Monday 3 April 2023
I work for Google, but everything here is my personal opinion, not Google's position.
I signed the "Pause" letter because I agree with what it says and I think the actions it advocates are very likely to be beneficial.
To be clear, none of the following are reasons why I signed:
- Because I'm a fan of the Future Of Life Institute, Elon Musk, or any of the other signatories
- Because I think the recommended pause would solve all our problems
- Because I'm confident the pause will actually happen
- To give academics time to publish papers (Scott Aaronson, this one's beneath you)
- To build hype around large language models
- To give some company an advantage over another company
Most of the arguments against a pause are very shallow, e.g. LLMs are a hoax; the proposed pause in giant-model training could lead to government regulation which is inevitably worse than any alternative; people want a pause because of risk X when they should be worried about worse risk Y; AI is so obviously super-beneficial that it's morally wrong to delay those benefits. The two strongest arguments against a pause, IMHO, are a) China and b) potential overhang.
Some people argue that a pause would give China a chance to overtake the rest of the world in AI, and that would be worse than not having a pause. I think that is very unlikely. Western-aligned countries together seem to have three big advantages: a lead in training large models, control over the manufacture and distribution of the most powerful GPUs and TPUs, and most of the world's best AI researchers. Also, from what I've read, the modern CCP is highly averse to social disruption, so I expect them to proceed carefully.
Another argument against a pause is that if we stop training giant models we'll continue to improve hardware and algorithms, so the next time we train a giant model there would be a discontinuous increase in capability, which would be worse than not pausing at all. It seems unlikely to me that this effect, even if it happens, would outweight the benefits of a pause.
Supporters of the proposed pause are motivated by different AI risks. In particular:
- Some people, exemplified by Eliezer Yudkowsky, are convinced AI will inevitably destroy humanity due to the "alignment problem". I think that possibility has to be taken seriously — which alone is a good reason to adopt the "Pause" letter's measures (and more). Still, I doubt doom is guaranteed.
- Some people are more worried about socioeconomic issues like potential mass unemployment. I think these issues, taken together, are also a sufficient reason to slow down AI development and mass deployment. When AI capabilities grow faster than people can learn new skills, we're pushing the limit of the rate of change humans can handle.
- In between "social/economic adjustment" and "alignment extinction risk" are the risks of powerful AIs in the hands of malicious people. We have to learn to defend against the new generations of scams, hacks, warfare and other havoc that are coming, and again, this takes time.
I think all of these risks are valid concerns that warrant great caution and slower rates of change. I'd be delighted if we got the proposed pause. I don't think we will, but I hope that these issues get a lot more attention and we start taking government and self-regulation of AI seriously. It's absurd that we regulate food and drug safety but not AI.
Sunday 2 April 2023
This morning I did the Auckland Waterfront Half Marathon. I finished in 1:51:13 which is okay but a little bit disappointing given that this course is dead flat. I'm getting older and I have to accept that. It felt similar to my previous half marathons where I can maintain pace up until about 18km and then it becomes too hard, so I break into a walk/run pattern until the end. Still, a good workout and these events help incentivize me to keep the running up.
Saturday 24 December 2022
After completing the Paparoa Track on December 14, six of our group were dropped off in St Arnaud to prepare for the Travers-Sabine Circuit. We spent two nights at Nelson Lakes Motel, with a rest day on December 15 to do laundry, buy a few more supplies, pack for the circuit, and generally relax (including watching Morocco vs France in the football World Cup).
On December 16 we got up early and took a boat across Lake Rotoiti to Coldwater Hut where we started the track. That day we marched for several hours up the Travers Valley, all the way to Upper Travers Hut at the head of the valley. It was a long, tiring walk with heavy packs containing supplies for six days, but not especially difficult. As forecast, the weather was foggy and a bit drizzly but not bad and when we reached Upper Travers we had some good views of Mt Travers and surrounding slopes still with patches of snow. The second day we crossed the Travers Saddle — a more difficult walk, starting with a steep 500m-vertical climb to the saddle, followed by a 1km-vertical desent to the East Sabine River and a walk to West Sabine Hut. This day the weather was pretty good and we had some great views from the saddle.
