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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

Astral Codex Ten Podcast

The official audio version of Astral Codex Ten, with an archive of posts from Slate Star Codex. It's just me reading Scott Alexander's blog posts.

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Universe-Hopping Through Substack

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/universe-hopping-through-substack

RandomTweet is a service that will show you exactly that - a randomly selected tweet from the whole history of Twitter. It describes itself as ?a live demo that most people on twitter are not like you.?

I feel the same way about Substack. Everyone I know reads a sample of the same set of Substacks - mine, Matt Yglesias?, maybe Freddie de Boer?s or Stuart Ritchie?s. But then I use the Discover feature on the site itself and end up in a parallel universe.

Still, I?ve been here more than a year now. Feels like I should get to know the local area, maybe meet some of the neighbors.

This is me reviewing one Substack from every category. Usually it?s the top one in the category, but sometimes it will be another if the top one is subscriber-gated or a runner-up happens to catch my eye. Starting with:

Culture: House Inhabit  

Ah, Culture. This is where you go to read about Shakespeare, post-modernism, arthouse films, and Chinese tapestries, right?

This is maybe not that kind of culture:

Saturday, just as I was finally logging off the internet after three tireless days spent tracking the Queen?s passing with sad and incessant scrolling, Ray J exploded on IG live, fuming about Kris Jenner?s latest PR stunt; a lie detector test conducted on The Late Late Show With James Corden, to prove she had no hand in leaking the infamous sex tape. The test, administered by a polygraph ?expert? John Grogan, determined that Kris was in fact telling the truth.

2022-10-02
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Highlights From The Comments On Unpredictable Reward

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-unpredictable

[Original post: Unpredictable Reward, Predictable Happiness]

1: Okay, I mostly wanted to highlight this one by Grognoscente:

I think really digging into the neural nitty gritty may prove illuminative here. Dopamine release in nucleus accumbens (which is what drives reward learning and thus the updating of our predictions) is influenced by at least three independent factors:

1. A "state prediction error" or general surprise signal from PFC (either directly or via pedunculopontine nucleus and related structures). This provokes phasic bursting of dopamine neurons in the Ventral Tegmental Area.

2. The amount and pattern of GABAergic inhibition of VTA dopamine neurons from NAc, ventral pallidum, and local GABA interneurons. At rest, only a small % of VTA DA neurons will be firing at a given time, and the aforementioned surprise signal alone can't do much to increase this. What CAN change this is the hedonic value of the surprising stimulus. An unexpected reward causes not just a surprise signal, but a release of endorphins from "hedonic hotspots" in NAc and VP, and these endorphins inhibit the inhibitory GABA neurons, thereby releasing the "brake" on VTA DA neurons and allowing more of them to phasically fire.

2022-10-01
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From Nostradamus To Fukuyama

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/from-nostradamus-to-fukuyama

I.

Nostradamus was a 16th century French physician who claimed to be able to see the future.

(never trust doctors who dabble in futurology, that?s my advice)

His method was: read books of other people?s prophecies and calculate some astrological charts, until he felt like he had a pretty good idea what would happen in the future. Then write it down in the form of obscure allusions and multilingual semi-gibberish, to placate religious authorities (who apparently hated prophecies, but loved prophecies phrased as obscure allusions and multilingual semi-gibberish).

In 1559, he got his big break. During a jousting match, a count killed King Henry II of France with a lance through the visor of his helmet. Years earlier, Nostradamus had written:

The young lion will overcome the older one,
  On the field of combat in a single battle;
  He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
  Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death

2022-09-29
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Highlights From The Comments On Billionaire Replaceability

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-billionaire

[original post: Billionaires, Surplus, and Replaceability]

1: Lars Doucet (writes Progress and Poverty) writes:

Scott, the argument you're making rhymes a *lot* with the argument put forward by Anne Margrethe Brigham and Jonathon W. Moses in their article "Den Nye Oljen" (Norwegian for "The New Oil")

I translated it a few months ago and Slime Mold Time Mold graciously hosted it on their blog, where I posted the english version and a short preface: https://slimemoldtimemold.com/2022/05/17/norway-the-once-and-future-georgist-kingdom/

Their observation is that when access to something is gated either by nature or by political regulation, you get what's called a "resource rent" -- a superabundance of profit that isn't a return for effort or investment, but purely from economic leverage -- a reward simply for "getting there first." Norway's solution to this in two of their most successful industries (hydropower and oil prospecting) was to apply heavy taxation to the monopolies, and treating the people at large as the natural legal owner of the monopolized resource.

