Friday, December 08, 2017


This is just a quicklink to a remarkable piece of news.

Eurelectric, the body that represents 3,500 of Europe's electric companies, has now committed to carbon-neutral generation of all of Europe's electricity by 2050 or before. They point out that this is a win-win decision, since electricity from wind and solar is rapidly becoming cheaper than electricity generated by burning fossil fuels, and of course pumps far less climate-destabilizing methane and CO2 into the atmosphere.

Wind farm in Romania, 2011
Credit: Sandri Alexandra

Given America's seemingly unbreakable, politically driven addiction to fossil fuels, the reporter's final comment is remarkably restrained:

"It is refreshing to see a regional commitment to clean electricity in Europe. Industry leaders in the US would do well to study the European approach and adjust their thinking accordingly."



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What would you think if you taught your child the rules of chess at breakfast and found that by lunchtime she had beaten the world champion? Awe? Parental pride? A bit of fear perhaps?

That's essentially what just happened at Google's DeepMind subsidiary in London. They created an ultra-powerful game-playing computer system called AlphaZero that implements a neural network capable of deep learning through reinforcement.

Unlike other chess-playing programs--which have outperformed humans since IBM's Deep Blue beat the human world champion, Gary Kasparov, in 1997--AlphaZero was not pre-programmed with any specialized knowledge or expertise about chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and allowed to learn by playing against itself.

Four hours later AlphaZero crushed the World Computer Champion, Stockfish, with 28 wins and zero losses in a 100-game tournament (the remaining games were ties).

 World Champion Gary Kasparov struggles against IBM's DeepBlue, 1997

British chess expert Colin McGurty sums up AlphaZero's achievement:

The AlphaZero algorithm developed by Google and DeepMind took just four hours of playing against itself to synthesise the chess knowledge of one and a half millennium and reach a level where it not only surpassed humans but crushed the reigning World Computer Champion Stockfish 28 wins to 0 in a 100-game match. All the brilliant stratagems and refinements that human programmers used to build chess engines have been outdone, and like Go players we can only marvel at a wholly new approach to the game.

Other chess experts describe AlphaZero's play as "divine," or "from another galaxy." 

As if one superhuman feat were not enough, the AlphaZero team used the same artificial intelligence (AI) system to tackle the games of Go and the Japanese chess game, Shogi. It took AlphaZero just two hours of play against itself to surge past Elmo, the Shogi Computer World Champion, and all of 8 hours to surpass AlphaGo (another DeepMind program), which itself dethroned the human Go champion, Ke Jie, earlier this year.

So, to summarize, in less than a day, starting as a blank slate knowing nothing more than the rules of the games, and simply by playing against itself, AlphaZero reached a superhuman level of play in three abstract games that have challenged humans for millennia. Not a bad day's work.

And just in case you're thinking that AlphaZero reached these superhuman levels simply by calculating faster than any other computer, that's far from the case.  It is blindingly fast compared to humans--for example searching 80 thousand chess positions per second, but it is tortise-slow compared to other chess-playing systems. Stockfish, which AlphaZero completely dominated, searches 70 million positions every second. The system's creators explain, "AlphaZero compensates for the lower number of evaluations by using its deep neural network to focus much more selectively on the most promising variations -- arguably a more 'human-like approach to search."

In recent years some very smart people including Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned about the threat posed by out-of-control artificial intelligence. While the superhuman learning and game-playing of AlphaZero seem benign, and ubiquitous, mostly invisible AI applications help us every day in a huge variety of areas, there are red flags raised by robo-cops and soldiers, vital infrastructure managed by AI, increasingly capable and autonomous robots that may replace most workers, and the potential for super-intelligent AI creations that may not have the interests of humans at heart. AlphaZero, for example, could equally well learn to "play" at a superhuman level at politics, finance or war.

Gates and others emphasize that we need to figure this out before such intelligences emerge because once they do, like AlphaZero, they could leave us in the dust within a few hours.

So if your child became the world champion chess player after four hours of play, wouldn't you be scared? I would.

You can read the scientific paper describing AlphaZero's accomplishments here.
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Thursday, December 07, 2017

HOW CLEVER IS A CROW? -- New Caledonian crows carefully craft hooks

In Jean de La Fontaine's fable "Le Corbeau et le Renard" (The Crow and the Fox), it's Mr. Crow who plays the fool, tricked into dropping his morsel of cheese because of flattery from crafty Mr. Fox. However, if de La Fontaine had known about some eye-opening  recent research, he might have switched their roles. Crows, it seems, are nobody's fools.

It turns out that New Caledonian Crows not only use tools, as do many of their corvid cousins, but are the only animals other than humans who spontaneously make and use hooks. Although our ancestors started crafting stone tools more than 2.5 million years ago, it wasn't until about 25 thousand years ago that humans started to make hooks--initially for fishing.

