Veteran’s Day

Maurice Isserman, quoting from a soldier’s letter in an essay for the NYT:

At 1st you wonder if you’ll be shot & you’re scared of not your own skin, but of the people that will get hurt if you are hit. All I could think about was keeping you & the folks from being affected by some 88 shell. I don’t seem to worry about myself because I knew if I did get it, I’d never know it. After a while I didn’t wonder if I get hit — I’d wonder when. Every time a shell came I’d ask myself “Is this the one?” In the 3rd phase I was sure I’d get it & began to ½ hope that the next one would do it & end the goddam suspense.

What It’s Really Like to Fight a War

The American story still resonates

On the 30th anniversary of German reunification, it’s still hard to be German if you aren’t native West German:

For a long time, that discrimination was not merely subconscious, but structural. 

Even as Germany became a major immigration country, no real path to citizenship was extended even to the children of immigrants born in the country.

After the fall of communism, the intrinsic racism of German citizenship law became impossible to ignore. Russian citizens with German ancestry who spoke no German were suddenly allowed passports, while second-generation Turks born and raised in Germany were not. 

The change to the immigration law in 2000 opened parallel tracks to citizenship for those who were born in Germany or who had lived in the country for at least eight years.

As a child, Idil Baydar says she felt German. But that has changed. The 44-year-old daughter of a Turkish guest worker who arrived in the 1970s now describes herself as a “passport German foreigner.” 

“The Germans have turned me into a migrant,” said Ms. Baydar, a comedian who has grown popular on YouTube by mocking Germany’s uneasy relationship with its largest immigrant group.

Germany Has Been Unified for 30 Years. Its Identity Still Is Not.

In contrast, the American story is told in Ronald Reagan’s last speech as President of the United States:

It’s not all bad news in the environment

To be fair, it’s mostly terrible news. But every once and a while it turns out not as awful as we expected.

A major component of ocean pollution is less devastating and more manageable than usually portrayed, according to a scientific team at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Previous studies, including one last year by the United Nations Environment Program, have estimated that polystyrene, a ubiquitous plastic found in trash, could take thousands of years to degrade, making it nearly eternal. But in a new paper, five scientists found that sunlight can degrade polystyrene in centuries or even decades.

In the Sea, Not All Plastic Lasts Forever

China has corrupted us

Farhad Manjoo in an opinion piece for the New York Times:

A parade of American presidents on the left and the right argued that by cultivating China as a market — hastening its economic growth and technological sophistication while bringing our own companies a billion new workers and customers — we would inevitably loosen the regime’s hold on its people. Even Donald Trump, who made bashing China a theme of his campaign, sees the country mainly through the lens of markets. He’ll eagerly prosecute a pointless trade war against China, but when it comes to the millions in Hong Kong who are protesting China’s creeping despotism over their territory, Trump prefers to stay mum.

Well, funny thing: It turns out the West’s entire political theory about China has been spectacularly wrong. China has engineered ferocious economic growth in the past half century, lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of miserable poverty. But China’s growth did not come at any cost to the regime’s political chokehold.

A darker truth is now dawning on the world: China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China.

Dealing With China Isn’t Worth the Moral Cost

What do we stand for as Americans? Just money?

Do as I say, not as I do: robot edition

Deep learning has revolutionized artificial intelligence. We’ve changed from telling computers how to do things, and are now telling computers what to do and letting them figure it out. For many activities (e.g., object identification) we can’t even really explain how to do it. It’s easier to just tell a system, “This is a ball. When you see this, identify it as a ball. Now here are 1M more examples.” And the system learns pretty well.

Except when it doesn’t. There is a burgeoning new science of trying to tell artificial intelligence systems what exactly we want them to do:

Told to optimize for speed while racing down a track in a computer game, a car pushes the pedal to the metal … and proceeds to spin in a tight little circle. Nothing in the instructions told the car to drive straight, and so it improvised.

[. . . . .]

The team’s new system for providing instruction to robots — known as reward functions — combines demonstrations, in which humans show the robot what to do, and user preference surveys, in which people answer questions about how they want the robot to behave.

“Demonstrations are informative but they can be noisy. On the other hand, preferences provide, at most, one bit of information, but are way more accurate,” said Sadigh. “Our goal is to get the best of both worlds, and combine data coming from both of these sources more intelligently to better learn about humans’ preferred reward function.”

