bookmark_borderHvis man vil have meget, skal man have et alternativ

alternative photoNu hvor den Socialdemokratiske regering er blevet dannet, er det måske værd at se på, hvor meget De Radikale og Morten Østergaard har fået ud af forhandlingerne, og det er ikke meget, så vidt jeg kan se. En del klima- og udlændingeforbedringer, men det var jo også ting, som Enhedslisten krævede. Og så en forlængelse af Margrethe Vestagers ansættelse i Bryssel.

Det er naturligt nok – der var vel kun to alternative parlamentariske grundlag til den regering, der blev dannet:

  • SV: meget nem at danne, især hvis man kunne sende Løkke til EU, og den ville potentielt være meget stabil.
  • VOKRI: svær at danne, fordi regeringen ville skulle kunne støttes af både DrV og DF, og det ville være meget vanskeligt for Morten Østergaard at bakke op om, når han nu havde talt så meget om et paradigmeskift.

Så i en forhandling mellem Mette Frederiksen og Morten Østergaard er det ret oplagt, hvem der havde de bedste kort på hånden: Det havde Socialdemokraternes formand, fordi truslen om at danne regering med V var meget mere realistisk end en radikal støtte til en fortsat Løkke-regering med DF som parlamentarisk grundlag. Og ikke mindst, fordi De Radikale havde lagt så meget vægt på at sætte DF uden for indflydelse.

Det er bare sådan, det er. Problemet er nok, at Morten Østergaard efter valget opførte sig, som om han var tungen på vægtskålen og kunne bestemme alt, når han i realiteten havde valgt side og ikke realistisk kunne pege på en højrefløjsregering.

Hvis man vil have mere magt, end mandaterne tilsiger, skal man have alternativer. Præcis som i en lønforhandling – det er meget nemmere at få mere i posen, hvis man har fået et tilbud om et godt job et andet sted, end hvis man ikke har nogen alternativer (og chefen er klar over det).

Og det betyder ikke, man skal pege på sig selv som statsministerkandidat, som Uffe Elbæk gjorde det. Det er fint nok at indrømme, man ikke selv har nogen realistisk chance for at blive statsminister, men hvis man ikke kan true med at gå sammen med den anden side, er man ikke tungen på vægtskålen, og så får man altså ikke ret meget indflydelse.

Nu bliver det interessant at se, om Mette Frederiksen i lovgivningsarbejdet hovedsageligt vil benytte sig af sit parlamentariske grundlag, eller om hun til tider vil lovgive sammen med Venstre og andre partier til højre for midten. Om De Radikale vil lave aftaler uden om regeringen sammen med VOKI. Og om SF, Enhedslisten og De Radikale vil gøre livet usikkert for regeringen, hvis de ikke er tilfredse med dens resultater.

PS: Syv kvinder ud af 20 ministre er godt nok ikke mange – og bortset fra statsministerposten er de ikke så tunge, at det gør noget. Det er meget skuffende, især i en tid, hvor så mange andre lande lægger stor vægt på ligestillingen, når de danner regering.

Der er heller ikke aldersmæssigt en regering, der ligner befolkningen. Ministrenes fødselsår er 1977 ± 6 (ældste født i 1963, yngste i 1986), hvorimod Lars Løkke sidste regering var født i 1970 ± 10 (ældste født i 1947, yngste i 1983).

Det er altså ikke godt nok.

bookmark_borderCurtains and the real time difference between Scotland and Denmark

clock photoOn paper, the time difference between Scotland and Denmark is one hour, but that’s not what it feels like.

A 9–5 job is called an 8–4 job in Denmark, and schools tend to start a some point between 7.30 and 8.15 depending on the council area, rather than Scotland’s typical 9am.

So I’d say the real time difference is about 2½ hours.

I’ve also noticed that Danes use fewer and thinner curtains than most Scots. Is there a connexion here? Do Danes start the day earlier because the sun wakes them up most of the year? Do Scots sleep in because their thick curtains protect them from the sun? Or is the causality the other way round?

I have plenty of Danish childhood memories of getting up in the middle of the night and walking to school in the dark, and in Scotland you leave work after sunset for many months every year.