The next day I really wanted to visit Blue Lake because we missed out last time. I had originally planned to stay overnight at Blue Lake Hut but we decided instead to leave our gear at West Sabine Hut and make a day trip to Blue Lake. The main advantage was to shorten our walk on day four, by moving the return from Blue Lake to West Sabine Hut from day four to day three, which hopefully would leave us fresher for day five (see below). Our day trip was excellent; Blue Lake was nice but not stunning given the cloudy weather conditions, but the walk up the valley is beautiful and we visited Lake Constance beyond the head of the valley, which was stunning. (Signs say the Lake Constance viewpoint is one hour from Blue Lake Hut but it's really one hour return.)
On day four, as planned we had a relatively easy walk down to Sabine Hut on Lake Rotoroa, followed by quality rest time at the hut, during which we ate a lot of snacks, played a lot of Bang, and enjoyed Vodafone coverage inside the hut, letting us get up-to-date weather forecasts and let our loved ones know we were alive.
On day five we tackled the hardest part of our planned route: climbing Mt Cedric and then following ridgetops to Angelus Hut. The route up Mt Cedric has over 1000m of elevation gain in the first 3km of horizontal travel. Most of that gain is below the bushline and much of that track is covered in slippery black fungus fed by beech honeydew. It's a tough hike! To beat rain forecast for the afternoon, we got up at 5am and left the hut around 6am. Everything went well and we arrived at Angelus Hut around noon, right on schedule, tired but satisfied. The weather was mixed but we had some sun and good views in the afternoon.
On our last day we just had to walk from Angelus Hut along Robert Ridge and into St Arnaud for lunch and then a shuttle pickup to Nelson Airport. Thankfully we had excellent weather for this, with stunning views in all directions. After the rest of the circuit, Robert Ridge was extremely easy. It was fun to gently rejoin civilization by encountering more and more day-walkers as we made our way down Mt Robert.
Overall it was a challenging but extremely rewarding trip. On both Paparoa and Travers-Sabine the forecast weather was poor but the actual weather was much better. We achieved everything we set out to do. We enjoyed the walking and we had wonderful social times in huts — including many, many games of Bang!, some with people outside our group. I'm incredibly grateful to God for the privilege of being able to do these trips and for the love and friendship of the people whom I am blessed to tramp with.
Thursday 22 December 2022
We have a tradition that every year I organise a group tramping trip in the South Island in December, between students finishing exams and Christmas. Typically we do one "easy" tramp and one "hard" tramp, balancing welcoming new trampers with pursuing tougher but more rewarding challenges. This year the "easy" tramp was Paparoa Track and the "hard" tramp was the Travers-Sabine Circuit (which we previously did in 2019).
I completed all the official "Great Walks" some years ago, but recently the Paparoa Track was created as a new Great Walk, and this year seemed like a good time to re-complete the set. We did it over three days (December 12-14) which seemed about right; one could spend an extra day and stay at Ces Clark hut, but that would make it a bit too easy for my taste. So we started at the southern end, Smoke-Ho car park, and walked north, staying at Moonlight Tops Hut on the first night and Pororari Hut on the second night. We hired three rental cars to get all thirteen of us to the track start (staying the night before at Greymouth Top 10 Holiday Park), and hired Buller Adventures to move those cars to the track end while we were walking. These logistics all worked out well.
Everything basically went according to plan. We didn't get many views on the first day due to foggy weather — some of us did the side track up Croesus Knob, which was a waste of time since we basically walked up into a cloud. However the weather on the second and third day was excellent, with stunning views across the Paparoa ranges and down to the ocean on the West Coast. The Pororari River gorge was also a highlight. No-one got injured, though a couple of members of our group were a bit slower than expected. As expected for a Great Walk, the track condition was excellent. It's open to mountain bikers; we met a few but they didn't cause any problems. Parts of the track looked pretty terrifying to bike on but a lot of people are much better at biking than me! Along the track we had a close encounter with one kea and also saw a morepork (native owl), which is unusual since they're usually hidden during the day and impossible to see at night.