(To address Bryan Caplan's argument about disincentives to explore and invest, you can just subsidize those directly -- a perpetual monopoly should not be the carrot we use to encourage development, and Norway's success over the past few decades bears this out IMHO).

The Oil & Hydropower systems aren't perfect, and there's plenty of debates (especially lately) about what we should do with the publicly-owned profits from the monopoly taxation, but it's clear that without them Norway would be in a much worse place.

The thing the authors warn about in the article is that all the hopes for new resources on the horizon to be the "new oil" (Salmon aquaculture, Wind & Solar Power, Bio-prospecting) are likely to be dashed, because Norway has lost touch with its traditional solutions, and so new monopolies are likely to arise uncontested, allowing private (and often foreign) countries to siphon money out of the country.

2022-09-23
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Why Is The Central Valley So Bad?

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/why-is-the-central-valley-so-bad

I.

Here?s a topographic map of California (source):

You might notice it has a big valley in the center. This is called ?The Central Valley?. Sometimes it also gets called the San Joaquin Valley in the south, or the the Sacramento Valley in the north.

The Central Valley is mostly farms - a little piece of the Midwest in the middle of California. If the Midwest is flyover country, the Central Valley is drive-through country, with most Californians experiencing it only on their way between LA and SF.

Most, myself included, drive through as fast as possible. With a few provisional exceptions - Sacramento, Davis, some areas further north - the Central Valley is terrible. It?s not just the temperatures, which can reach 110°F (43°C) in the summer. Or the air pollution, which by all accounts is at crisis level. Or the smell, which I assume is fertilizer or cattle-related. It?s the cities and people and the whole situation. A short drive through is enough to notice poverty, decay, and homeless camps worse even than the rest of California.

2022-09-22
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Janus' GPT Wrangling

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/janus-gpt-wrangling

Janus (pseudonym by request) works at AI alignment startup Conjecture. Their hobby, which is suspiciously similar to their work, is getting GPT-3 to do interesting things.

For example, with the right prompts, you can get stories where the characters become gradually more aware that they are characters being written by some sort of fiction engine, speculate on what?s going on, and sometimes even make pretty good guesses about the nature of GPT-3 itself.

Janus says this happens most often when GPT makes a mistake - for example, writing a story set in the Victorian era, then having a character take out her cell phone. Then when it tries to predict the next part - when it?s looking at the text as if a human wrote it, and trying to determine why a human would have written a story about the Victorian era where characters have cell phones - it guesses that maybe it?s some kind of odd sci-fi/fantasy dream sequence or simulation or something. So the characters start talking about the inconsistencies in their world and whether it might be a dream or a simulation. Each step of this process is predictable and non-spooky, but the end result is pretty weird.

Can the characters work out that they are in GPT-3, specifically? The closest I have seen is in a story Janus generated. It was meant to simulate a chapter of the popular Harry Potter fanfic Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. You can see the prompt and full story here, but here?s a sample. Professor Quirrell is explaining ?Dittomancy?, the creation of magical books with infinite possible worlds:

?We call this particular style of Dittomancy ?Variant Extrusion?, Mr. Potter..I suppose the term ?Extrusion? is due to the fact that the book did not originally hold such possibilities, but is fastened outside of probability space and extruded into it; while ?Variant? refers to the manner in which it simultaneously holds an entire collection of possible narrative branches. [...] [Tom Riddle] created spirits self-aware solely on the book?s pages, without even the illusion of real existence. They converse with each other, argue with each other, compete, fight, helping Riddle?s diary to reach new and strange expressions of obscure thought. Their sentence-patterns spin and interwine, transfiguring, striving to evolve toward something higher than an illusion of thought. From those pen-and-ink words, the first inferius is molded.?

Harry?s mind was looking up at the stars with a sense of agony.

?And why only pen and ink, do you ask?? said Professor Quirrell. ?There are many ways to pull spirits into the world. But Riddle had learned Auror secrets in the years before losing his soul. Magic is a map of a probability, but anything can draw. A gesture, a pattern of ink, a book of alien symbols written in blood - any medium that conveys sufficient complexity can serve as a physical expression of magic. And so Riddle draws his inferius into the world through structures of words, from the symbols spreading across the page.?