I’m not sure what’s best. It feels like Danes love the morning sun, and Scots hate getting up in the dark.

Perhaps we should just start the day when the sun rises throughout the year instead of using midnight as the basis.

bookmark_borderΠάντα ῥεῖ – from Scotland to Funen

bogense photo
Photo by fugzu
As an EU citizen, Brexit has always been a personal worry. I’ve never considered it particularly likely that they’d frogmarch us all out of the country on the 30th of March, but the UK Home Office would just love to extend their hostile environment to EU citizens here, making it difficult to rent or buy property, get a job or access the health service. It’s also clear that Scotland won’t gain control over the powers necessary to prevent this anytime soon.

Brexit will be disastrous in so many other ways, though. The country is already losing large numbers of companies and individuals (including lots of NHS employees), and this will cause a huge recession even if Brexit gets cancelled tomorrow. The NHS will get worse. Universities will get much more insular without access to Erasmus (the programme that allows EU students to study here and Scottish students to study abroad for free). Products in shops will get dearer, less plentiful and less interesting. Politically, Brexit and its consequences will dominate everything for at least a decade, no matter how it ends, and this will prevent the country from solving all the very real problems facing people here.

Phyllis (my wife) and I cannot see how we can keep our company afloat under these circumstances. And we worry a lot about what it’ll mean for the three wee kids (aged 9, 11 and 13). Will they get a worse education than their older siblings? Will they have to pay university fees? Will they be unable to study abroad? And if they all emigrate after graduation because the economic prospects are dire here, will we be unable to visit them abroad because we lost everything in the Brexit recession?

For a long time we hoped that Scotland would launch an independence lifeboat, but it sadly doesn’t seem to be happening soon enough.

So we decided to find a lifeboat of our own. The result is that I’m starting a new job as a senior consultant at the Danish Language Council (the organisation defining the orthography of Danish) on the 1st of April. The Council used to be based in Copenhagen, but they’re relocating on the same day to Bogense, a small town on the north coast of Funen:

It’s quite a nice area (although it’s too flat for our liking) – the schools are good, the houses are cheap, and it’s dominated by tourism. We’ll be within commuting distance of Odense (Denmark’s third city, similar in size to Aberdeen), and it’s only an hour’s drive from Billund (Legoland) Airport.

It means leaving behind the two big kids – Marcel is about to finish university and is moving to London, and Charlotte is currently finishing her first year at Glasgow University, so she wants to stay and finish her degree. Phyllis’s mum and her brother and his family are also remaining in Scotland, and it feels really strange to have to leave them all here. At least salaries are quite a bit better in Denmark than here, so we should be able to come back often. Hopefully we’ll get a house with at least one spare bedroom, because we’re also hoping to get plenty of visitors from Scotland.

Πάντα ῥεῖ (“everything flows”), as Heraclitus used to say. When I moved to Scotland, I thought it was only for a few years, but I then ended up marrying a Scottish lassie, and I then expected to spend the rest of my life here. Now things will be very different, and we can only hope we’ll be happy about this change afterwards. I know for sure I’ll miss Scotland a lot – I’ll always feel partly Scottish. It will be good to escape the Brexit madness, though.

bookmark_borderThe pound since I moved to Scotland

I always find it hard to remember the £/€ exchange rate because it’s always about stuff after the decimal point (my brain is a bit funny in that way), so I tend to prefer to keep track of the state of the Pound Sterling in terms of Danish crowns instead (the exchange rate of the latter is tied to within 2.25% of the euro through the ERM-II mechanism).

When I moved to Scotland, I could buy slightly more than 12 crowns for a pound, but it’s now been closer to 8 for a long time:

I wonder whether I would have accepted my first job in Scotland if the exchange rate had been 8 instead of 12 – a monthly salary of DKK 18k sounds a lot less attractive than DKK 27k, and I think my employer would have found it much harder to justify paying me a salary of £40,500 rather than £27k. To be honest, I probably would have ended up somewhere else instead.

bookmark_borderMull of the future?

(Also published on Arc of Prosperity.)

highland village photo
Photo by kingary
I woke up to the crowing of the rooster and the smell of freshly baked croissants.

