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Self in Society Roundup 42

Hanukkah, AI revolution, antitrust, cash charity, test scores, homeschooling, global violence, abortion, and more.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 13, 2023; ported here December 20

Hanukkah: Dave Kopel retells the story of Judah "The Hammer" Maccabee and his guerrilla warfare against the Seleucid oppressors.

AI Revolution: Hamish McKenzie: "AI startup . . . has raised more than $126 million in venture funding to provide automated writing tools to large companies." Tyler Cowen: There's a new AI-driven video news platform. It's remarkable. Human-looking characters present the news. The AI can even translate one language into another—and match the mouth movements! One person Cowen quotes says, "It's so over for journalists lmfao. Learn to code chumps." Cowen adds, "Learning to code won't do it. Become a gardener!" But, if you actually watch the promotional video, you'll find that it says that the AI "news" service is relying on professional news organizations to actually acquire the news. Mostly what the AI service is doing (as far as I can tell) is boiling down existing news reports and putting it through attractive talking heads. Someone still has to generate that original news! AI can't go out and actually interview people on the ground, take the photos and videos, and so on. The new AI channel might be bad news for "pretty faces" in the TV news business, but it will actually empower certain journalists.

Antitrust: Just as the federal government is ramping up its antitrust actions against large tech companies, startups and AI technology are on the cusp of upending the entire industry.

Cash Charity: Nurith Aizenman has the report on GiveDirectly's detailed study of cash transfers to people in Kenya (via Cowen). The study had four basic groups: control (no transfer), lump sum of $1200, $50 per month for two years, and $50 per month for two years with the promise of another decade of funding. The lump sum made a huge difference, because people were able to use the money to invest in new businesses. Remarkably, people who got the long-term promise basically converted the money into lump-sum payments. How? Aizenman: "They did this by making use of a creative financing tool known as a 'rotating savings club.' Every month members of the club pool their money and then take turns getting the entire payout from that pot." I'm also a big fan of GiveWell, but I really love GiveDirectly's promise of helping people substantially improve the material conditions of their lives.

Test Scores: Noah Smith: "PISA results are out, and while the U.S. did worse than before—partly as a result of pandemic learning loss—we still come in ahead of the median. . . . [A]lthough our math education system is highly unequal, it's not as terrible as you might think. Black American kids outperformed Romanian, Greek, and Bulgarian kids, while Hispanic American kids did better than Slovakian, Icelandic, and Serbian kids. Meanwhile, White American and Asian American kids came at or near the top. . . . Math is still a big problem for the U.S., though. American kids generally excelled in reading and in science. But in math, we lag behind." More Noah Smith: "American kids actually do pretty well . . . [but] that's a relative measure. . . . [T]est scores have been falling all over the developed world since around 2010. . . . The timing of the dropoff makes it pretty clear what the chief suspect is here: Smartphones."

Homeschooling: Sareen Habeshian: "There are currently an estimated 1.9 million to 2.7 million homeschooled students in the U.S." according to a Washington Post analysis. "Homeschooling rates have increased across race groups and ethnicities."

App Addiction: Axios: 16% of U.S. teens say they're "almost constantly" on YouTube; 17% say the same about TikTok. That's addiction.

Violence: Even more Noah Smith: "Venezuela just voted to claim two-thirds of the territory of neighboring Guyana. Guyana has vowed to defend itself. Brazil has moved troops to the border in case Venezuela tries to invade via Brazilian territory." In other news: The "annual Armed Conflict Survey . . . paints a grim picture of rising violence in in many regions. . . . The survey . . . documents 183 conflicts for 2023, the highest number in three decades. . . . The intensity of conflict has risen year on year, with fatalities increasing by 14% and violent events by 28% in the latest survey. The authors describe a world 'dominated by increasingly intractable conflicts and armed violence amid a proliferation of actors, complex and overlapping motives, global influences and accelerating climate change.'" Paging Dr. Pinker.

Abortion: Vox: The Texas Supreme Court has ruled against Kate Cox, a 31-year-old woman who sought an abortion in the state. Previously, Cox argued that the lethal condition impacting her fetus and health risks she'd face during the pregnancy meant she qualified for the exemptions outlined in Texas’s abortion ban. The court decision, which comes after Cox left Texas to obtain an abortion, sets a disturbing new precedent in a state that already has one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country."

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