Late on the first day we passed a man tramping alone who had stopped to rest after experiencing some kind of heart arrhythmia. He was considering his options — continue or call for help — so I and a couple of other group members waited with him for a while to support him in whatever decision he made. In the end he decided to continue while we walked with him. To be on the safe side we carried his pack too. The next day he felt a lot better and carried on normally to complete the track, thank God. It's the first time we've had to assist someone outside our group in a quasi-emergency and I was pleased to be able to do it. At the hut turned out he was carrying a chess set; my son was delighted to play some games with him, and lost a few, which is great because there are no worthy opponents in the rest of our group.
It was interesting to see that the brand-new huts have USB chargers (powered by the rooftop solar panels). I guess that was inevitable!
Ranking the Great Walks, I rate Paparoa in the lower tier, with fewer interesting elements than most of the other Great Walks. It is extremely popular right now — bookings for the dates we wanted sold out in a few minutes after they opened on May 6 — but I guess that's partly due to completists like me adding it to their collection. On the other hand, it is certainly well worth doing in its own right, especially once you've done the top-tier walks.
After the exiting the track at Punakaiki on the 14th our drivers drove the rental cars back to Nelson, dropping off six of us in St Arnaud along the way to prepare for the Travers-Sabine Circuit, but that's another story...
Monday 19 September 2022
I just completed the Aotea Track for the second time, with a few friends and work colleagues. On Saturday we flew to the island and walked from Whangaparapara to Kaiaraara Hut, with a side trip to Bush's Beach. On Sunday we walked up Kaiaraara Track to Mt Hobson/Hirakimata for fantastic views around the whole island and the outer Hauraki Gulf. A few of us did a side trip to Windy Canyons. We stayed the night at Mt Heale Hut which is pretty close to Hirakimata and also has incredible views. On Monday (today) we walked down to Kaitoke Hot Springs for a dip and then along the road to the airport for the flight home. The weather was good during the weekend; we had some rain today but it didn't cause us much trouble. We had a great time, and I feel very refreshed.
I was surprised to see no trampers on the track or in the huts, other than our group. There aren't many good tramping options near Auckland, especially during the winter, and this is a great one. Getting to Great Barrier is easy if you fly (about $300 round trip). Altogether I expected this track to be more popular.
Sunday 4 September 2022
I totally agree with Ed Zitron when he writes
Anyone that has achieved any level of success wants to believe they did so based on noble terms and tells their story in a way that makes them seem both like a moral paragon and someone that’s “earned” their place.
Privilege isn’t just about being rich, or white, or male, or any number of other conditions that make life easier by default, and one can be an incredibly hard worker and still be quite privileged. Privilege is the ability to work hard when it actually matters, which is to say that simply working hard is not enough to succeed if your hard work doesn’t lead to actual success because the right person wasn’t watching or you weren’t at the right company, or you were overlooked based on your gender or the color of your skin.
Even "intrinsic" circumstances such as our talents are not something that we earned. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters:
People did not create themselves... their talents were given them, and they might as well be proud of the colour of their hair.
I agree with Zitron and Lewis that we have an unhealthy tendency to take credit for our own success. But pushing against that too hard may lead to a mindset that nothing we do makes any difference — we're just a victim of circumstances — which leads to apathy and irresponsibility. So how do we find the right way to think about this tension?
Jesus gives us a simple and elegant approach in Luke 12:48:
"From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."
That's so simple it's almost trite, but I think it's actually very deep, especially when interpreted in the broader context of Luke and other teachings such as the parable of the talents. First Jesus affirms that the good things we have have been given to us by God, directly or indirectly. We can't take credit for them. But then he tells us that God expects a lot from us in return; we have to make the most of what God has given us. In fact, in the context it's clear Jesus is talking about the day of divine judgement. There is no room for apathy; God requires our very best efforts.
This is a beautiful and elegant answer to a very practical dilemma. It's important to notice that this answer doesn't work without God — the Creator who also judges. If you take God out of the equation then there is not necessarily anyone to feel grateful to for our success, and we are obliged to no-one to make the most of what we have.
Saturday 2 July 2022
Last weekend (Friday) was the first ever Matariki public holiday and the kids had Monday off so we went on a family road trip to Tūrangi for three nights. It wasn't a tramping trip — we stayed at the "Tūrangi Leisure Lodge" motel — but the trip was mostly short walks and board games.