My butler minion gently opened the door to my bedroom. “Would you like your breakfast in bed, master?” “That’d be great, Bob.”

Bob buzzed in on his wheels and served the croissants together with a gorgeous cup of cappuccino. I’ve spent years searching for the perfect recipe, and I finally found it on a website somewhere in Italy. It was worth the hassle, though. People keep asking me for it, but I’ll not share it for any less than 1kg of scrap copper.

“Master, what would you like for lunch?” asked Bob. “Perhaps a mushroom omelette? Tim found some lovely wild mushrooms in the forest this morning.” I grunted my approval. Tim is my foraging minion, and he always finds the best stuff. At least it sounded a bit more filling that the salads Bob has been feeding me for the past week – I guess my weight is back to where it should be. Not that Bob ever tells me.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” I asked. “You’ve got dairy farm duty from 10 to 12, you’ve got a work meeting at 14.30, and finally you’ve invited your girlfriend for dinner at 19.00.”

I spent the next hour inspecting my home farm. The minions were zooming around me at the same time, collecting eggs, weeding the lettuce and cleaning out the pigsty. I love my home farm.

At 9.50 a car stopped outside the gate, and I strolled out and got in. Yukiko and Pierre, two of my neighbours, were already sitting in it – we do farm duty together. They greeted me with a cheery “Madainn mhath! Ciamar a tha sibh?” and we started chatting in Gaelic. It’s not our native language, and to be honest it probably would be easier to speak English together, but when the founders of our village decided to resurrect the village of Crackaig on the Isle of Mull, they decided that it should be Gaelic-speaking, so it’s now a requirement for moving to the village that you learn the language and use it when interacting with people. Fortunately language-learning is so easy these days – the linguist minions are just sublime language teachers.

At 10 o’clock the car stopped at the dairy farm, and we got out. The car zoomed away, either to park or to drive somebody else somewhere. My grandparents keep telling me that they used to drive cars themselves when they were young. It sounds like a really dangerous and wasteful way of going about it. Computers are obviously much better at driving than humans, and in those days every household had one or more cars, which meant that they spent most of the time being parked. Crazy.

Dairy farm duty is generally pretty easy. The minions do practically all the work, and all we need to do is basically to walk around and talk to the cows – humans can sometimes use their intuition to spot a problem that the minions have overlooked.

This was not one of the easiest days, however. It was time to say goodbye to two of the bulls and hand them over to the butcher minions. I walked with them up the hill, and then the minions led them away into a shed and did their stuff. The minions have perfected bovine psychology, so the bulls didn’t seem to feel any anxiety.

I’ve read that lots of people were going vegetarian or even vegan towards the end of the capitalist era. It was mainly a reaction against factory farming, however, so once people started repopulating the villages and producing almost all their food locally, they started eating meat again. This was reinforced by the realisation that microplastics were destroying the environment, and this led to a complete ban on the use of synthetic materials in clothing and footwear, and having access to leather thus became more important again.

The late capitalist society must have been pretty mad. Instead of feeding your food waste to your animals and letting your cows graze on unproductive stretches of grass, they threw the food waste into landfills and then grew cereals for the sole purpose of feeding animals which they kept in huge factory-like farms. Apparently they even killed many male calves at birth because it would be too expensive to raise them.

In our village most of our clothes are made out of wool, hemp or flax, and we mainly use leather shoes. That’s fairly typical for Scotland, but of course different materials get used in other countries.

I walked home after farm duty and then sat down to enjoy Bob’s delicious mushroom omelette.

Afterwards I stepped into the VR room to commence the work meeting. I’m part of a small team working on carbon capture technology to roll back global warming. We have created a virtual Greek olive grove as our work environment, based on Plato’s Academy. Lots of other people keep telling us that you want walls, chairs and blackboards in order to work efficiently, but we disagree. Sitting on blocks of marble dressed in a toga while munching on olives is great. To make it even more realistic, we’ve decided to adopt Ancient Greek as our working language. Yes, it’s mad, but we need a lot of creativity to come up with better ways to capture carbon, and creativity and madness are of course closely related.

