Tuesday 6 December, 2022

The Golden Gate

Christ’s, Cambridge. Charles Darwin’s and John Milton’s college.

Quote of the Day

”Last week, in a series of interviews following the collapse of FTX, Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder and now-former chief executive officer of the Bahamas-based cryptocurrency exchange, attempted to engender sympathy and compassion in explaining why his company so spectacularly flamed out in November. Bankman-Fried’s public and seemingly calculated self-flagellation had all the hallmarks of the classic corporate apology: repeated mea culpas, dour-looking expressions, and, as has become too common in the tech world, dense and indecipherable industry jargon.

  • Bloomberg’s Austin Carr, on Bankman-Fried’s apology tour, conducted from a $30m penthouse in the Bahamas. Fortunately, the US has an extradition treaty with the Bahamas, a tax-haven with some nice beaches attached.

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

César Franck | Panis Angelicus / Patricia Janečková – sopráno


There are so many recordings of this. The most eccentric one I found has Pavarotti and Sting. And the most OTT version is André Rieu’s (together with what looks like the massed bands of the Netherlands). Great tune, though.

Long Read of the Day

Tacit Knowledge

In her brief but enlightening review of Chris Miller’s Chip War: The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology, Diane Coyle (Whom God Preserve) notes that Miller provides

lots of great examples of the difficulty of copying advanced chip technology because of the necessary tacit knowledge: for instance, every AMSL photolithography machine comes with a lifetime supply of AMSL technicians to tend to it. This is either hopeful – China will find it hard to catch up fully – or not – the US or EU will not be able to catch up with TSMC because of the latter’s vast embedded know-how.

My guess is that many people who write about the geopolitics of chip production haven’t done too much thinking about the importance of tacit knowledge in technological (and scientific) progress. They think it’s all about building facilities, putting in the requisite capital investment, etc. And of course about the geopolitics of where chip fabrication facilities are located.

At the moment one of the two great chokepoints of the silicon chip supply chain — AMSL — is located in the Netherlands. The other — TSMC — is in Taiwan, which is of course a cause of increasing concern to Western countries. But location is only a part of the story. The other is the knowhow locked up in the heads of the people who work in these firms.

Diane’s reference to tacit knowledge made me think about the Masters thesis of the philosopher Harry Collins, in which he investigated how a particular technology, the TEA-laser, spread from physics lab to physics lab.

He talked about this in an interesting interview with Physics Today in 2021.

At the end of my master’s degree in sociology, I had to choose a topic for my dissertation, and I thought it would be interesting to go back into science labs. After some false starts I was introduced to some scientists who were trying to build a new kind of laser, called a transversely excited atmospheric pressure carbon dioxide laser, or TEA laser. I thought it would make an interesting master’s topic to see how people learned to build one of these lasers. What I had in mind is that I would study information transmission.

This perspective came through philosophers—Ludwig Wittgenstein and Thomas Kuhn. How do people come to accept what is true? In ordinary life it is a matter of social agreement, and so when I wandered into science labs, that question guided me.

Interviewer: What did you learn?

COLLINS: I was lucky because it happened that nobody could make the laser work if they hadn’t spent time in a laboratory that already had a working laser. There was very good information in the journals about how to build such a laser. But anybody who tried to put one together using written articles failed. They had something that looked like a laser on their bench, but it wouldn’t lase.

What people didn’t understand was that the inductance of the leads was important. If you’d been to somebody else’s lab, you would build a complicated metal framework to hold a big capacitor close to the top electrode. But if you were working from just a circuit diagram, you naturally put this big heavy thing on the bench, and the lead from the capacitor to the top electrode would be too long and have too high an inductance for the laser to work. That is the kind of thing that is involved in the transfer of tacit knowledge.

At some stage (I forget when or where) Harry proposed an insightful metaphor for the process of knowledge exchange which I’ve used ever since in supervising students. In formal knowledge-engineering exercises in the 1980s, researchers would interview experts to try to extract the rules or heuristics that they employed in their work — and then try to express those in computerised ’expert systems’ which would supposedly work, but often didn’t. Harry’s metaphor was that such interviewing methods are like straining dumpling soup through a colander: you get the dumplings, but you lose the soup. And it’s the soup you really need, because it’s the tacit knowledge.

Books, etc.

Eric Schliesser has written two critical pieces on Crooked Timber about William MacAskill’s book, What We Owe the Future, of which this is the second. What struck me after I’d read it was a comment by ‘Alex SL’ under the second essay:

The most interesting observation to me is the final one: “At present, society is still malleable and can be blown into many shapes [but]… at some point … it might set”.

This highly implausible statement must be motivated reasoning, because, if we think about it, for their ideology to make any sense, longtermists have to believe that the future is malleable now but will soon become set into a straight path. If one were to acknowledge that the distant future was still equally malleable by actors in a hundred years, or by actors in five hundred years, or by actors in one thousand years, with the possibility of contemporary achievements being reversed by some of those later actors, then one would immediately realise to what hilarious degree individual contemporary “moral entrepreneurs” or EA billionaires or philosophers overestimate their own ability to forecast and their own impact on the imagined shape of imaginary events happening millions of years from now. And also, in their arrogance, overestimate their influence compared to that of billions of others, who they effectively visualise and treat as non-player-characters, a form of dehumanising others.

And the insight that future actors still have the same freedom to shape their world as we do today might reduce the likelihood of a longtermist being considered a very important person right now or of somebody donating to MIRI [Machine Intelligence Research Institute] and similar undertakings, which is what matters to longtermists in practice. I am not even saying this in the sense of it all being a fraud (although I find it very, very difficult to believe that the likes of MacAskill and Bostrom can actually, really believe the stuff they argue for publicly, given that they are by all accounts smart people), but in the sense that in their own logic they need to gain such influence and funding to shape the future for what they see as the better. This is not the case for philosophies centred on becoming a better person oneself, for example.

Spot on.

My commonplace booklet

“Ladies in shorts
And gentlemen with naked torsos
Are invited to forbid themselves
To enter the Church”

Church Notice, French Pyrenees.

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