March of the humanoids: Figure shows off autonomous warehouse work (Loz Blain, February 26, 2024, New Atlas)

It seems the Figure 01 won’t just be making coffee when it shows up to work at BMW. New video shows the humanoid getting its shiny metal butt to work, doing exactly the sort of “pick this up and put it over there” tasks it’ll be doing in factories.

Figure teaches its robots new tasks through teleoperation and simulated learning. If its videos are to believed – which is not always a given in this rapidly evolving space – its humanoids are capable of ‘figuring’ out the success and failure states of a given task, and working out how best to get it done autonomously, complete with the ability to make real-time corrections if things appear to be going off-track.


Death throes of a dictatorship? (William Fear, 26 February, 2024, The Critic)

Since it seized power in February 2021, Myanmar’s military — known as the Tatmadaw — has been facing heavy armed resistance from an array of ethnic-minority and pro-democracy militant groups. The coup was mounted following a landslide election victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy in November of 2020. Much like they did in 1990, the Tatmadaw declared the result false, threw Aung San Suu Kyi back under house arrest, and assumed power themselves.

At first, the people of Myanmar protested against the coup peacefully, but the situation quickly degenerated into violent clashes between protestors and police. A civil war quickly followed, as the military attempted to suppress the numerous militant groups that emerged in opposition to the junta.

Although the military still controls most major population centres, they are losing ground. The reason why is not entirely military-related: Myanmar’s army is well supplied with Russian and Chinese materiel. A more fundamental problem is afflicting the Tatmadaw: collapsing morale, and an inability to recruit new soldiers.


Free Will, Pragmatism, And The Things Best Left Unsaid (David Kordahl, 2/26/24, 3Quarks)

Though William James’s pragmatism is a variety of empiricism, it’s easy to see why it never caught on among natural scientists. (The physicists I’ve read who gesture toward pragmatism instead cite Charles Sanders Pierce, who was himself a mathematician and natural scientist.) Most natural scientists are motivated to discover something about the objective, mind-independent properties of nature, not just relations between human concepts, constrained by our environment.

Pragmatism stipulates that we recognize scientific theories as human tools, levers that we use to augment our possibilities. We should adopt whatever theories prove most helpful. To reproduce another emphasized maxim of James: “Theories thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest.”

Reason fails at the first hurdle, when it can not establish that anything is mind-independent.


Blow to Putin as Europe breaks free of Russian oil for good (Jonathan Leake, 2/26/24, The Telegraph)

Analysts found that the UK and much of Europe have reversed a years-long rise in reliance on Russian oil and gas before the Ukraine conflict, shifting instead to other suppliers such as the US and Canada.

Jorge Leon, Rystad’s senior vice president for oil markets, said: “I think people underestimated how flexible the energy system is.

“Just before the war, just the idea of, we’re going to stop buying oil and gas directly from Russia, would have been crazy. But it has largely happened.”

Now destroy his oil infrastructure.


How Israel’s war went wrong (Zack Beauchamp, 2/20/24, Vox)

At the end of November, Israeli reporter Yuval Abraham broke one of the most important stories of the war in Gaza to date — an inside look at the disturbing reasoning that has led the Israeli military to kill so many civilians.

Citing conversations with “seven current and former members of Israel’s intelligence community,” Abraham reported that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had changed its doctrine to permit far greater civilian casualties than it would have tolerated in previous wars. IDF leadership was greenlighting strikes on civilian targets like apartment buildings and public infrastructure that they knew would kill scores of innocent Gazans.

“In one case,” Abraham reported, “the Israeli military command knowingly approved the killing of hundreds of Palestinian civilians in an attempt to assassinate a single top Hamas military commander.”

Abraham’s reporting showed, in granular detail, the ways that this war would not be like others: that Israel, so grievously wounded by Hamas on October 7, would go to extraordinarily violent lengths to destroy the group responsible for that day’s atrocities. In doing so, it would commit atrocities of its own.

At least 28,000 Palestinians are already confirmed dead, with more likely lying in the rubble. Around 70 percent of Gaza’s homes have been damaged or destroyed; at least 85 percent of Gaza’s population has been displaced. The indirect death toll from starvation and disease will likely be higher. One academic estimate suggested that nearly 500,000 Palestinians will die within a year unless the war is brought to a halt, reflecting both the physical damage to Gaza’s infrastructure and the consequences of Israel’s decision to besiege Gaza on day three of the war. (While the siege has been relaxed somewhat, limitations on aid flow remain strict.)

It’s not about Hamas.


The Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’ (Liz Fields, 2/24/24, PBS: American Masters)

Abel Meeropol, a son of Russian Jewish immigrants, taught English at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx for 17 years before turning to music and motion pictures, writing under the pen name Lewis Allan. Meeropol was very disturbed by the persistence of systemic racism in America and was motivated to write the poem “Bitter Fruit” after seeing a photo depicting the lynching of two Black teens in Indiana in 1930. The poem was published in the journal The New York Teacher in 1937, and again later published in the Marxist journal, The New Masses, before Meeropol decided to turn the poem into lyrics and set it to music.

After that, Meeropol began to perform the song at several protest rallies and venues around the city along with his wife and African American singer Laura Duncan. The song first came to Holiday’s attention when she was working at New York’s first integrated nightclub, Café Society in Greenwich Village. Holiday was hesitant at first to sing it because she didn’t want to politicize her performances, and was (rightfully) concerned about being targeted at her performances. But the positive audience responses and frequent requests for “Strange Fruit” soon prompted Holiday to close out every performance with the song. Ahead of time, the waiters would stop serving so there was a deathly silence in the room, then a spotlight would shine on Holiday’s face and she would begin to sing


Doug Irwin on the History and Political Economy of Trade Policy: Shruti chats with Doug Irwin about trade economists, trade in India, and globalization (Shruti Rajagopalan, 2/22/24, Mercatus Center)

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. […]

Today my guest is Douglas Irwin, who is the John French Professor of Economics at Dartmouth College. He is the author of dozens of books and papers, most recently, Clashing over Commerce, which is a magisterial history of US trade policy. We spoke about India’s liberalization moment in 1991, the five phases of globalization, British repeal of Corn laws, premature deindustrialization, the relevance of the WTO, absolute versus comparative advantage, the future Argentina, and much more.

RAJAGOPALAN: I think of this group of trade economists, especially the four of them, their ideas first percolated into the East and Southeast Asian countries. They had some impact on India for sure though not as much as one would like. And after 1990s, African countries started unilaterally liberalizing very much based on the Asian experience, but one group, which somehow never quite took their lessons and ran with it is the Latin American countries. Was it just a different set of problems or something was lost in translation? Because there was another group of economists who were the Chicago Monetarists who did have some penetration or impact in the Latin American countries. What’s going on there?

IRWIN: There’s a great deal of diversity across Latin America. Chile is an example where the reform stuck. Now, albeit they were introduced in the Pinochet dictatorship, but they survived the transition to democracy. The center-left governments that took over once Pinochet left, they had some appreciation for the economic model that they inherited. Chile had done pretty well with it towards the tail end of the Pinochet regime. Obviously, some big crises early on.

If you talk to Alejandro Foxley, who’s the first finance minister under democracy, he wanted to run fiscal surpluses to show markets that they were committed to not the excesses of the past. They reduced tariffs. They want to double down commit themselves to keeping the open economy model. Then the question is, why haven’t other countries in Latin America seen the benefits? Some have and some haven’t. Argentina, just to pick another big country has had cycles, and there’s a whole political dysfunction in Argentina

There’s been this pendulum swinging back and forth with Argentina. They were liberalizing in the ‘90s, then they closed up a little bit in the 2000s, and now maybe they’re moving in a different direction again. Peru’s an interesting case. Because once again, they opened up in around 1991.

RAJAGOPALAN: Had shock therapy.

IRWIN: Had shock therapy. That has stuck as well. Even though there’s continued political dysfunction in Peru, the economy’s done pretty well and the open economy model is pretty much entrenched. Colombia also a country that was never quite as closed as some of the others but opened up also in 1991. When I say opened up, getting realistic exchange rates, getting rid of quantitative restrictions on trade, getting rid of import licensing. Even if the tariffs are relatively high, getting rid of those other things really goes a long way to open up the economy. Columbia’s kept the open economy model. Then we can go to Brazil, another big country, which supposedly opened up in the early ‘90s, but there’s still a lot of non-tariff barriers and what have you.

RAJAGOPALAN: They’re like India.

IRWIN: A little bit.

RAJAGOPALAN: They opened up, but they still have lots of restrictions. We don’t quite get captured in the trade liberalization obvious model or laundry list.

IRWIN: That’s a great way of putting it because what you don’t see when they liberalize is you don’t see imports as a share of GDP going up a lot, whereas you do see that in some of the other countries. I’d say there was a Latin American reform moment early 1990s. Once again, not uniform, very imperfect, but they did try to move in a different direction and shed the Raúl Prebisch dependency theory import substitution policies that had really doubled down on in the 1950s and ‘60s and into the ‘70s.


Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Race (ARNOLD KLING, FEB 23, 2024, In My Tribe)

In thinking about The End of Race Politics, a new book by Coleman Hughes, I came up with a description of the race debate using the metaphor of the game Rock, Paper, Scissors. I assign a stance to each of the three symbols.

Rock is individualism. Treat people as individuals, not as members of a race.

