Hofstadter’s Law and self-driving cars

This morning’s Observer column:

In 1979, Douglas Hofstadter, an American cognitive scientist, formulated a useful general rule that applies to all complex tasks. Hofstadter’s law says that “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law”. It may not have the epistemological status of Newton’s first law, but it is “good enough for government work”, as the celebrated computer scientist Roger Needham used to say.

Faced with this assertion, readers of Wired magazine, visitors to Gizmodo or followers of Rory Cellan-Jones, the BBC’s sainted technology correspondent, will retort that while Hofstadter’s law may apply to mundane activities such as building a third runway at Heathrow, it most definitely does not apply to digital technology, where miracles are routinely delivered at the speed of light…

Read on

Back to Henry VIII

Brad de Long has been reading Trump’s tweets about Harley-Davidson.

In a later tweet, Trump falsely stated that, “Early this year Harley-Davidson said they would move much of their plant operations in Kansas City to Thailand,” and that “they were just using Tariffs/Trade War as an excuse.” In fact, when the company announced the closure of its plant in Kansas City, Missouri, it said that it would move those operations to York, Pennsylvania. At any rate, Trump’s point is nonsensical. If companies are acting in anticipation of his own announcement that he is launching a trade war, then his trade war is not just an excuse.

In yet another tweet, Trump turned to threats, warning that, “Harley must know that they won’t be able to sell back into U.S. without paying a big tax!” But, again, this is nonsensical: the entire point of Harley-Davidson shifting some of its production to countries not subject to EU tariffs is to sell tariff-free motorcycles to Europeans.

In a final tweet, Trump decreed that, “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country – never!” He then went on to promise the destruction of the company, and thus the jobs of its workers: “If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end – they surrendered, they quit! The Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!”

Needless to say, says Brad,

Trump’s statements are dripping with contempt for the rule of law. And none of them rises to the level of anything that could be called trade policy, let alone governance. It is as if we have returned to the days of Henry VIII, an impulsive, deranged monarch who was surrounded by a gaggle of plutocrats, lickspittles, and flatterers, all trying to advance their careers while keeping the ship of state afloat.

The nightmare continues, in other words. Yesterday, we had his attack on Germany at the NATO Summit. What’s happened is that the US has acquired a president who is deranged, and the world (including the UK) has to stand by and watch, open-mouthed, as he raves.

Google, Facebook and the power to nudge users

This morning’s Observer column:

Thaler and Sunstein describe their philosophy as “libertarian paternalism”. What it involves is a design approach known as “choice architecture” and in particular controlling the default settings at any point where a person has to make a decision.

Funnily enough, this is something that the tech industry has known for decades. In the mid-1990s, for example, Microsoft – which had belatedly realised the significance of the web – set out to destroy Netscape, the first company to create a proper web browser. Microsoft did this by installing its own browser – Internet Explorer – on every copy of the Windows operating system. Users were free to install Netscape, of course, but Microsoft relied on the fact that very few people ever change default settings. For this abuse of its monopoly power, Microsoft was landed with an antitrust suit that nearly resulted in its breakup. But it did succeed in destroying Netscape.

When the EU introduced its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – which seeks to give internet users significant control over uses of their personal data – many of us wondered how data-vampires like Google and Facebook would deal with the implicit threat to their core businesses. Now that the regulation is in force, we’re beginning to find out: they’re using choice architecture to make it as difficult as possible for users to do what is best for them while making it easy to do what is good for the companies.

We know this courtesy of a very useful 43-page report just out from the Norwegian Consumer Council, an organisation funded by the Norwegian government…

Read on

How to tell if you’re rich

From a recent NBER study:

The brand most predictive of top income in 1992 is Grey Poupon Dijon mustard. By 2004, the brand most indicative of the rich is Land O’Lakes butter, followed by Kikkoman soy sauce. By the end of the sample, ownership of Apple products (iPhone and iPad) tops the list. Knowing whether someone owns an iPad in 2016 allows us to guess correctly whether the person is in the top or bottom income quartile 69 percent of the time. Across all years in our data, no individual brand is as predictive of being high-income as owning an Apple iPhone in 2016.

Hmmm…I must be better off than I realised.

The United States of Amnesia

I’ve been watching a fascinating documentary — Reporting Trump’s First Year: the Fourth Estate — and brooding on the challenge that faces any serious newspaper contemplating the Trump presidency. The more outrageous he gets, the greater the temptation for a weary public to shrug its collective shoulders and mutter “there he goes again”. That temptation is understandable — after all, most people have no interest in politics and getting on with their lives is challenge enough. What’s admirable about the New York Times (and the Washington Post) at the moment is that they are refusing to accept the ‘normalisation’ of Trump.

But then I started to ponder the question of whether resistance to normalising him might actually lead one into the trap of thinking (as some people still do) that Trump, Orban, Erdogan et al just represent the swing of the pendulum, and that eventually things will return to normal. Because the only thing of which I am really convinced is that we are into the political/social/ideological counterpart of what physicists call a phase transition. And if that’s the case then there’s no swing of the pendulum that will get us back to where we were pre-2016.