It’s strange to think that schools for so long were mainly places to learn facts and techniques, when today they’re places to bring out everybody’s innate creativity. Of course you need a certain amount of knowledge and skills for your creativity to kick in, but at the end of the day computers are much better at every known task than humans – however, they’re still pretty bad at coming up with the new and surprising answers, and at dealing with new situations. So of course that’s what we humans have to focus on now.

After work I started getting ready for dinner with my girlfriend, Salome. I was going to bring her some flowers from my greenhouse, but in the end I quickly 3D-printed a pair of golden earrings for her using a traditional pattern from Guatemala.

Salome and I were going for sushi in a neighbouring village modelled on a traditional one from Hokkaidō. A lot of people said at the time that a traditional Japanese village doesn’t really belong on the Isle of Mull, but I must admit that it’s really nice to see something completely different without travelling more than 10 km. In fact, the idea is spreading. More and more villages get the builder minions to rebuild everything in some exotic style – just on Mull we’ve now got places that look like they belong in Bavaria, Viking Scandinavia, Māori New Zealand, and the Shire (from The Lord of the Rings books).

Over dinner we discussed whether we should go on holiday to Paris at some point. The old centre is supposed to be stunning, but like all other former cities it’s surrounded by enormous areas of crumbling ruins that still haven’t been converted back to villages and farmland.

At least the former cities aren’t dangerous in Europe. However, in many other parts of the world they never nationalised the land like they did here, so people who didn’t own any land were left practically destitute when the value of labour dropped to nearly zero after capitalism collapsed. They’re now typically living in the skyscraper ruins and trying to make a living selling personal services (mainly sex) to everybody else. It’s horrible, and we’re so lucky in Europe where we introduced a universal basic income early on and then nationalised the land and gave everybody the right to borrow a plot for the rest of their lives.

Of course it would take a while to get to Paris – flying is completely prohibited for holiday purposes – but we could sail there or take a sleeper car, and that’s good fun in its own right.

We took a boat back to Salome’s village. Life on Mull is pretty good.

bookmark_borderGeneration X are disappearing

Hugo Rifkind had an article in The Times today about being a Xennial (too old to be a Millennial, too young for Generation X), and I sent him the following tweet as a reply:

Hugo and 77 other people (so far) were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d elaborate a bit on my theory.

A lot of the stuff about the Baby Boomers, Generation X and the Millennials can be traced back to Howe and Strauss’s Generations from 1991. This book examined earlier American generations and claimed to identify a four-generation cycle. They then defined the new generations that were emerging at the time and tried to predict their future very roughly. In particular, they expected a huge crisis once the Baby-Boomers had started to retire (perhaps around 2020), which Generation X would sort out and then hand over power to the Millennials.

This is clearly not what happened – the crises (9/11 + the financial crash) happened much sooner than they expected, while the Baby-Boomers were still in office. They actually mentioned this possibility briefly on page 382:

What happens if the crisis comes early? What if the Millennium – the year 2000 or soon thereafter – provides Boomers with the occasion to impose their “millennial” visions on the nation and world? The generation cycle suggests that the risk of cataclysm would be very high.

Furthermore, in their historical analysis they clearly don’t assign a standard length to generations, so they would themselves have expected the generational boundaries in the 20th century to require some tweaking once the big defining events had taken place. It’s therefore completely in their spirit to revisit the definitions they suggested more than 25 years ago.

They actually don’t even stick to four generations per cycle all the time. What they call the Civil War Cycle contains only three. As they write on page 192:

[It is] America’s only three-part cycle – the one whose crisis came too soon, too hard, and with too much ghastly devastation. This cycle is no aberration. Rather, it demonstrates how events can turn out badly – and, from a generational perspective, what happens when they do.

I’m postulating that this has happened again. The crisis came so soon that at least half of Generation X hadn’t yet managed to get high enough up the housing ladder (or build up assets in other ways) to allow them to benefit from the asset boom that was a result of the financial crash. As a result we now have a huge split in most western societies: On the one hand, older people (Baby Boomers and older X’ers) often are asset-rich and have paid off most of their house, as well as having a good pension. Other members of this generation are less rich, but they might at least have a cheap council house that is affordable on their salary or their pension. On the other hand, younger people (Millennials and younger X’ers) don’t tend to have much wealth: They’re either renting in the private sector, or they’ve paid so much money for their house that a crazy amount of their salary is spent on the mortgage. They don’t have decent pensions, and they don’t really expect ever to be able to retire comfortably. They also typically grew up being told to expect a great and prosperous life, and they weren’t expecting things to turn out like this.

