April 2023 – on graphs, character, metaphors, enough, and taxes


This month: The risks of A.I. ❋ Mind your metaphors ❋ Happiness is actually contentment ❋ Five graphs that changed the world ❋ Evaluating character ❋ Enough is enough ❋ Countries agree to a minimum tax ❋ Be a voice, not an echo

Warming stripes. A graph that shows when average temperatures for a year are higher or lower than recorded averages.

Five graphs that changed the world

  1. Dot maps
  2. the Coxcomb
  3. W.E.B. Du Bois
  4. the Kallikak family tree
  5. Warming stripes (see above)

from a 6-minute video of the Royal Society


We live with people, work with people, hire people, and we buy from people: How do you evaluate character?

Stanford MBA and ex-McKinsey Ted Gioia (btw- he produces an excellent newsletter, mostly on music) identifies his techniques for evaluating character:

  1. Forget what they say—instead, look at who they marry
  2. See how they treat service workers
  3. Discover what experiences formed their character in early life
  4. How do they invest their two most valuable resources [time and money]?
  5. Identify what irritates people the most in others—because this is probably the trait they dislike most in themselves
  6. Can they listen?
  7. If they cheat at small things, they will cheat at big things
  8. Watch how they handle unexpected problems

What are yours?


The Surprising Thing A.I. Engineers Will Tell You if You Let Them

Among the many unique experiences of reporting on A.I. is this: In a young industry flooded with hype and money, person after person tells me that they are desperate to be regulated, even if it slows them down. In fact, especially if it slows them down.

What they tell me is obvious to anyone watching. Competition is forcing them to go too fast and cut too many corners. This technology is too important to be left to a race between Microsoft, Google, Meta and a few other firms. But no one company can slow down to a safe pace without risking irrelevancy. That’s where the government comes in — or so they hope.

In the same vein,

an Open Letter calls on all AI labs to immediately pause for at least 6 months the training of AI systems more powerful than GPT-4. It begins thus:

AI systems with human-competitive intelligence can pose profound risks to society and humanity, as shown by extensive research[1] and acknowledged by top AI labs.[2] As stated in the widely-endorsed Asilomar AI PrinciplesAdvanced AI could represent a profound change in the history of life on Earth, and should be planned for and managed with commensurate care and resources. Unfortunately, this level of planning and management is not happening, even though recent months have seen AI labs locked in an out-of-control race to develop and deploy ever more powerful digital minds that no one – not even their creators – can understand, predict, or reliably control.


in their paper “The debate over understanding in AI’s large language models”  published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (available here), SFI researchers Melanie Mitchell and David C. Krakauer examine the characteristics that make LLMs impressive but also susceptible to unhumanlike errors and note the “fascinating divergence” emerging in how we humans think about understanding in intelligent systems.

“We really wanted to report on what people are talking about, to summarize the different modes of discussions. It is apparent that we need a new vocabulary to talk about it,” says Mitchell.

The paper identifies key questions that are worth looking into.


When enough is enough

I’ve been engaging in conversations about personal finance for a good while now with younger people. Sooner or later we get to the topic of “enough”, that is, what is required to cover your needs (as distinguished from wants) and the impact of those decisions informed by an understanding of compound interest and the time value of money.

Well, it turns out that a group of monks is applying the same rationale to their business.

Chartreuse, a green or yellow liqueur, is produced only by a group of Carthusian monks in the French Alps. The drink has become increasingly sought after in recent years. (…)

Relief isn’t in sight, as the monks have no plans to dial up production, despite high demand. In a letter in January, the monks said they would not

“increase their volumes of production for the Chartreuse liqueurs. They are limiting production to focus on their primary goal: protect their monastic life and devote their time to solitude and prayer.

In addition, the monks are not looking to grow the liqueur beyond what they need to sustain their order. Making millions of cases does not make any sense in today’s environmental context and will have a negative impact on the planet in the very short term.”


Enough as contentment – the case of Finland

An article in the New York Times titled “The Finnish Secret to Happiness? Knowing When You Have Enough. The sub-title is: The Nordic nation has been ranked the happiest country on earth for six consecutive years. But when you talk to individual Finns, the reality is a bit more complicated.

After interviewing a cross-section of Finns, the article concludes:

Maybe it isn’t that Finns are so much happier than everyone else. Maybe it’s that their expectations for contentment are more reasonable, and if they aren’t met, in the spirit of sisu, they persevere.

“We don’t whine,” Ms. Eerikainen said. “We just do.”


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

Just step outside… where the wind is.

The same with thinking: you don’t need external sources. Just step inside yourself… where your own thoughts are. In other words, be a voice, not an echo.


Metaphors shape the way we think about things – Progress is a lake, not a line

When people describe progress, they often describe it in terms of a linear progression taking us from primitive to advanced — an idea or invention occurs as a singular event, and somewhere further down the line of time a new idea or invention completely replaces it, relegating the old to the annals of history. (…)

A better analogy for progress is a young lake, growing from the continual melting of a glacier. As water is added to the lake, progress happens along all edges of the lake, all at the same time, continuously, and gradually.

With this viewpoint, new technology doesn’t develop linearly from the old, it grows outwards from the centre. As the lake grows, the centre of it does not get replaced — the water at the centre is just as real, just as valid, and just as valuable as that of the edges. The centre is also where the deepest waters lie. The edges of a lake, on the other hand, are shallow, they frequently change, and they may even recede completely.

As technologists, if we only look to the edges of the lake to guide us, we only touch the surface of what exists, of what is possible, and of what has come before. We miss out on the depth at the centre, including all of the lessons learned by those who have come before.

As I always say: Mind your metaphors.


International tax reform that sets a floor

For decades, countries have competed intensely to attract [MNE – multinational enterprises]’ operations by cutting their corporate tax rates and narrowing their tax base. But this competition is about to change significantly, now that 138 jurisdictions, representing nearly 95% of the global gross domestic product, have reached an agreement to put a floor on global tax competition.

The agreement — part of an initiative led by G-20 countries and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — requires that all large MNEs be subject to a minimum tax of 15% in each foreign country in which they operate. Key jurisdictions, including all members of the European Union, are expected to apply the new rules in 2024.