Evidence-based policy: why is progress so slow and what can be done about it

Here’s a presentation I gave at the anniversary of Australian Policy Online which has been cunningly rebranded under its old acronym as Analysis and Policy Observatory.  I gave a similar one at Kings College London a few weeks previously. Note that some of the slides may seem a little odd. That’s because I typically ‘build’ some of the slides to illustrate a train of reasoning. But I expect you’ll get the hang of it! If you like, you can download the slides from this link and build them while you watch. Some of the ideas presented are set out a two part essay here and here, further explicated here with some further thoughts here.  

Posted in Bullshit, Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory, regulation | 10 Comments

More fully human

Well there’s been a frisson of excitement in the chess and AI world lately with the extraordinary performance of AlphaZero – essentially the computer that mastered the game Go – a game which proved, despite the relative simplicity of its rules, a much harder nut to crack than chess.

In any event last week a tweaked version of the computer that succeeded in Go was taught the rules of chess but then, without any further instruction, trained itself for four hours by playing games with itself. Then over 100 games, AlphaZero beat one of the best chess engines in the world – Stockfish – winning 25 games as white, 3 as black, and drawing the remaining 72.

Whereas the existing engines employ a mix of techniques with humans training them in various position evaluation techniques and brute computing power being used to search vast move trees, AlphaZero puts its effort into training itself to use better algorithms. Once trained, like a human, the algorithms it’s devised economise on the computing power needed to play.

Though one of the emerging stylised facts of AI is that good collaboration between humans and computers beats computers on their own, at least here the humans set the program up and it then does all the rest. Still it’s still a collaboration and the nice thing is that, this new form of collaboration produces more ‘human like’ chess and more entertaining chess also.

Thus, although it seems odd to say it’s more human given that AlphaZero takes chess even further from the capabilities of humans on their own, it has been the case for some time that, despite their sophistication, chess engines typically play a dull, excessively ‘technical’ kind of game in which long range strategic or ‘position’ considerations are downplayed to raw technique as they gnaw away at some small weakness of their opponents and sometimes grind them down (computers can be trained not to mix metaphors I expect but I’m not a computer. Anyway gnawing is a kind of grinding).

AlphaZero plays like a human in the sense that it’s got much more ‘positional’ savvy. It will give up material for an advantage that looks pretty speculative. One thing that separates a good from a bad player is that a good player can take an initiative and build on it. But if you aren’t technically good (like for instance me!), some inaccuracy in your followthrough will enable your opponent to stabilise the situation and you’re then just down material and you lose. Even amongst very good players, the sacrifice of more than a pawn for long-term position advantage is a rare and fine thing to watch.

Looking at AlphaZero’s games the computer can gain a small edge and, by virtue of its extreme accuracy it doesn’t give it away. In most of the games where I’ve seen it win, it usually gives up a pawn or two and then twenty moves later – even though Stockfish has thought it’s position was cramped but pretty good – the opponent discovers that it’s being completely asphyxiated.

In the game below, one of the best, AlphaZero sacrifices pawns and a piece with no clear pathway to winning. But of course there is a clear pathway to winning. It’s just takes a long time to see it. And judging from what we know of AlphaZero’s programming and it’s much lower exploitation of computer power to calculate specific variations, this monster has positional understanding that passeth all human understanding. As Magnus Carlsen’s second said when looking at these games. I’ve often wondered what it would be like if a superior species came to earth and started playing chess. Now he knows.


Posted in Chess, IT and Internet | 1 Comment

Affected speech impediments: is this a uniquely English phenomenon?

Last night, having read a fantastic essay (pdf) by the great historian of revolutionary and pre-revolutionary America Bernard Bailyn, I made my way to the lecture series in honour of Isaiah Berlin where there were plenty more interesting lectures. In any event I’ve known of J.G.A Pocock since I studied early modern European and British History so I bookmarked his lecture to listen to as I went to sleep. He’s a very thoughtful fellow, but until then I had thought that the extraordinary speech impediment that Antoine has in the wonderful TV series of Brideshead Revisited from 1981 was rather amplified for dramatic effect.

But no. That speech impediment really does exist in the wild – at least for as long as JGA Pocock remains in the wild. Which leads me to my question. This is a quite obviously affected speech impediment, and a particularly ridiculous one. I found this one so intrusive and so irritating in the Pocock lecture I couldn’t bear the dissonance it produced listening to it and stopped listening. Fortunately the lecture is also recorded in print if I need to find out what’s in it.

