Keynesian Spirits

Category Archive

The following is a list of all entries from the Uncategorized category.

Chomsky on Artificial Intelligence

Noam Chomsky on Artificial Intelligence: it’s interesting that like Douglas Hofstadter, who’s nearly been forgotten and shunted aside in the academia, he disagrees with the current data-heavy approach. In addition, there are very interesting parallels with economics as we debate the utility of Randomised Controlled Trials.


Chomsky: I have to say, myself, that I was very skeptical about the original work [in AI]. I thought it was first of all way too optimistic, it was assuming you could achieve things that required real understanding of systems that were barely understood, and you just can’t get to that understanding by throwing a complicated machine at it. If you try to do that you are led to a conception of success, which is self-reinforcing, because you do get success in terms of this conception, but it’s very different from what’s done in the sciences. So for example, take an extreme case, suppose that somebody says he wants to eliminate the physics department and do it the right way. The “right” way is to take endless numbers of videotapes of what’s happening outside the video, and feed them into the biggest and fastest computer, gigabytes of data, and do complex statistical analysis — you know, Bayesian this and that [Editor’s note: A modern approach to analysis of data which makes heavy use of probability theory.] — and you’ll get some kind of prediction about what’s gonna happen outside the window next. In fact, you get a much better prediction than the physics department will ever give. Well, if success is defined as getting a fair approximation to a mass of chaotic unanalyzed data, then it’s way better to do it this way than to do it the way the physicists do, you know, no thought experiments about frictionless planes and so on and so forth. But you won’t get the kind of understanding that the sciences have always been aimed at — what you’ll get at is an approximation to what’s happening.

And that’s done all over the place. Suppose you want to predict tomorrow’s weather. One way to do it is okay I’ll get my statistical priors, if you like, there’s a high probability that tomorrow’s weather here will be the same as it was yesterday in Cleveland, so I’ll stick that in, and where the sun is will have some effect, so I’ll stick that in, and you get a bunch of assumptions like that, you run the experiment, you look at it over and over again, you correct it by Bayesian methods, you get better priors. You get a pretty good approximation of what tomorrow’s weather is going to be. That’s not what meteorologists do — they want to understand how it’s working. And these are just two different concepts of what success means, of what achievement is. In my own field, language fields, it’s all over the place. Like computational cognitive science applied to language, the concept of success that’s used is virtually always this. So if you get more and more data, and better and better statistics, you can get a better and better approximation to some immense corpus of text, like everything in The Wall Street Journal archives — but you learn nothing about the language.

A very different approach, which I think is the right approach, is to try to see if you can understand what the fundamental principles are that deal with the core properties, and recognize that in the actual usage, there’s going to be a thousand other variables intervening — kind of like what’s happening outside the window, and you’ll sort of tack those on later on if you want better approximations, that’s a different approach. These are just two different concepts of science. The second one is what science has been since Galileo, that’s modern science. The approximating unanalyzed data kind is sort of a new approach, not totally, there’s things like it in the past. It’s basically a new approach that has been accelerated by the existence of massive memories, very rapid processing, which enables you to do things like this that you couldn’t have done by hand. But I think, myself, that it is leading subjects like computational cognitive science into a direction of maybe some practical applicability…

Q: engineering?

Chomsky: …But away from understanding. Yeah, maybe some effective engineering. And it’s kind of interesting to see what happened to engineering. So like when I got to MIT, it was 1950s, this was an engineering school. There was a very good math department, physics department, but they were service departments. They were teaching the engineers tricks they could use. The electrical engineering department, you learned how to build a circuit. Well if you went to MIT in the 1960s, or now, it’s completely different. No matter what engineering field you’re in, you learn the same basic science and mathematics. And then maybe you learn a little bit about how to apply it. But that’s a very different approach. And it resulted maybe from the fact that really for the first time in history, the basic sciences, like physics, had something really to tell engineers. And besides, technologies began to change very fast, so not very much point in learning the technologies of today if it’s going to be different 10 years from now. So you have to learn the fundamental science that’s going to be applicable to whatever comes along next. And the same thing pretty much happened in medicine. So in the past century, again for the first time, biology had something serious to tell to the practice of medicine, so you had to understand biology if you want to be a doctor, and technologies again will change. Well, I think that’s the kind of transition from something like an art, that you learn how to practice — an analog would be trying to match some data that you don’t understand, in some fashion, maybe building something that will work — to science, what happened in the modern period, roughly Galilean science.

Camus and Resistance

From Claire Messud’s review of Camus’ recently translated (by Arthur Goldhammer, who also translated Piketty’s Capital) Algerian Chronicles:

Camus to the French: “we must refuse to justify these methods [reprisals and torture against Algerian resistance and its supporters] on any grounds whatsoever, including effectiveness. Once one begins to justify them, even indirectly, no rules or values remain.”

Camus to the FLN, the movement for Algerian independence: “No matter what cause one defends, it will suffer permanent disgrace if one resorts to blind attacks on crowds of innocent people.”

If criticism is to be effective, he continues, “both camps must be condemned.”

Camus on the armchair intellectuals who endorse terrorist violence from afar: “Each side thus justifies its own actions by pointing to the crimes of its adversaries. This is a casuistry of blood with which intellectuals should, I think, have nothing to do, unless they are prepared to take up arms themselves.”

Camus, in a letter to Kessous on Algerian resistance: “Bloodshed may sometimes lead to progress, but more often it brings only greater barbarity and misery[…] I will be told, as you will be told, that the time for compromise is over and that the goal now must be to wage war and win. But you and I both know that there will be no real winners in this war…”

How much wealth do you need to live comfortably?

