Now here’s a good Freedom of Information request

CREW [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] have lodged a Freedom of Information request with the US Treasury Department. They are seeking:

  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s use of a government plane to travel to Lexington, Kentucky on Monday, August 21, accompanied by his wife Louise Linton.
  • copies of all records concerning authorization for and the costs of Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane for any purpose since his appointment as Treasury Secretary.

The rationale

On August 21, 2017, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton travelled to Lexington, Kentucky, purportedly for the Secretary to present remarks along with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at a luncheon sponsored by the Louisville chamber of commerce, Greater Louisville Inc. Afterward, Secretary Mnuchin and his wife “headed to Fort Know…to tour the bullion reserve at the Army post and view the eclipse.”

The requested records would shed light on the justification for Secretary Mnuchin’s use of a government plane, rather than a commercial flight, for a trip that seems to have been planned around the solar eclipse and to enable the Secretary to secure a viewpoint in the path of the eclipse’s totality. At a time of expected deep cuts to the federal budget, the taxpayers have a significant interest in learning the extent to which Secretary Mnuchin has used government planes for travel in lieu of commercial planes, and the justification for that use.

Footnote This all stems from a spectacular own goal by Mrs Mnuchin (aka Louise Linton).

So there goes the WSJ…

Interesting, but not surprising. Gerard Baker, the Editor in Chief of the Wall Street Journal, has apparently been castigating some of his reporters for being unduly opinionated about Trump.

This goes back a while. For example,

In February, Mr. Baker fielded tough questions at an all-hands staff meeting about whether the newspaper’s reporting on Mr. Trump was too soft. Mr. Baker denied that notion, and he suggested that other newspapers had abandoned their objectivity about the president; he also encouraged journalists unhappy with the Journal’s coverage to seek employment elsewhere.

Hmmm.. I wonder why. Could the explanation perhaps be found in the transcript Politico published of a White House interview conducted by Baker and some of his hacks? “Unusually”, says the NYT,

Mr. Baker took a leading role in the interview and made small talk with Mr. Trump about travel and playing golf.

When Ivanka Trump, the president’s older daughter, walked into the Oval Office, Mr. Baker told her, according to the transcript, “It was nice to see you out in Southampton a couple weeks ago,” apparently referring to a party that the two had attended.

The Wall Street Journal is owned by the media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who speaks regularly with Mr. Trump and recently dined with the president at the White House.

En passant, it occurs to me that the moment we will know that Trump is doomed will be when Murdoch abandons him.

Our existential ‘what if?’ question

Yeah, I know Brexit is a big deal, but this is a lot bigger: James Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence, commented yesterday on Trump’s rant in Arizona:

“Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, the access to the nuclear codes,” Clapper told CNN, pointing to the current stand-off with North Korea.

If “in a fit of pique he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there’s actually very little to stop him. The whole system is built to ensure rapid response if necessary. So there’s very little in the way of controls over exercising a nuclear option, which is pretty damn scary.”

Clapper did not mention Richard Nixon, who was involved in a tense stand-off with North Korea in 1969, after the regime shot down a US spy plane. Nixon is reported to have gotten drunk and ordered a tactical nuclear strike, which was only averted by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger.

Nixon’s biographers Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan quoted a top CIA official, George Carver, as saying: “The joint chiefs were alerted and asked to recommend targets, but Kissinger got on the phone to them. They agreed not to do anything until Nixon sobered up in the morning.”

This is the first moment that I’ve ever been glad that Henry Kissinger existed.

Oh, and btw, here’s the process for launching a nuclear strike. The whole logic of Mutual Assured Destruction is that both sides must believe that the other side might actually do it. But it’s also built on the assumption that the US president is not unhinged. Kissinger was so close to Nixon that the military accepted his judgement. The only people in the current White House who might be called upon to exercise the same kind of judgement are members of Trump’s family and John Kelly. But Trump doesn’t drink, so he would need to be incapacitated first.

A different way of thinking about thinking

Fascinating interview on with Tom Griffiths of Berkeley. For me, the most interesting passage is this:

One of the mysteries of human intelligence is that we’re able to do so much with so little. We’re able to act in ways that are so intelligent despite the fact that we have limited computational resources—basically just the stuff that we can carry around inside our heads. But we’re good at coming up with strategies for solving problems that make the best use of those limited computational resources. You can formulate that as another kind of computational problem in itself.