A more common affected speech impediment is the one in which “r”s are pronounced as “w”s as is the case with Fwank Muir on the old BBC program My Word and Dave Edmunds who is co-pwesenter on Philosophy Bites. Anyway the thing is that these speech impediments don’t turn up in other versions of English. They don’t turn up in Australian, Irish, Scottish, American or New Zealand English – at least to my knowledge.

Is this right or am I missing something? Are there any learned speech impediments in Australian or other Englishs? And are there other affected speech impediments in English English? And what FFS is going on?

Posted in Blegs, Cultural Critique | 9 Comments

Could more “plebisurveys” restore public confidence in Australian democracy?

The extraordinary outpouring of national happiness following the passage of the same sex marriage legislation on Thursday unavoidably gives rise to the question of whether some similar community consultation/plebiscite/survey mechanism (perhaps a well-designed and secure online survey mechanism rather than an unwieldy and expensive postal survey) might be an effective way to restore falling public confidence in Australia’s liberal democratic political system. For Labor, the Greens and most of the YES/LGBTQIA community, the immediate answer seems to be a resounding NO.

Part of the reason for that is that some vulnerable members of the LGBTQIA suffered hurt, abuse and even depression as a result of some of the more grossly hurtful and false claims of the NO campaign. They argue rightly that Parliament itself had the power to enact SSM legislation. It could and should, they say, have exercised that legislative power without any formal process of public consultation as occurs with most other legislative reform. This is a matter of fundamental human rights, they argue, and it is wrong and offensive for other community members to be entitled to vote on whether the rights that everyone else already enjoys should be granted to LGBTQIA people.

However, there are several problems with those arguments.

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Posted in Economics and public policy, Political theory, Politics - national | 15 Comments

Is the end of Brexit nigh?

The EU and the UK government have just agreed to muddle on in their negotiations. Nothing is truly decided until everything is decided, but they have adopted a position document (see here) that details what they want the next steps to look like and what they will do in case of disagreement.

There is a lot of fudge in the document so as to hide the true nature of the agreement. For instance, to keep the headline figure of the financial settlement down, the parties have agreed that there is “continued participation of the UK in the program of the current Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) until their closure” which means commitments are dragged across any Brexit date.

The key bit that to me signals the possible end to the whole Brexit project are two crucial passages about Northern Ireland:

49. The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.
50. In the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, unless, consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland. In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.


Now, please do correct me if you think I am misreading this, but this sounds as if the default position in the further negotiations is ‘No Brexit’: if there is no final agreement, then there will be no Brexit for Northern Ireland, and no Brexit between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom either. This default position requires that in the future too, Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the rules in the rest of Ireland, ie the rules of the EU. North-South cooperation is in many spheres, so we’re talking here about immigration, finance, trade, standards, the lot.

There is some fudge in how to interpret these paragraphs. You might think that the ‘unfetterred access for … business’ qualification allows migration barriers but this is both not a workable distinction (if any truck can drive straight through as before, everything in that truck also drives through), nor would it preclude Northern Ireland to become the EU gateway to Britain, ie the place where those wanting to work in the rest of the UK come first. Also, ‘no new regulatory barriers’ is a very broad phrase that seem to rule out identity checks and tariffs.

I basically see the whole document as a total victory for the EU negotiators. They could not have asked for more: the UK accepts the supremacy of the European Court of Justice when it comes to the rights of EU citizens in the UK at the date of Brexit (afterwards new rules have to be mutually agreed); the financial settlement seems completely written by Brussels with minimal fig-leaves for the UK; and the Northern-Ireland paragraph contains the seeds of the end of Brexit.

Phase two in the Brexit negotiations is going to be easy for the EU now that the default is an absence of Brexit. The UK will have to come up with a proposal that is acceptable to all EU members and that keeps the Northern Ireland partners happy too. “Good luck with that”, one then thinks! The odds of ‘No Brexit after all’ have risen. Those who want a hard Brexit have a new barrier in front of them.




Posted in bubble, Democracy, Economics and public policy, History, Political theory, Politics - international, Society | 12 Comments

Advance Australia Fair: ignore the other national histories on offer.