“In a survey of wealthy people (in 2005), those with net worth of over $1 million said that they needed $2.4 million to live comfortably, those with at least $5 million in net worth said that they needed $10.4 million, and those with at least $10 million wanted $18.1 million.”

Apparently, you can never have enough…

HT to Professor Perloff.

In Silicon Valley, Millionaires Who Don’t Feel Rich

Why Do Sandwiches Taste Better When Someone Else Makes Them?

This fascinating insight from Daniel Kahneman has seemingly solved one of the mysteries, relating to meals in general, of my stay (without my family) in Tilburg. However unappealing it may be, it nevertheless remains possible that I simply cooked much worse than others…


“When you make your own sandwich, you anticipate its taste as you’re working on it. And when you think of a particular food for a while, you become less hungry for it later. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, for example, found that imagining eating M&Ms makes you eat fewer of them. It’s a kind of specific satiation, just as most people find room for dessert when they couldn’t have another bite of their steak. The sandwich that another person prepares is not “preconsumed” in the same way.”

Did Blair Seek Murdoch’s Blessing for Iraq War?

How important was the support of the Times and the Sun for Blair in finally deciding to attack Iraq? See below a troubling, though not entirely conclusive, insight from a Guardian story:

Throughout his years in power, Blair had regular secret meetings with Murdoch, many abroad, and was in regular telephone contact. [Lance] Price [‘a journalist and ex-spin doctor who worked at No 10 as Campbell’s deputy’] has gone as far as to claim that Murdoch “seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet”.

Blair insisted no record was ever kept of the meetings or calls, so they were totally deniable. Cherie Blair has said that her husband’s decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003 was a “close call”. So it was – and there is evidence that the final decision was taken only after Murdoch’s encouragement was received and his blessing given. Blair talked to the media tycoon three times on the telephone in the 10 days before the US-led invasion. Details obtained under freedom of information show Blair called Murdoch on 11 March, 13 March and 19 March 2003. British and US troops began the invasion on 20 March, with the Times and Sun voicing total support.

Politicians and the best way to cook lobster

The Conservative throws the animal, live, into a pot of a boiling water.

The Marxist smashes it over the head with a hammer, then puts it in the boiling water.

The Liberal puts the lobster into a pot of cold water, then slowly heats it up.

The Thirst for Blood – Russia in Afghanistan

A chilling excerpt from Tariq Ali’s review of ‘A Long Goodbye: The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan’ by Artemy Kalinovsky and ‘Afgantsy: The Russians in Afghanistan 1979-89’ by Rodric Braithwaite:

One Russian veteran of the Afghan war wrote:

“The thirst for blood … is a terrible desire. It is so strong that you cannot resist it. I saw for myself how the battalion opened a hail of fire on a group that was descending towards our column. And they were our soldiers, a detachment from the reconnaissance company who had been guarding us on the flank. They were only 200 metres away and we were 90 per cent sure they were our people. And nevertheless – the thirst for blood, the desire to kill at all costs. Dozens of times I saw with my own eyes how the new recruits would shout and cry with joy after killing their first Afghan, pointing in the direction of the dead man, clapping one another on the back, and firing off a whole magazine into the corpse ‘just to make sure’ … Not everyone can master this feeling, this instinct, and stifle the monster in his soul.”

What is the difference between Democrats & Republicans?

From Paul Krugman:

There was an old Washingtoon, probably from the mid-1980s, in which Democrats meet to plan their new centrist strategy — which consists of tax cuts for the rich, reduced spending on the needy, and big defense budgets. “But how is this different from the Republicans?” asks one member of the group. “Compassion,” replies the leader. “We care about the victims of our policies.”

Wikileaks Repression Update

After American pressure led Amazon to take the Wikileaks website offline, some further developments…

1/ The French government channels the USA in demanding website’s host to take the site off

2/ Sweden issues a fresh arrest warrant for Assange

3/ Paypal freezes Wikileaks’ account

4/ US company withdraws site’s domain name

5/ Wikileaks’ Swedish host dismisses pressure to take site offline

Wikileaks Releases Secret US Diplomatic Files

Julian Assange and his team have released yet more explosive stuff, mostly about US ‘activities’, some of which seem to be patently illegal. Here are some pickings from the initial reports by the Guardian, NYT and Der Spiegel.

Embassies Part of Espionage Network: US ordered embassies to spy on local politicians and businessmen including allies. Information obtained not just through meetings but included personal details such as frequent flyer numbers, credit card details, iris scans, DNA material and fingerprints.

Iran Attack: Arab leaders from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan strongly pushed the US to attack Iran. Egypt and UAE called Iran an “evil” and “an existential threat”.

US Spies On UN: US officials instructed to spy on UN leadership including the Secretary General. Directive requested specification of telecoms and IT systems used by top officials and their staff and details of “private VIP networks used for official communication, to include upgrades, security measures, passwords, personal encryption keys”.

Intelligence on UK MPs: US requested UK government for intelligence on specific MPs.

Pakistanis Nukes: US wanted to remove highly enriched uranium from a Pakistani research reactor but the military declined to let the American technical experts in.

– ‘Evaluation’ of World Leaders: Putin was called an “alpha-dog”, Hamid Karzai was “driven by paranoia”, Angela Merkel allegedly “avoids risk and is rarely creative” and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was compared to Adolf Hitler.

You can get much more at the Guardian, NYT and Der Spiegel.


Some useful links

NewYorker’s profile of Julian Assange

Julian Assange explains why the world needs Wikileaks at TED