A little later Tyler Cowen pointed me to an interesting essay by the political scientist Corey Robin on the idea of ‘normalisation’ . Here’s the money quote:

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

Or so we believe.

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Later in his essay, Robin turns to the episode during the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, electrified the Convention with his declaration that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country. Trump riposted aggressively, wondering aloud why Khan’s wife had stood quietly by as her husband spoke, and suggesting that she had been silenced by the alien force of Islam.

This outraged many people, among them James Fallows — who reached back to that moment in 1954 when Senator Joseph McCarthy — the Trump of his day — was allegedly unhorsed by the Army’s counsel, Joseph Welch, who said “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Fallows sees this as the end of McCarthy’s power, the moment when Dorothy’s dog Toto unmasks the Wizard of Oz. Within six months of Welch’s attack McCarthy was censured by the Senate; less than three years later, he was dead. The implication was that surely something similar would happen to Trump.

But it didn’t: he went on to be elected President, despite the unpardonable callousness of his response to the Khan family.

Corey Robin sees Fallows’s citation of the McCarthy moment as just an outbreak of golden age nostalgia.

In the years before Welch’s salvo, McCarthy had been riding high, aided and abetted by the most senior members of the GOP. McCarthy was the Republicans’ useful idiot, helping return Congress to their control in 1952. By 1954, he was no longer useful. He was just an idiot — and a liability. Not only was he going after the military, he was turning on Republicans too. He had done their dirty work; now he was doing them damage. The ism could stay; the man had to go.

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

Of course the problem with this is that while the Republicans might have initially have regarded Trump as a useful idiot, it’s rapidly becoming clear that in fact they are his useful idiots. And their utility will remain until after they have rejected a case to impeach him. After that, who knows what might happen?

Quote of the Day

”If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie—a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days—but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”

Hannah Arendt

Wanted: a new Republic

Gloomy, angry post by John Gorman. Sample:

The neo-feudalist economy caused by unchecked, unregulated capitalism that turned at best a winking nod to social welfare, more often a blind eye, and at worst a joyous ax, has facilitated a nationalist, authoritarian rise in pitch, and an abrupt shift right in federal ideology. Donald Trump is both the drooping wilted leaf of this societal rot, and the root. But why?

Human life in the US has no inherent worth. We are not valued beyond the revenue we can generate for the white men who do not need it. Think of how we talk about our own people in a professional setting: Human resources. Human capital. Taxpayer base. These are ways of talking about people that reduce them to streams of income. Think of all the things life offers beyond revenue: love. progress. art. invention. community. health. knowledge. We do not value these things at the institutional level, in fact, we actively curtail them all. But that’s only one piece of the inextricable puzzle.

Additionally, this country was founded with two original sins baked in: Genocidal concentration of its indigenous people, and mass enslavement of the African race. These sins were never reckoned, and they continue to manifest themselves in a litany of ugly and tragic ways. You’ve no doubt read about them by now, but in case you’d like a tweet-length summary, we’ll call it: systemic dehumanization and oppression of all people who are not white.

So that’s how we got here: People can’t afford to live. We’re jailing babies in cages. Kids are being shot up in schools. We’re deporting people seeking asylum. Flint doesn’t have clean water. Puerto Rico is a mess. We’re attacking women online and assaulting them in the streets. All given the tacit, or even enthusiastic, approval by a fascist authoritarian apex predator who has free reign to indulge his darkest impulses. Yet make no mistake: Authoritarianism is not the cause … it is a symptom of a deeper, underlying sickness. Civilization is a thin veneer. As civilization crumbles (as it is assuredly doing now), it emboldens and empowers monsters like these.

Professor Fukuyama’s dreamland

Wow! This from today’s New York Times:

COPENHAGEN — When Rokhaia Naassan gives birth in the coming days, she and her baby boy will enter a new category in the eyes of Danish law. Because she lives in a low-income immigrant neighborhood described by the government as a “ghetto,” Rokhaia will be what the Danish newspapers call a “ghetto parent” and he will be a “ghetto child.”

Starting at the age of 1, “ghetto children” must be separated from their families for at least 25 hours a week, not including nap time, for mandatory instruction in “Danish values,” including the traditions of Christmas and Easter, and Danish language. Noncompliance could result in a stoppage of welfare payments. Other Danish citizens are free to choose whether to enroll children in preschool up to the age of six.

Denmark’s government is introducing a new set of laws to regulate life in 25 low-income and heavily Muslim enclaves, saying that if families there do not willingly merge into the country’s mainstream, they should be compelled…

I love Copenhagen, but often had cause to wonder about its ethnic diversity. It now looks as though at least some contemporary Danes don’t think much of diversity. This new law is a product of political pressure from the far right parties which are making real headway in the country’s elections.