Paper is equalitarianism. Treat differences in average outcomes by race as evidence of unfairness.

Scissors is realism. Explain differences in average outcomes by race by appealing to heredity and culture.

In the game, paper covers rock, scissors cuts paper, and rock breaks scissors. Translating from the metaphor, the most compelling argument against individualism is equalitarianism. The most compelling argument against equalitarianism is realism. And the most compelling argument against realism is individualism. […]

The problem with individualism (Rock) is that people intuitively find inequality offensive. If we treat people as individuals, and the resulting outcomes are unequal by race, this will not be acceptable. The unequal outcomes will be viewed as a sign that something is wrong with our society.

The problem with equalitarianism (Paper) is that it requires people to deny, implicitly or explicitly, that average differences by race in inherited or cultural characteristics can be significant. The realists want to confront the equalitarians over this.

The problem with realism (Scissors) is that it uncages the demon of racial stereotyping and prejudice. The individualists will insist that we should pay attention to differences across individuals, not differences across races.


Progress Deferred: Lessons From mRNA Vaccine Development (Tim Hwang, 2/20/24, IFP)

One institutional reform that may have alleviated this issue would be to use mechanisms that encourage funders to make higher variance, heterodox bets against this kind of scientific consensus. This might include “golden ticket” mechanisms that allow reviewers that feel strongly about a research proposal to fund a project even against the consensus of their peers.52 Similarly, funding programs might be launched to deliberately offer “last shot” funding for potentially high-impact areas that see a period of declining funding and researcher activity.53 These might counter a natural risk-aversion that leads researchers to abandon problems too early in the face of high-profile failures, as they arguably did in the mRNA case. These mechanisms might have particular applicability in cases parallel to mRNA, where expert judgments are based more on analogies to similar problems and where the technology in question would have a major social impact if viable.

The merit of such an approach is bolstered by examining the funders that unusually did choose to fund mRNA research, even during the period in which it faced major skepticism. These organizations did so in part because they were free to prioritize more speculative, high-risk exploration. The specific reasons for this vary. Dan Wattendorf – who led the DARPA ADEPT program that funded mRNA work in the 2010s – attributes the agency’s willingness to support mRNA work to an organizational norm of providing managers like himself free rein to direct their programs.54

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was also an early supporter of mRNA vaccines, providing a $20M grant to Moderna in 201655 and later $55M to BioNTech in 2019.56 These investments were based in part on the personal interest of Gates in advancing vaccine technologies, and since the foundation prioritized finding promising but overlooked methods in related fields. BioNTech had begun working on mRNA therapeutics to address cancer, but was supported by the “[Gates] Foundation [because it] often looked at ‘adjacent’ scientific disciplines whose innovations might help fight infectious diseases…‘We were doing a lot of horizon-scanning to see what the trends were, what was changing, and who were the cutting-edge people,’ Stuart [a director at the Gates Foundation] says, ‘and BioNTech clearly surfaced.’”57

Intervention 2: Address market failures in the “scientific marketplace”

Established pharmaceutical companies were well-positioned to accelerate the development and deployment of mRNA vaccines. These companies possessed the necessary research talent, financial resources, and practical mass production know-how to transform the technology into a workable product.

Despite being well-positioned to lead the way, pharmaceutical companies did not.

The government is a market force.


The U.S. Must Stand by and for the Kurds (Gregg Roman, 2/21/24, Real Clear World)

The Kurds, a resilient and significant ethnic group without a recognized state of their own, have long been instrumental in the fight against terrorism and the preservation of American interests in a volatile Middle East. It is time for the U.S. to honor its promises, acknowledge the historical injustices faced by the Kurds, and stand firmly in support of their aspirations for autonomy and security.

It is an appropriate moment to step back, appreciate Kurdish history, and consider our obligations to the Kurds not only in Syria but in Iraq, Turkey, and Iran as well.

The Kurds, predominantly Sunni Muslims, are the most populous ethnic group on earth without a recognized state of their own. A diverse group of some 25 to 30 million people, about half of the Kurds inhabit lands across parts of Southeast Turkey. Most rest live in northeast Syria, northern and western Iran, southwestern Armenia, and northern Iraq.

The most prominent feature of the Kurdish landscape is the rugged mountains of the eastern Taurus-Zagros Mountain range. Because of the mountains’ imposing nature, armies have had trouble conquering the area, which has allowed the Kurdish people to survive in their fastnesses throughout the centuries. Indeed, a famous Kurdish proverb says, “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”

The proverb has proven, sadly, to be true.

The Kurds were promised a state in the wake of the First World War – that is, after the destruction of the Ottoman Empire – in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. Nevertheless, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne reneged on this promise.

Both Bushes deserrve blame too, for not recognizing the nation of Kurdistan after the Iraq wars.