If you have certain computational resources and certain costs for using them, can you come up with the best algorithm for solving a problem, using those computational resources, trading off the errors you might make and solving the problem with the cost of using the resources you have or the limitations that are imposed upon those resources? That approach gives us a different way of thinking about what constitutes rational behavior.

The classic standard of rational behavior, which is used in economics and which motivated a lot of the human decision-making literature, focused on the idea of rationality in terms of finding the right answer without any thought as to the computational costs that might be involved.

This gives us a more nuanced and more realistic notion of rationality, a notion that is relevant to any organism or machine that faces physical constraints on the resources that are available to it. It says that you are being rational when you’re using the best algorithm to solve the problem, taking into account both your computational limitations and the kinds of errors that you might end up making.

This approach, which my colleague Stuart Russell calls “bounded optimality,” gives us a new way of understanding human cognition. We take examples of things that have been held up as evidence of irrationality, examples of things where people are solving a problem but not doing it in the best way, and we can try and make sense of those. More importantly, it sets up a way of asking questions about how people get to be so smart. How is it that we find those effective strategies? That’s a problem that we call “rational metareasoning.” How should a rational agent who has limitations on their computational resources find the best strategies for using those resources?

Worth reading (or watching or listening to) in full.

I can see the point of trying to understand why humans are so good at some things. The capacity to make rapid causal inferences was probably hardwired into our DNA by evolution — it’s ‘System 1’ in the categorisation proposed in Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, i.e. a capacity for fast, instinctive and emotional thinking — the kind of thinking that was crucial for survival in primeval times. But the other — equally important — question is why humans seem to be so bad at Kahneman’s ‘System 2’ thinking — i.e. slower, more deliberative and more logical reasoning. Maybe it’s because our evolutionary inheritance was laid down in a simpler era, and we’re just not adapted to handle the complexity with which (as a result of our technological ingenuity) we are now confronted?

This has interesting contemporary resonances: climate change denial, for example; fake news; populism; and the tensions between populism and technocracy.

Posted in AI

The life and death of helicopter commuting

I once spent a day during a general election campaign going round the UK in a helicopter. It was a fascinating experience, but not one I’d like to repeat. Choppers seem to me to be ludicrously primitive machines — a bit like steam-powered automobiles. They are also, of course, vanity toys for the very rich. And they are incredibly noisy. So this Bloomberg video brings a welcome dose of reality to chopper-worship.

HT to Ben Evans for the link.

Virginia Woolf on the eclipse

True to form, Alex Ross found an original take on the eclipse story — from the diary of Virginia Woolf, June 30, 1927:

“At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red & black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, & very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: & rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker & darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank & sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; & we thought now it is over — this is the shadow when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment: & the next when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again, only a spooky aetherial colour & so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down, & low & suddenly raised up, when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly & quickly & beautifully in the valley & over the hills — at first with a miraculous glittering & aetheriality, later normally almost, but with a great sense of relief. The colour for some moments was of the most lovely kind — fresh, various — here blue, & there brown: all new colours, as if washed over & repainted. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. That was within the power of nature…. Then — it was all over till 1999.”

En passant, isn’t it interesting that a lot of Americans who presumably don’t trust scientists on climate change were rushing to get a view of a phenomenon that, er, scientists predicted?

I’m sure that Mrs Woolf and I wouldn’t have got along if we’d met. (After all, I’m a countryman of James Joyce, and we know what she thought about Ulysses). But her diaries are simply wonderful.

Enter the GDPR

This morning’s Observer column:

Next year, 25 May looks like being a significant date. That’s because it’s the day that the European Union’s general data protection regulation (GDPR) comes into force. This may not seem like a big deal to you, but it’s a date that is already keeping many corporate executives awake at night. And for those who are still sleeping soundly, perhaps it would be worth checking that their organisations are ready for what’s coming down the line.

First things first. Unlike much of the legislation that emerges from Brussels, the GDPR is a regulation rather than a directive. This means that it becomes law in all EU countries at the same time; a directive, in contrast, allows each country to decide how its requirements are to be incorporated in national laws…

Read on