 Goin' fishin'--a New Caledonian Crow uses a hook to snag insects
Credit: James St. Claire

Our closest animal relatives, chimpanzees, also use tools, including hook-shaped twigs. However, unlike the New Caledonian Crows, which use their sharp beaks to carefully shape and trim twigs into deep hooks, chimpanzees don't modify the hook-shaped twigs they use. "We have recently discovered that chimpanzees routinely use naturally-hooked stems to fish for algae," says primate expert Christophe Boesch, "but they don't actively craft these hooks. The crows can reshape plant material with their pointed bills, which act like 'precision pliers', but this would be very difficult for chimpanzees with their large fingers."

 Chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites
Credit: Valerie

The extra skill and effort the crows put into crafting their hooks pays off in how efficient they are at snagging bugs. "We suspected that tools with pronounced hooks are more efficient, and were able to confirm this in controlled experiments with wild-caught crows," says Christian Rutz, who led this research and has been studying New Caledonian crows for ten years. "The deeper the hook, the faster birds winkled bait from holes in wooden logs."

A month or two ago I saw a plain old American crow fly up to the peak of a multi-story building, land, and then let something drop from its beak. It turned out not to be a morsel of cheese but a walnut, which rolled down the slanted roof, picked up speed as it fell, and cracked open when it hit the pavement. The crow flapped his way down and snacked on the now-available seed. At the time I thought that this Mr. Crow must have dropped his prize by accident. But now, after reading this research, I'm willing to bet it was quite deliberate. Their brains may be small by our standards, but crows, it seems, make very good use of them.


You can find a link to the research report in Current Biology here.


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Tuesday, December 05, 2017


Busy office workers who spent just 20 fewer minutes per day sitting at their desks maintained more muscle mass and were healthier at the end of a year than their less-active peers. It appears that even a little exercise can go a long way towards staying healthy.

Get up from that desk!
Credit: Phil Whitehouse/Jonund 

Researchers in Finland studied 133 office workers participated in the one-year study. One group was encouraged to set goals and develop personal strategies aimed at spending less time sitting both at work and away. At the start of the study, the participants averaged 9.4 seated hours per day, as measured by accelerometers. The men and women who had set goals initially reduced their sitting time by an average of 21 minutes per day. Even at the end of one year, they were still spending an average of 8 more minutes per day on their feet.

Yet even those few minutes a day up and moving around continued to make a difference. Blood glucose levels, cardiovascular risk and lower-body muscle mass were all better than the more sedentary participants.

Arto Pesola, the study's lead author, points out that the increased activity levels carried over to participants' homes as well, where they could benefit participants and their families. "Parents may think at first that spending time with their children is away from their own physical exercise. However, that way they can reduce sitting time and show a good example to their offspring about a physically active lifestyle. This is motivating, and as shown in the study, may be beneficial for health in the long run."

As I've detailed in several previous posts, this study adds to a growing body of research that convincingly shows multiple physical and psychological benefits from exercise.

 I don't know about you, but I'm getting up from the computer right now!


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Saturday, December 02, 2017


Forget climate change, air pollution, the environment, or any other non-economic reasons for switching to an all-electric car. Even if all you're interested in is your personal bottom line, a new study in the UK, Japan, California and Texas shows that all-electric cars are now cheaper to own and operate than gasoline, diesel or hybrids.

The study, published in the journal Applied Energy tracked the total annual cost of ownership--TCO--in four major markets from 1997 through 2015. TCO includes depreciation, tax, insurance, maintenance and the cost of fuel or electricity. The differences were significant, with all-electric cars averaging more than $1000 per year less to own and operate than diesel, and close to $2000 per year less than gasoline powered cars over the last four years.

Tesla Model S at a Supercharger Station
Credit: Jusdafex
All-electric cars typically cost more than comparable gasoline or diesel models, depending on applicable subsidies, but more than made up for the difference because of lower maintenance and energy costs.

2016 Nissan Leaf being charged
Credit: Jakob Härter

Of course this doesn't mean that everyone is going to make their next car all-electric. Although lower-cost cars like the 100-mile range Nissan Leaf will work for some drivers, and high-end models like the Tesla Model S are attractive to others, there are few options in the vast mid-range market. And many potential buyers are waiting until electric cars have more range and can be charged faster and in more locations.

However, the study's authors point out, as electric vehicle production ramps up, prices are going down, and batteries are rapidly getting better and cheaper as well. "It is a really good news story," says James Tate, a transportation specialist at the University of Leeds, in the UK, and one of the study's authors. We couldn't agree more.


You can read the Guardian story on this subject here.


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Tuesday, November 21, 2017


Sex Sells!  The Ad man’s motto since modern advertising began has never been truer or more evident than in our latest “Cultural Moment” of coming to terms with sexual misconduct itself.    