I was born in 1972, so right in the middle of Generation X, and I think we felt different from both the Baby Boomers and the Millennials before the financial crash. However, I now feel more and more similar to the Millennials, and further and further removed from the Boomers. So I think we might have to redefine the Baby Boomer generation as stretching all the way to the late 1960s, and the Millennials starting immediately afterwards. (I don’t believe it’s a clean break – whether somebody belongs in one generation or the other ultimately depends on whether they had enough assets when the economy collapsed.)

I think we can now also tell when the Millennial generation ended: The youngsters who don’t remember the time before the financial crash have a different mindset because they didn’t spend their childhood expecting a rich and easy life. They also happen to be the smartphone generation.

So to finish this blog post, let me redefine the generations as follows:

  • The Baby Boomers (too young to remember WWII, and old enough to have built up their wealth before the financial crash): Roughly 1940–1969.
  • The Car-Crash Generation (grew up expecting an easy life, but suddenly the rug got pulled away from under they feet): Roughly 1970–1999.
  • The Smartphone Generation (they don’t remember the easy years, and they live their lives through their smartphones): Roughly 2000–.

bookmark_borderAlphaDiplomacy Zero?

diplomacy game photo
Photo by condredge
When I was still at university, I did several courses in AI, and in one of them we spent a lot of time looking at why Go was so hard to implement. I was therefore very impressed when DeepMind created AlphaGo two years ago and started beating professional players, because it was sooner than I had expected. And I am now overwhelmed by the version called AlphaGo Zero, which is so much better:

Previous versions of AlphaGo initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go. AlphaGo Zero skips this step and learns to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random play. In doing so, it quickly surpassed human level of play and defeated the previously published champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by 100 games to 0.

It is able to do this by using a novel form of reinforcement learning, in which AlphaGo Zero becomes its own teacher. The system starts off with a neural network that knows nothing about the game of Go. It then plays games against itself, by combining this neural network with a powerful search algorithm. As it plays, the neural network is tuned and updated to predict moves, as well as the eventual winner of the games.

I’m wondering whether the same methodology could be used to create a version of Diplomacy.

The game of Diplomacy was invented by Allan B. Calhamer in 1954. The seven players represent the great powers of pre-WWI Europe, but differently from many other board games, there are no dice – nothing is random. In effect it’s more like chess for seven players, except for the addition of diplomacy, i.e., negotiation. For instance, if I’m France and attack England on my own, it’s likely our units will simply bounce; to succeed, I need to convince Germany or Russia to join me, or I need to convince England I’m their friend and that it’ll be perfectly safe to move all their units to Russia or Germany without leaving any of them behind.

Implementing a computer version of Diplomacy without the negotiation aspect isn’t much use (or fun), and implementing human negotiation capabilities is a bit beyond the ability of current computational linguistics techniques.

However, why not simply let AlphaDiplomacy Zero develop its own language? It will probably look rather odd to a human observer, perhaps a bit like Facebook’s recent AI experiment:

Well, weirder than this, of course, because Facebook’s Alice and Bob started out with standard English. AlphaDiplomacy Zero might decide that “Jiorgiougj” means “Let’s gang up on Germany”, and that “Oihuergiub” means “I’ll let you have Belgium if I can have Norway.”

It would be fascinating to study this language afterwords. How many words would it have? How complex would the grammar be? Would it be fundamentally different from human languages? How would it evolve over time?

It would also be fascinating for students of politics and diplomacy to study AlphaDiplomacy’s negotiation strategies (once the linguists had translated it). Would it come up with completely new approaches?

I really hope DeepMind will try this out one day soon. It would be truly fascinating, not just as a board game, but as a study in linguistic universals and politics.

It would tick so many of my boxes in one go (linguistics, AI, Diplomacy and politics). I can’t wait!