Researchers teach robots what humans want

This is critical research, and probably under-reported. If robots (like people) are going to learn mainly by mimicking humans, what human behaviors should they mimic?

People want autonomous cars to drive less aggressively than they do. And they should also be less racist, sexist, and violent. Getting the right reward function is critical. Getting it wrong may be immoral.

Patent Litigation Insurance

Patent litigation insurance definitely exists, and every so often a casual observer will be confronted by the enormous cost of litigating a patent case and suggest that maybe you should get insurance. After all, there are a lot of other kinds of insurance for the normal hazards of doing business: product liability, business interruption, even cyber attack. So why not patent litigation insurance?

The problem is that insurance works by grouping a whole bunch of entities together that all have similar risk, and then figuring out how to get them to share that risk while still making some money on the premiums. That doesn’t work for patent litigation because companies have wildly different risk profiles. It is impossible to take a group of companies, somehow average out their risk of patent litigation, and then calculate a premium that both covers that average risk and makes you some (but not too much) money on the side. The companies will either overpay or underpay.

As a result, patent litigation insurers take a look at your individual risk profile, figure they can estimate the risk better than you can, and then charge an individualized premium to make sure they are covered. Public reporting places the annual cost of patent litigation insurance at about 2-5% of the insured amount, with the addition of hard liability caps and co-payments. Most big companies decline those terms and end up self-insuring or mitigating risk through license aggregators like RPX.

But still patent litigation insurance seems to fascinate, especially the academics. In a November 2018 paper titled The Effect of Patent Litigation Insurance, researchers examined the effect of recently introduced insurance on the rate of patent assertions. And they found (headline!) that the availability of defensive insurance was correlated with significantly reduced likelihood that specific patents would be asserted. They conclude:

Whatever the merits of specific judicial and legislative reforms presently under consideration, our study suggests that it is also possible for market-based mechanisms to alter the behavior of patent enforcers. Indeed, it has been argued that one reason legislative and judicial reform is needed is because collective action is unlikely to cure the patent system’s ills because defending against claims of patent infringement generates uncompensated positive externalities. Our study suggests that defensive litigation insurance may be a viable market-based solution to complement, or supplant, other reforms that aim to reduce NPE activity.

The Effect of Patent Litigation Insurance at 59-60.

But there is a very important caveat: the insurance company selected in advance every patent they would insure against. IPISC sold two menus of “Troll Defense” insurance: one for insurance against 200 specific patents, and one for insurance against an additional 107 specific patents. Indeed, this is how the researchers were able to assess whether assertions went down. (Other patent litigation insurers use more complex policies that do not identify specific patents.) In addition, IPISC capped the defense insurance limit at $1M, which is well below the cost of litigating your average patent case. This is a very narrow space for patent litigation insurance!

IPISC must have had confidence they could accurately quantify the risk associated with these patents. The insured patents had tended to be asserted before by well-known patent assertion entities. I suspect the prior assertions settled quickly for relatively small amounts because that’s how these entities tend to work. Indeed, that is the whole business model. But throw in the availability of insurance specific to these patents and now you have a signal that many potential defendants will not simply settle and move on. Wrench in the model, assertions go down.

So yes, this narrow type of patent litigation insurance might be useful if you are an entity concerned about harassment by specific patents in low value patent litigation. Interesting study, your mileage may vary.

Food for Thought

From The Atlantic’s March 2019 issue:

Fish pain is something different from our own pain. In the elaborate mirrored hall that is human consciousness, pain takes on existential dimensions. Because we know that death looms, and grieve for the loss of richly imagined futures, it’s tempting to imagine that our pain is the most profound of all suffering. But we would do well to remember that our perspective can make our pain easier to bear, if only by giving it an expiration date. When we pull a less cognitively blessed fish up from the pressured depths too quickly, and barometric trauma fills its bloodstream with tissue-burning acid, its on-deck thrashing might be a silent scream, born of the fish’s belief that it has entered a permanent state of extreme suffering.

Scientists Are Totally Rethinking Animal Cognition

This is the right answer!

Tyler Cowen in a piece about blackmail on Bloomberg column:

So what are some lessons from the apparent greater prevalence of blackmail risk?


First: Be good! Minimize the chance that someone can blackmail you.

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-13/bezos-and-national-enquirer-seven-lessons-about-blackmail