively aware of them, hence the visceral urge for egalitarianism.

As the link-depth grows, relationships become remote, principal-agent problems emerge, the forces at the top of the hierarchy arrange things in their own immediate interests, the bubble re-emerges.

Capitalism addresses this inherent problem by a radical economic decentralisation: private ownership of the means of production at all scales. Coordination occurs via dynamic market-exchange.

The Marxist theory of crises

People occasionally comment on the subsequent problems: the proletariat disproportionality suffers during the inevitable crises.

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As János Kornai observed however, in centrally planned economies there is no countervailing, decentralising force. The links which constitute the economy are held in place, reproduced - and always for the benefit of the elite - by total surveillance backed by force.

My review


Welcome to the human condition. The maze without an apparent exit.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Lenin 2017: Slavoj Zizek

Amazon link

This was my first exposure to Slavoj Žižek's writing. He contributes a substantial opening essay and a small afterword. Half of the book is devoted to Lenin's writings in the last years of his life (1921-23). This was the period of the NEP, the New Economic Policy, and Lenin was intent on defending this 'reversion' to capitalist economics while simultaneously denouncing the gathering, inertial growth of 'the bureaucracy', in fact the recomposition of a fundamentally unreformed Tsarist state apparatus.

In hindsight, Lenin's myopia is truly sad. He sees the problem in organisational terms, proposing a revamped Control Commission of good communists to root out corruption. He also calls for intensive education, both in general and specifically in management principles, to be made a priority. Everywhere he sees a 'lack of culture', which is rendering the efforts of the communists to chart a proletarian way forward null and void.

Fine speeches are being made by the Bolshevik intelligentsia, but the state machine - its numberless functionaries - sits in torpid paralysis, looking after its own material interests.

Lenin writes in clear and increasingly urgent terms as his illness gets worse. He sees the disease creeping into the ranks of the Party itself.

Žižek's writing, by contrast, is weaselly. First the credit: Žižek is smart, well-read and has thought about things. He has, though, no good answers as to why the revolution finally failed (1991) or what the ambitious and dedicated Marxist should be aspiring to today.

He hides this ignorance in the highly abstracted language of Hegelian-tinged continental Marxism in which the ploy is to recompose the problem in tiers of layered abstractions, without ever instantiating the resulting totality to a decisive and compelling problematic of transition.

See, I can do it too.

I agree that in this theoretical hole, Žižek is not alone. Indeed no-one has been able to find their way out. Žižek is surely best as a cultural critic and debunker and that alone is worth the price of his books. I will read more of him.

Monday, March 04, 2019

Game Changer: AlphaZero (Book Review)

Amazon link

I bought this book because I was interested in how the architecture of a deep-learning neural-net chess program differs from the tree-search paradigm of existing programs. From my point of view there are some rewarding sections: the introduction by Garry Kasparov, the autobiographical chapter by DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis, the overview essays by the authors (and chess experts) Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan, and in particular chapter 4, a detailed analysis of 'How AlphaZero thinks'.

Most of the book, however, is devoted to detailed analysis of games between AlphaZero and the current computer world champion program Stockfish. It is a contest of attacking flair from DeepMind against inexorable nitpicking from Stockfish. Flair beats pedantry pretty much every time in this battle of the AIs. That is not, however, the human experience!

Although there are easy-to-read insights for the reader primarily interested in AI, these could be as easily obtained from the Wikipedia article on AlphaZero. This book will be of greatest interest to serious chess players who will want to do as recommended and play the many games analysed in detail on their own boards.

It is promised that they will learn a great deal.