Politics

Irish border, WTO rules, Brexit

Disclaimer: I’m neither a lawyer nor involved in international trade, this is based on what I assume to be a massively over-simplified understanding of world trade rules.

The UK wants to leave the EU customs union. They are allowed to do this.

Leaving the EU customs union necessarily means that any goods crossing from the UK into the EU customs union will need to pass through customs checks. To stop this, the UK and the EU would have to agree (some sort of) trade deal — the UK does not have the power or the right to prevent this alone.

The UK has an agreement with the Republic of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement, which reportedly means neither party is allowed to install customs checks on the border (does it? I’ve seen people claim that but I’ve not seen details). The terms of the Good Friday Agreement do not make it illegal for the UK to leave the EU customs union regardless, as there are ways to meet both requirements:

  1. The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU.
  2. The border between the EU customs union can be somewhere other than the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border:
    1. The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU.
    2. Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK.
    3. Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves.
    4. There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland.

All of these have problems, the question is which problems you’re willing to deal with.

The UK could blindly accept all goods from the EU

World Trade Organisation rules say that (outside of free trade agreements), all trade must be on the same terms as the most favoured nation: if you drop tariffs for one nation, you must drop them for all; if you accept goods from one nation without checking them, you must do so for all; etc.

If the UK accepts all goods from the EU without checking them, then the UK is obliged to also accept all goods from everyone else, also without checking them.

This does not oblige the EU to accept goods coming from the UK, but would allow the UK to be following all the rules.

The Republic of Ireland could leave the EU

The Republic of Ireland has no desire to do this. (It might happen).

Northern Ireland can become independent from the UK / Northern Ireland can remain within the EU customs union even after the rest of the UK leaves

The UK government will probably fall if this happens. (It might happen).

There could be a new internal border within Northern Ireland

I don’t know enough about the politics of Northern Ireland to be sure, but isn’t this sort of thinking exactly what caused all the fireworks between India and Pakistan, between and inside seemingly half of the nations in Africa, the reason the Berlin Wall was a symbol of the Cold War, and one of the main reasons Northern Ireland didn’t immediately become peaceful the moment the Republic of Ireland became independent from the UK?


Obviously, the only acceptable course from the perspective of the UK government is to try to force the Republic of Ireland to leave the EU. Fortunately for the Republic of Ireland, the UK government is wildly incompetent.


Oh, one more problem:

The Good Friday Agreement wasn’t just with the Republic of Ireland, it also involved the total disarming of all paramilitary groups. The paramilitary groups reportedly dragged their feet with that disarming, so even if the governments agree, there may be an undesirable fan-feces interaction.

Advice? I suppose you could invest in armoured reinforcement manufacturers, but this isn’t going to be fun for anyone.

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Science, Technology

You won’t believe how fast transistors are

A transistor in a CPU is smaller and faster than a synapse in one of your brain’s neurons by about the same ratio that a wolf is smaller and faster than a hill.

Smaller.

And.

Faster.

CPU: 11nm transistors, 30GHz transition rate (transistors flip significantly faster than overall clock speed)

Neurons: 1µm synapses, 200Hz pulse rate

Wolves: 1.6m long, average range 25 km/day

Hills: 145m tall (widely variable, of course), continental drift 2 cm/year

1µm/11nm ≅ 1.6m/145m
200Hz/30GHz ≅ (Continental drift 2 cm/year) / (Average range 25 km/day)

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Futurology, Technology, Software

Hyperinflation in the attention economy: what succeeds adverts?

Adverts.

Lots of people block them because they’re really really annoying. (Also a major security risk that slows down your browsing experience, but I doubt that’s the main reason.)

Because adverts are executable (who thought that was a good idea?), they also get used for cryptocurrency mining. Really inefficient cryptocurrency mining, but still.

Because they cost money, there is a financial incentive to systematically defraud advertisers by showing lots of real, paid-for, adverts to lots of fake users. (See also: adverts are executable. Can one advert download ten more? Even sneakily in the background will do, the user doesn’t need to see them.)

Because of the faked consumption (amongst other reasons), advertisers don’t get good value for money, lowering demand; because of lowered demand, websites get less money than they would under an efficient system; because of something which seems analogous to hyperinflation (but affecting the supply of spaces in which to advertise rather than the supply of money), websites are crowded with adverts; because of the excess of adverts, lots of people block them.

What if there was a better way?

Cut out the middle man, explicitly fund your website with your own cryptocurrency mining? Users see no adverts, don’t have their attention syphoned away.

Challenge: the problem I’m calling hyperinflation of attention (probably inaccurately, but it’s a good metaphor) would still apply with cryptocurrency mining resource supply. This is already a separate problem with cryptocurrency mining — way too many people are spending way too many resources on something which is only counting and storing value but without fundamentally adding value to the system.