National history is the story that binds ‘us who make up the nation’ into a single entity with a collective memory. It has a purpose and as such we can choose what historical events and realities to put into that story, whilst forgetting the rest. Of the four main current contenders for our national history, I think we should pick ‘Advance Australia Fair’ as the only truly useful one.

In nearly all Western countries, national history binds those who live somewhere with a story of what those who previously lived there were up to, even when the ancestors came from lots of other places. This is particularly true of Australians, some 30% of whom were not born in Australia and some 70% of whom will have one or more grandparents who were not born in Australia. But it also holds for the history of Great Britain, the USA, France, and even Germany: their national histories are not the histories of the ancestors of those who are now British, American, French, or German.

It is crucial for national historians to realise that it is irrelevant whether national history is accurate or balanced. A national history unites those who live in a place into harmony and productivity. We are free to accentuate whatever aspect of the past we need for the purposes of binding the current population in a fruitful story; free to ignore and forget the rest. It is said that winners write history. So let us be winners and choose wisely.

When it comes to the history of Australia, one can currently choose four stories with some historical truth to them. Continue reading

Posted in Cultural Critique, Death and taxes, Democracy, Ethics, Geeky Musings, History, Humour, Indigenous, Life, Politics - national, Race and indigenous, Social, Society | 35 Comments

Latino Film Festival 2017

Top Picks

You’re Killing Me Susana tells the story of Eligio, a man who wakes up one day to find out that his wife Susana has left him without warning. What follows is Eligio’s earnest quest to win his wife back by following her into the United States where he must navigate cross-cultural differences and come to terms with his own chauvinistic masculinity. While Eligio is certainly presented as a caricature of macho insufferability, his wife Susana is not much better – both are equally self-obsessed to the point of interpersonal destruction.
☆☆☆☆☆ IMDB
☆☆☆☆☆ Spectrum Culture
☆☆☆☆ True View Reviews

Eight directors band together to make this omnibus feature Tales of Mexico – a portfolio of Mexican history and its inevitable repetition. Spanning from before the Mexican Revolution to the present day, it depicts key historical events through its portrayal of various families who lived in one particular house over many decades. A diversity of people/residents of the house appear in each of the eight episodic bites encapsulating violence, classism, persecution and nostalgia as a set of shifting paradigms. The hopes, dreams and ideals of these various tenants give birth to a filmic metaphor for Mexico’s transformation. It all comes fully contained and fully expressed within a singular, domestic space.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Partially inspired true events, Woodpeckers is an impossible, intriguing and energetic love story centred on two inmates who communicate with sign language between their respective male and female prisons. Julián is a petty thief who finds himself in the overcrowded Najayo men’s prison after being caught stealing a motorcycle. As he adjusts to his new surroundings, he learns to manipulate the prison system to his own advantage. Against the odds, Julián enters into an unlikely romance with Yanelly, who is herself confined to the Najayo women’s prison next door. In order to communicate, they must learn an elaborate form of sign language, known as woodpecking, right under the noses of the prison guards.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Two elderly spouses, Candelaria and Victor Hugo, live out their days during a period of strict trade embargo in the ‘90s, and have reached the point where they share the bed only for sleeping. She works tirelessly in a hotel laundry, cleaning blankets that are sent through ducts, and the couple’s only passion is a quintuplet of chickens they keep in the house and fawn over as though they were their own children.
Things continue smoothly enough, until the discovery of an illegally smuggled camera turns their lives upside-down. When Victor begins to film his wife, it turns into a sexual game that unwittingly reignites his passion for her. Excited by this revelation, they slowly shift their marriage into the fictional space of the camera lens, blurring the line between what is real and what is make-believe to tell a story rarely told.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

Violence is ever-present in the Ecuadorian city of Guayaquil, a product of the anger of those with no voice. Emilio was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and recently inherited a plot of land inhabited by a community of families. In order to force their eviction, he hires an agent to help – the same double-crosser who has been collecting money from the squatters in order to supposedly improve their living standards.
The squatters are not willing to let go of the land – which is all they possess in this world – without putting up a fight. Their leader is willing to negotiate but talks are guaranteed to be tense on either side. Meanwhile, Emilio is caught up in his own dramas over a stray bullet that accidentally killed a person. What results is a disconcerting depiction of what can result from fiscal inequality.
☆☆☆☆ IMDB

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