Is it just coincidental that just as the most momentous tax shift in recent history is working its way through the halls of Congress, potentially affecting the entire economy and every American’s life for decades to come, the news is dominated with story after story of sexual misconduct by powerful men?

Sex sells because of both its attractive and repulsive qualities.  But its most notable quality at present is its tremendous power to distract.  Certainly the issues raised by overly aggressive or predatory behavior need to be vigorously aired and legal or social boundaries re-defined.  But with its magnetic public appeal, sex is dangerously drawing media and national attention away from other critical issues: in particular the egregious Republican effort to shift the tax burden from corporations and the already-wealthy to nearly everyone else.  

"Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain"
The Wizard of Oz, 1939
Credit: Creative Commons

The role that mainstream media might be playing in explaining and analyzing the tax “sausage” as it’s being made in unseemly haste in private party caucuses, without open hearings, serious debate or attempts to assemble a bipartisan coalition has somehow been superseded by the demands of reporting on the latest sexual harassment scandals.  

From Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Al Franken and now Charlie Rose (with the specter of Donald Trump’s behavior looming in the background) sex has dominated both the news and the debate over national ethics and morals.  One result, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg has pointedly noted is that because of their responsiveness to issues of sexism, it “feels as if liberal institutions are devouring themselves over sex while conservatives, unburdened by the pretense of caring about gender equality, blithely continue their misrule.”

This is the climate in which a massive, detailed and highly controversial tax bill which permanently cuts corporate taxes from 35% to 20% and ends the estate tax while greatly reducing, phasing out or eliminating middle class benefits such as deductions for medical costs, state and local taxes, school loans and mortgage interest is being rushed through Congress. Not to mention the recent approval of more than a trillion dollar addition to the national debt which seems miraculously to have left deficit hawks in the GOP unfazed!

All under the guise of tax reform—surely a topic worthy of everyone’s serious attention—but now being railroaded by the demands of major donors and a Senate rules deadline.

Donald Trump’s election and presidency, for complex reasons, has clearly allowed a number of previously repressed and unresolved national issues to rise to the surface, some largely symbolic such as the removal of Confederate statues, and others such as sexism and racism  painfully real.

Yet behind the scenes, and certainly taking advantage of the fortunate distractions provided by juicy sexual scandals, Trump’s tweets about black athletes disrespecting the flag, and border walls, powerful and very determined masters of the universe are moving to alter the basic economic ground on which we all stand.  Whether by design or coincidence, the explosive “cultural moment” provided by our current obsession with sexual wrongdoing may just create the necessary conditions to allow them to prevail.

Les Adler

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


According to the Institute for Policy Studies, three men--Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett--now own more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of the US population. That's three individuals versus more than 162 million.

Bill Gates (2003) by Remy Steinegger

To get a sense of the enormity of this inequality, let's represent the average wealth of those 162 million people--a bit more than $1500 per person--by someone six feet tall. Then Bill Gates--worth $89 billion--would stand over 66,000 miles tall in comparison--towering more than one-quarter of the way to the moon! Jeff Bezos, Amazon's CEO has done well this year; on this scale he'd tower 72,000 miles. They would both dwarf "poor" Warren Buffett, who would barely top 62,000 miles.

If we total up the wealth of the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans we find that they own as much as the lower two-thirds of the American population, more than 200 million people, or 80 million households.

Most Americans don't begrudge rich people their wealth, believing rightly or wrongly that much of it was earned through talent, intelligence and hard work, and hoping that they too might someday join their ranks. However, they may be less forgiving when they realize that the ultra rich  leverage that wealth into near-total control over our political system and government. A recent study matched what many of us feel, showing that what most voters want simply doesn't count, while the demands of economic elites and well-funded special interest groups consistently win out in terms of legislation, policy and regulation.

Nor is there much reason to believe that the super rich take the needs of their poorer fellow-citizens into account as they groom candidates and influence elections, lawmakers and the executive branch of government. One can imagine that from the perspective of 72,000 miles, those 162 million people look like little more than grains of dust. Perhaps we should re-write "We the people . . ." to read "Wee the people . . ."

There are plenty of commentators, including many economists, who argue that this kind of inequality is inevitable, a necessary result of the grim laws of economics. That this is false can be seen by the fact that many countries--including well-off, highly developed nations such as Denmark, Sweden, Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands--share their wealth much more equitably than here in the US. It's clear that laws protecting workers and unions, curbing corporate abuses, and reining in financial speculation do make a difference, as do policies using tax revenues to support health, education and equal opportunity across ethnic, class and gender lines.

According to the World Economic Forum, the US ranks 23rd out of 30 developed countries in terms of "inclusive development"--a measure of how fairly income, health and opportunity are distributed. That means that 22 thriving countries do it better than we do.