We drove down on Friday and stopped near Lake Karapiro to walk up Maungatautari from the northern side. It's a mountain in the Waikato countryside with a predator-proof fence to create a bird sanctuary. The walk to the summit was worth doing, about three hours round trip, although there isn't much of a view at the top.
Saturday was overcast and drizzly and we did short walks around Tūrangi — up and down the Tongariro River, with lots of people fly-fishing. We drove the short distance to Tokaanu and enjoyed views of the lake from the wharf. Near Tokaanu is the bush-clad hill Maunganamu, probably a very small volcanic cone. Our topographic map showed a track to the top so we hunted it down — there are no signs in the area and the trailhead is overgrown, but the track is still there and passable although obviously unmaintained and becoming gradually overgrown. At the top there's bit of a lookout over the surrounding area. For a very short walk it was pretty good.
Sunday's weather was a bit better so we drove the road loop around the central volcanoes, clockwise — Whakapapa, National Park, Ohakune, the Desert Road, back to Tūrangi, with stops along the way in a few places. In Whakapapa we did the Taranaki Falls walk and got some great views of snow-clad Mt Ruapehu along the way. We did a side trip up the Ohakune Mountain Road to Tūroa skifield and played around in the snow for a little while. (Fortunately for us, there wasn't enough snow for the skifield to be open and thronged with skiers.) Along the Desert Road clouds lifted enough for us to have amazing views of the east side of Mt Ruapehu, Mt Ngauruhoe and Mt Tongariro. It was getting late in the day for more walking but we took the chance to investigate the Kaimanawa Road leading to DoC's Urchin Campsite and the route up Mt Urchin. The road is actually pretty good, definitely good enough for our Honda Odyssey. We did a very short walk there on a beautifully maintained bush track. I'm definitely looking forward to going back there, maybe camping, and doing the walk up Mt Urchin. This was a pretty great day; even though the weather wasn't perfect we got good views of all the mountains at various times during the day.
On Monday we headed back to Auckland via my favourite geothermal park: Waimangu Valley near Rotorua. This is supposedly the world's youngest geothermal area, having only become geothermally active in 1886 after the eruption of Mt Tarawera. I enjoy this place because it's a great three-hour bush walk (at a slow pace) which just happens to have amazing geothermal features along the way. The highlight for me was Frying Pan Lake, supposedly the world's biggest hot spring, but certainly a quite large and very hot lake. The patterns of rising steam swirling in the wind are amazing, something I haven't seen anywhere else. No boiling mud or geysers but of course you can see those at lots of other places in the region.
It's a huge blessing to leave near enough to all these features that we can easily get away to see them in a long weekend. Tūrangi makes a great base — it's cheap and uncrowded but still close to great stuff. I'm really grateful to God.
Sunday 1 May 2022
I just finished a five-day walk around Mt Ruapehu, the Round The Mountain Track, in a group of 11 family and friends. It was more intense than I expected — rather more difficult, but also more interesting.
We drove from Auckland to Turangi and stayed in motel on Monday night to give us time for the full Tama Lakes side track on the first day. Tuesday's walk from Whakapapa village across the Tama Saddle is pretty easy — it's Great-Walk-standard track for the Tongariro Northern Circuit — and only five hours. The weather was excellent — mostly sunny, as it was for almost the whole trip — and the side track to Upper Tama Lake was well worth it. Waihohonu Hut was full (school holidays); we'd booked 10 of the 28 bunks, and one of our people had to sleep at the campsite in a bivvy bag. Altogether a great first day, but I've done this stretch of track several times on the Tongariro Northern Circuit so it's the rest of the track I was really looking forward to.
On Wednesday we did another short leg, five hours south through the Rangipo Desert on the east side of Ruapehu, to Rangipo Hut. This is a really bleak and barren area, the most barren part of NZ below the treeline as far as I know. We got to Rangipo Hut in good time, even after we visited the historic Old Waihohonu Hut along the way. This section crosses some huge gorges, in particular the Whangaehu River gorge which carries the outflow from Crater Lake — currently a dirty gray colour due to the chemicals the volcano is brewing there. During eruptions, and collapsing of post-eruptive tephra dams around the lake, this valley and sometimes others is scoured by huge lahars. Since Ruapehu is currently at volcanic alert level 2, I think we all felt an urge to not linger!
