(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘unintended consequences

“Iteration, like friction, is likely to generate heat instead of progress”*…

A word of caution from the wondrous Randall Munroe (@xkcd): “Rotatation.”

* George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

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As we resist repetition, we might send perpetual birthday greetings to Jean Bernard Léon Foucault; he was born on this date in 1819.  A physicist who made an early measurement of the speed of light, discovered eddy currents, and is credited with naming the gyroscope (although he did not invent it), Foucault is best remembered for the (eponymously-named) Foucault’s Pendulum– suspended from the roof of the Panthéon in Paris– demonstrating the effects of the Earth’s rotation.  Using a long pendulum with a heavy bob, he showed its plane was not static, but rotated at a rate related to Earth’s angular velocity and the latitude of the site.

In fact, essentially the same experimental approach had been used by Vincenzo Viviani as early as 1661; but it was Foucault’s work that caught the public imagination: within years of his 1851 experiment, the were “Foucault’s Pendulums” hanging– and attracting crowds–in major cities across Europe and America.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 18, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Virtue is more to be feared than vice, because its excesses are not subject to the regulation of conscience”*…

Regulation often addresses real public needs/concerns. But the costs of compliance often favor the largest players in a regulated market– which can lead to consolidation. From the Oxford Martin School, a current example…

Exploiting the timing and territorial scope of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), this paper examines how privacy regulation shaped firm performance in a large sample of companies across 61 countries and 34 industries. Controlling for firm and country-industry-year unobserved characteristics, we compare the outcomes of firms at different levels of exposure to EU markets, before and after the enforcement of the GDPR in 2018. We find that enhanced data protection had the unintended consequence of reducing the financial performance of companies targeting European consumers. Across our full sample, firms exposed to the regulation experienced a 8% decline in profits, and a 2% reduction in sales. An exception is large technology companies, which were relatively unaffected by the regulation on both performance measures. Meanwhile, we find the negative impact on profits among small technology companies to be almost double the average effect across our full sample. Following several robustness tests and placebo regressions, we conclude that the GDPR has had significant negative impacts on firm performance in general, and on small companies in particular…

Privacy Regulation and Firm Performance: Estimating the GDPR Effect Globally,” from @oxmartinschool via @benedictevans

[Image above: source]

* Adam Smith

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As we seek balance, we might recall that it was on this date in 1969 that the U.S. officially withdrew $500, $1,000, $5,000, and $10,000 bills from circulation, pursuant to an executive order by President Richard Nixon. The larger bills had been used by banks and the government for large financial transactions, but had been rendered obsolete by the electronic money transfer system.

Those large-denomination bills were last printed on December 27, 1945 and are still considered legal tender. Indeed, (a version of) the $500 is still used in the game of Monopoly.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 14, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…

 

Miami_traffic_jam2C_I-95_North_rush_hour

 

One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent

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As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.

300px-Genseric_sacking_rome_456

Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov

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June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“How about a little magic?”*…

 

sorcerers apprentice

 

Once upon a time (bear with me if you’ve heard this one), there was a company which made a significant advance in artificial intelligence. Given their incredibly sophisticated new system, they started to put it to ever-wider uses, asking it to optimize their business for everything from the lofty to the mundane.

And one day, the CEO wanted to grab a paperclip to hold some papers together, and found there weren’t any in the tray by the printer. “Alice!” he cried (for Alice was the name of his machine learning lead) “Can you tell the damned AI to make sure we don’t run out of paperclips again?”…

What could possibly go wrong?

[As you’ll read in the full and fascinating article, a great deal…]

Computer scientists tell the story of the Paperclip Maximizer as a sort of cross between the Sorcerer’s Apprentice and the Matrix; a reminder of why it’s crucially important to tell your system not just what its goals are, but how it should balance those goals against costs. It frequently comes with a warning that it’s easy to forget a cost somewhere, and so you should always check your models carefully to make sure they aren’t accidentally turning in to Paperclip Maximizers…

But this parable is not just about computer science. Replace the paper clips in the story above with money, and you will see the rise of finance…

Yonatan Zunger tells a powerful story that’s not (only) about AI: “The Parable of the Paperclip Maximizer.”

* Mickey Mouse, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

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As we’re careful what we wish for (and how we wish for it), we might recall that it was on this date in 1631 that the Puritans in the recently-chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony issued a General Court Ordinance that banned gambling: “whatsoever that have cards, dice or tables in their houses, shall make away with them before the next court under pain of punishment.”

Mass gambling source

 

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March 22, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years”*…

 

Much has been said about the ways we expect our oncoming fleet of driverless cars to change the way we live—remaking us all into passengers, rewiring our economy, retooling our views of ownership, and reshaping our cities and roads.

They will also change the way we die. As technology takes the wheel, road deaths due to driver error will begin to diminish. It’s a transformative advancement, but one that comes with consequences in an unexpected place: organ donation…

* Richard Schickel

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As we get to the heart of the matter, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts: physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

A portrait of the artist as a 38 year old man: the image of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for the 1921 Paris edition of Ulysses. The image itself dates from 1918,

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

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