Solving any problem first requires recognizing that the problem exists, then deciding that there are steps we can take to solve it. If the fact that three individuals have more wealth--and the power and influence that goes with it-- than 162 million of us doesn't set off alarm bells about our democracy, I don't know what could. Shall we wait until just one person has more wealth and power than 50 percent of us? 60 percent? 90 percent?

We may not be able to change the laws of economics, but we can change the laws, policies and practices that push millions of Americans into poverty and debt while showering more and more wealth on the already wealthy. A good start would be to defeat the current Republican tax "reform," which will further enrich the richest few at the expense of most of the rest of us, not just the poor, but also much of the middle class, seniors and students.


More on inequity at my post "Winner take all: 7 richest men own more than poorest 3.8 billion people."


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Sunday, October 22, 2017

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”

The famous Milgram Experiments carried out at Yale in the early 1960’s and verified many times since then show that under the right conditions and given the overt or covert approval of authority figures, normally sane and rational people can carry out or allow others to engage in horrifying acts of aggression and cruelty towards their fellow human beings. One need look no further than current events in Myanmar involving the Rohingya minority, recent Sunni-Shiite atrocities in Syria and Iraq, Serbian attacks on Muslims in Bosnia or the Hutu massacres of the Tutsi minority in Rwanda in the 1990’s to demonstrate the terrible destruction the right combination of conditions and leadership can provoke.

Donald Trump at a rally, May 5, 2016, Charleston, West Virginia. 

The question “Can it happen here?” is one which every American, regardless of party affiliation, political ideology or economic standing should be asking at this critical point in our national history. The alternative is to blindly assume that America is somehow exempt or immune from tides of history which have swept over so many other nations before us.

We have, for perhaps the first time, a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, ability to incite violent passions in significant portions of the population, lack of empathy towards minorities and vindictiveness toward those who stand against him significantly increase the possibility that, under the right conditions, this country as well could act out in a similarly destructive manner both at home and abroad.

The President has frequently demonstrated a willingness and even compulsion to assert his dominance by publicly humiliating and attacking members of his own Party and Administration—as well as gratuitously mocking and demeaning both his predecessors and political opponents. His seemingly boundless capacity for distorting and denying factual evidence while stirring up resentment toward vaguely-defined ‘others’, leaves little hope that he will observe any of the normally accepted rules of personal, social or political discourse or behavior.

By continually attacking the Press (“fake news”) for doing its job he has indicated either profound ignorance of or a deliberate effort to override Constitutional protections regarding freedom of speech and publication. In fact, even when his more cautious advisers have counseled restraint, he has acted as though restrictions on executive power were inconveniences to be ignored or disregarded rather than guidelines carefully designed to preserve the balance of powers necessary for democratic government.

Rather than seeking to understand and heal national or international divisions, President Trump revels in every opportunity to stir controversy and provoke passionate reactions, tweeting relentlessly about alleged ‘wars on Christmas,’ ‘wars on coal,’ ‘disrespect toward the flag;’ or demeaning a foreign leader as ‘Rocket Man’ while heightening tensions with Iran over a nuclear deal hammered-out by the US and multiple powers.

It is not difficult to imagine conditions under which a Trump-led administration would find it nearly irresistible to identify those with differing political interests, ideological beliefs and religious practices, as well as ethnic characteristics, not merely as legitimate opponents but as ‘enemies of the state,’ a term he has already dredged from what the New York Times has called a “Venomous Past.” A serious economic crisis such as that in 2007-2008; the outbreak of war in Asia; a damaging terrorist act on our homeland could provide the necessary excuse.  Each of these scenarios would heighten public polarization and facilitate a default to strong administrative action. Legal restraints would inevitably yield to aggressive policing behavior and the suppression of dissent. In such a moment of crisis, Congressional reaction would likely follow the President’s lead.

For the most part, the American political system has succeeded by containing differences--with the Civil War being the great exception—due ultimately to the recognition by those in power that dissent need not be perceived as disloyalty and that compromise is ultimately more powerful than winning at all cost.  Periods of enormous tension such as those during the “Red Scares” following World Wars I and II and the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960’s and ‘70’s tested the system to, and at times, beyond its limits.  But it is this current test, occurring during a period of relative peace and prosperity but enormous cultural, technological and economic upheaval that may well provide its greatest challenge yet.

Never before has so much of our future fallen into the hands of a leader who seems unwilling, and perhaps psychologically unable to abide by either the formal or informal rules and standards of democratic governance.  Checks and balances are fine on paper, but, like paper, they can far-too-easily be blown away by tumultuous winds stirred by the unstable combination of crisis, unfettered passion and the authoritarian proclivities of a populist leader.

Les Adler


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