Rangipo Hut has incredible views west to the Kaimanawa Ranges, south to the town of Waiouru and beyond, including Lake Moawhango. It's beautiful and mostly peaceful, but it's close to the NZ Army's training grounds — the rattle of distant gunfire and the whump of explosions into the evening made it a slightly surreal experience.
On Thursday we got up early to see a magnificent sunrise, and left the hut around 8am with a longish day ahead of us to get to Blyth Hut. Along this stretch of track you leave the desert and bare rocks and enter patchy forest. Mt Taranaki also came into view again. We reached Mangaehuehu Hut about on schedule at 1:30pm, had a quick lunch break, and took off around 2pm, just managing to get to Blyth Hut before sunset. It's a bit disappointing that there's not much of a view from Blyth Hut itself, but just down the track we got magnificent views of the sunset over Mt Taranaki and, later, of the stars. The younger folks stayed outside in the cold for nearly an hour watching for shooting stars.
On Friday I anticipated an even harder day so we left the hut even earlier at 7:30am. The track winds past a nice waterfall and then reaches the Ohakune Mountain Rd which we had to walk up to reach the next section of track. The road was steeper than I had anticipated and we went slower than anticipated so we started to fall behind schedule and I started to worry... From the road the track descends beside some spectacular silica-encrusted waterfalls and eventually winds around to Mangaturuturu Hut, which we reached around noon. We had a short lunch break again because the next section of track to Whakapapaiti Hut was rated "5-7 hours" which meant even optimistically we would not arrive before sunset! And so it proved... Most of the Round The Mountain track repeatedly crosses up-and-down over old lava flows, but it seemed that this section on the east side of Ruapehu has steeper ridges and more rugged rocks than the rest. The sun set around 5:30pm and we still clearly had at least an hour to go, but there was nothing to do but turn on our head-lamps and carry on! I was very glad that we'd just crossed the last big ridge before dark, and we were able to catch sight of the hut, even though it was still far away — a real morale boost just when it was needed. I was worried that the rocky track would even more difficult to navigate with headlamps, but at least for me it wasn't really. Neverthless we did have to slow down a bit to make sure that no-one got lost in the dark. Finally we arrived at Whakapapaiti Hut around 7:15pm — nearly 12 hours hut-to-hut, almost all of it on our feet. I've never been so glad to reach a hut!
This was one of those pushing-the-envelope experiences that could have been a disaster but I think actually turned out for good. Following the Google postmortem model:
What went wrong: I underestimated the effort it would take to get from Blyth to Whakapapaiti — but unfortunately the uneven hut spacing along the Round The Mountain track means there's no obvious way to avoid at least one monster day. I overestimated the speed of our group on that difficult section of track up to Whakapapaiti; I should have ensured every single person in our group had one (ideally two) hiking poles and used them. Also, less experienced trampers should always be following just behind someone more experienced at pathfinding — picking out optimal routes around rocks and other obstacles is a skill that makes a difference. We should have left Blyth Hut at the crack of dawn, half an hour earlier.
What went right: Some of those problems I identified and fixed during the day. I let everyone know early in the day that we'd have to walk in the dark, and when it got dark we smoothly switched to using headlamps with no fuss or panic. We stopped for snacks regularly even when we all felt pressure to "just keep walking".
Where we got lucky: It turned out that in a large group like ours headlamps work really well even if not everyone has one — there's plenty of lights on the track. The weather was cloudy but dry the whole day. No-one got injured. Most importantly, despite the variety of ages and experience levels, everyone was able to keep on walking at a steady pace over difficult terrain for much longer than I (or they, I think!) would have guessed likely before Friday. Thanks be to God!
Remarkably, after such a day most people in the group were very happy! We pushed our limits and surprised ourselves. Partly because of that experience I'd say this is one of the best walks I've ever done. We had excellent weather. The scenery around Mt Ruahepu is magnificent, especially the parts south of the mountain that I hadn't seen before — every day the terrain is a bit different. You see different sides of the mountain itself; right now the north side is completely bare of snow but the south side has its glaciers.