Potential solution: a better cryptocurrency, one which actually does something useful. Useful work such as SETI@home or folding@home — if it must be a currency, then perhaps one where each unit of useful work gets exchanged for a token which can be traded or redeemed with the organisation which produced it, in much the same way that banknotes could, for a long time, be taken to a central bank and exchanged for gold. And the token could be redeemed for whatever is economically useful — a user may perform 1e9 operations now in exchange for a token which would given them 2e9 floating point operations in five years (by which time floating point operations should be 10 times cheaper); or the user decodes two human genomes now in exchange for a token to decode one of their choice later; or whatever.

A separate, but solvable, issue is that the only things I can think of which are processing-power-limited right now are research (climate forecasts, particle physics, brain simulation, simulated drug testing, AI), or used directly by the consumer (video game graphics), or are a colossal waste of resources (bitcoin, spam) — I’ll freely admit this list may be just down to ignorance on my part — so far as I can see, the only one of those which pairs website visitors with actual income would be the video games… but even then it would be utter insanity for the paid customers to have their image rendering offloaded onto the non-payers. The clear solution to this is the same sort of mechanism that currently “solves” advertising: automated auction by those who want to buy your CPU time and websites that want to sell access to your CPU time.

Downside: this will kill you batteries if you don’t disable JavaScript.

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Science

If I’m right about this, it’s luck, not skill.

Number #37 in the ongoing series of “questions that I can’t even articulate correctly without a PhD, and if I Google it I’ll just get a bunch of amateurs who’ve mistaken themselves for Einstein”:

What if the apparent factor of 10¹²⁰ difference between the theoretical energy density of zero-point energy and the observed value of the cosmological constant is because that energy has gone into curving the 6-or-7 extra dimensions of string theory so tightly those extra dimensions can’t be observed?

Testable (hah!) consequence: the Calabi–Yau manifolds of string theory would be larger (less tightly curved) inside Casimir cavities.

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Futurology, Technology

Musk City, Antarctica

One of the criticisms of a Mars colony is that Antarctica is more hospitable in literally every regard (you might argue that the 6-month day and the 6-month night makes it less hospitable, to which I would reply that light bulbs exist and you’d need light bulbs all year round on Mars to avoid SAD-like symptoms).

I’ve just realised the 2017 BFR will be able to get you anywhere in Antarctica, from any launch site on Earth, in no more than 45 minutes, at the cost of long-distance economy passenger flights, and that the Mars plan involves making fuel and oxidiser out of atmospheric CO₂ and frozen water ice so no infrastructure needs to be shipped conventionally before the first landing.

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Futurology, AI

The end of human labour is inevitable, here’s why

OK. So, you might look at state-of-the-art A.I. and say “oh, this uses too much power compared to a human brain” or “this takes too many examples compared to a human brain”.

So far, correct.

But there are 7.6 billion humans: if an A.I. watches all of them all of the time (easy to imagine given around 2 billion of us already have two or three competing A.I. in our pockets all the time, forever listening for an activation keyword), then there is an enormous set of examples with which to train the machine mind.

“But,” you ask, “what about the power consumption?”

Humans cost a bare minimum of $1.25 per day, even if they’re literally slaves and you only pay for food and (minimal) shelter. Solar power can be as cheap as 2.99¢/kWh.

Combined, that means that any A.I. which uses less than 1.742 kilowatts per human-equivalent-part is beating the cheapest possible human — By way of comparison, Google’s first generation Tensor processing unit uses 40 W when busy — in the domain of Go, it’s about 174,969 times as cost efficient as a minimum-cost human, because four of them working together as one can teach itself to play Go better than the best human in… three days.

And don’t forget that it’s reasonable for A.I. to have as many human-equivalent-parts as there are humans performing whichever skill is being fully automated.

Skill. Not sector, not factory, skill.

And when one skill is automated away, when the people who performed that skill go off to retrain on something else, no matter where they are or what they do, there will be an A.I. watching them and learning with them.

Is there a way out?

Sure. All you have to do is make sure you learn a skill nobody else is learning.

Unfortunately, there is a reason why “thinking outside the box” is such a business cliché: humans suck at that style of thinking, even when we know what it is and why it’s important. We’re too social, we copy each other and create by remixing more than by genuinely innovating, even when we think we have something new.

Computers are, ironically, better than humans at thinking outside the box: two of the issues in Concrete Problems in AI Safety are there because machines easily stray outside the boxes we are thinking within when we give them orders. (I suspect that one of the things which forces A.I. to need far more examples to learn things than we humans do is that they have zero preconceived notions, and therefore must be equally open-minded to all possibilities).

Worse, no matter how creative you are, if other humans see you performing a skill that machines have yet to master, those humans will copy you… and then the machines, even today’s machines, will rapidly learn from all the enthusiastic humans who are so gleeful about their new trick to stay one step ahead of the machines, the new skill they can point to and say “look, humans are special, computers can’t do this” right up until the computers do it.

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Software

I’m updating my six-year-old Runestone code. Objective-C has changed, Cocos2d has effectively been replaced with SpriteKit, and my understanding of the language has improved massively. Net result? It’s embarrassing.

Once this thing is running as it should, I may rewrite from scratch just to see how bad a project has to be for rewrites to be worth it.

Aside