After that, Saturday was an anticlimax. We just walked out to Whakapapa in a little under 3 hours and then drove home.
Now for the twist: one of our group developed virus symptoms on Friday. I got some symptoms on Friday night/Saturday morning. When I got home last night I took a RAT test and yep, COVID+. So far the other sick guy and another guy have also tested positive. I won't be surprised if it turns out we all got it. I'm not sure how we got it; no-one else was symptomatic during the trip, but of course someone could have brought it asymptomatically. The good news is that so far I've had colds that were worse. Nevertheless my family and I will be self-isolating for the next week.
Sunday 3 April 2022
We did it! Auckland is well past the peak of the Omicron wave and NZ as a whole is entering the "endemic COVID" phase with minimal illness and loss of life compared to other countries. Overall, our COVID strategy has worked well. However, there are a number of things we could have done better that are worth discussing.
As I write this, Auckland is clearly well past the Omicron peak. Hospitalizations "with COVID" in the Auckland region are down to 350, from a peak of around 600 (out of 2700 total hospital beds in the region). ICU patients "with COVID" peaked at 31 and are stable or possibly declining. Our health system was creaking a bit at the peak but did not suffer the carnage seen overseas. Auckland will likely move to "orange light" settings in the coming week. NZ borders will almost fully open at the end of this month. I'm calling it: soon we will have transitioned to "endemic COVID" with better health results than just about any country in the world. Other metrics are also pretty good: e.g., during the pandemic we had 16 months of almost no restrictions apart from border controls.
The essence of our strategy was pretty clear by April/May 2020: eliminate COVID, keep it out at the border and keep stamping it out until we're able to vaccinate everyone. We achieved that: our only big wave has happened after everyone 18 and over had plenty of time to be double-vaccinated (and 12-and-overs had time for at least one dose)**. As a bonus this big wave is Omicron, which is less severe than the earlier variants. In Auckland we have had about eight months total of various levels of lockdown restrictions, but only a few months of the most severe restrictions (if you're vaccinated, at least). This was clearly a sensible strategy and we should do it again under similar circumstances. Switching gears in November/December 2021 to simply slow the spread and accept endemic COVID was also sensible (looking at you, China).
I think the major policy settings were mostly very good, but I see a couple of potential flaws. I wonder whether vaccine mandates for workers in education, health, police etc were worth the trouble; I don't want to go into the pros and cons here, but in hindsight they might not have provided enough benefit. We should have tried to prioritize MIQ usage to stop people using scarce MIQ capacity for holiday travel, but that was never even tried.
A lot of the execution was deeply flawed. For example, in 2020, COVID testing for MIQ workers lagged far behind government expectations. In 2020 and 2021 vaccination procurement was late and vaccination rollout was slow. RAT test acquisition was a fiasco and RAT tests were deployed later than they were needed. Testing and contact tracing consistently failed to meet targets. All these issues were forseeable. For these reasons I think Bloomfield (and probably others) should have been sacked long ago. Fortunately, in each of these areas our execution was just good enough to avoid disaster and stay on track with our strategy. Nevertheless we should be studying those flaws (in an apolitical way) and figuring out how to do better (with future COVID variants or the next pandemic). I suspect a lot of the problems lie with bureaucracy in the Ministry of Health and elsewhere in government.
On the other hand, I've faced enough armchair critics to know that people actually making and executing decisions, with limited knowledge, limited time, and real-world constraints, deserve much benefit of the doubt. I have no sympathy for the people who argue that the NZ government deserves no credit for our results "because it was easy" — you only have to look around the world to see that it was not. I'm very thankful to Ardern, Bloomfield, Hipkins and many others for the situation we're in.
** One very strange thing that happened in New Zealand that no-one talks about: in November/December we relaxed lockdown restrictions and opened up the country internally while Delta was spreading. Everyone traveled for Christmas, met for parties, etc etc ... and Delta cases just kept declining! We came close to eliminating it and probably could have except Omicron took over! No-one paid attention to this because at the time we were all just waiting for Omicron to arrive, but I think it's very surprising and needs to be explained.