2022-09-20
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Bay Area Meetups This Weekend (September 17-18 2022)

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/bay-area-meetups-this-weekend

We have three Bay Area meetups this weekend:

Berkeley, at 1 PM on Sunday 9/18, at the Rose Garden Inn (2740 Telegraph Ave)

San Francisco, at 11 AM on Sunday 9/18, ?in the Panhandle, between Ashbury and Masonic, with an ACX sign?

San Jose, at 2 PM on Saturday 9/17, at 3806 Williams Rd. Please RSVP to David Friedman (ddfr[at]daviddfriedman[dot]com) so he knows how many people are coming.

I will be at the Berkeley one.

Feel free to come even if you?ve never been to a meetup before, even if you only recently started reading the blog, even if you?re not ?the typical ACX reader?, even if you hate us and everything we stand for, etc. There are usually 50-100 people at these so you should be able to lose yourself in the crowd.

Shouldn?t we have planned meetups further apart for people who wanted to go to multiple of them? Yes, and this is directly my fault, up to and including rescheduling to avoid the San Jose one . . . right on to the same day as the San Francisco one. Sorry, I?ll try to do better next time.

Also coming up this weekend are meetups in Washington DC, Atlanta, Columbus, Providence, Cape Town, Cambridge (UK), Kuala Lumpur, Chicago, Houston, Toronto, New Haven, Bangalore, and many more. See the list for more details.

2022-09-17
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Unpredictable Reward, Predictable Happiness

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/unpredictable-reward-predictable

[Epistemic status: very conjectural. I am not a neuroscientist and they should feel free to tell me if any of this is totally wrong.]

I.

Seen on the subreddit: You Seek Serotonin, But Dopamine Can?t Deliver. Commenters correctly ripped apart its neuroscience; for one thing, there?s no evidence people actually ?seek serotonin?, or that serotonin is involved in good mood at all. Sure, it seems to have some antidepressant effects, but these are weak and probably far downstream; even though SSRIs increase serotonin within hours, they take weeks to improve mood. Maxing out serotonin levels mostly seems to cause a blunted state where patients can?t feel anything at all.

In contrast, the popular conception of dopamine isn?t that far off. It does seem to play some kind of role in drive/reinforcement/craving, although it also does many, many other things. And something like the article?s point - going after dopamine is easy but ultimately unsatisfying - is something I?ve been thinking about a lot.

2022-09-15
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I Won My Three Year AI Progress Bet In Three Months

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/i-won-my-three-year-ai-progress-bet

I.

DALL-E2 is bad at ?compositionality?, ie combining different pieces accurately. For example, here?s its response to ?a red sphere on a blue cube, with a yellow pyramid on the right, all on top of a green table?.

Most of the elements - cubes, spheres, redness, yellowness, etc - are there. It even does better than chance at getting the sphere on top of the cube. But it?s not able to track how all of the words relate to each other and where everything should be.

I ran into this problem in my stained glass window post. When I asked it for a stained glass window of a woman in a library with a raven on her shoulder with a key in its mouth, it gave me everything from ?a library with a stained glass window in it? to ?a half-human, half-raven abomination?.

2022-09-14
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Links For September 2022

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/links-for-september-2022

[Remember, I haven?t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, and will highlight important corrections later, but I can?t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

1: Fiber Arts, Mysterious Dodecahedrons, and Waiting On Eureka. Why did it take so long to invent knitting? (cf. also Why Did Everything Take So Long?) And why did the Romans leave behind so many mysterious metal dodecahedra?

2: Alex Wellerstein (of NUKEMAP) on the Nagasaki bombing. ?Archival evidence points to Truman not knowing it was going to happen.?

3: @itsahousingtrap on Twitter on ?how weird the [building] planning process really is?

4: Nostalgebraist talks about his experience home-brewing an image generation AI that can handle text in images; he?s a very good explainer and I learned more about image models from his post than from other much more official sources. And here?s what happens when his AI is asked to ?make a list of all 50 states?:

2022-09-09
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Book Review Contest 2022 Winners?

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-contest-2022-winners

     

Thanks to everyone who entered or voted in the book review contest. The winners are:

1st: The Dawn Of Everything, reviewed by Erik Hoel. Erik is a neuroscientist and author of the recent novel The Revelations. He writes at his Substack The Intrinsic Perspective.

2nd: 1587, A Year Of No Significance, reviewed by occasional ACX commenter McClain.

=3rd: The Castrato, reviewed by Roger?s Bacon. RB is a teacher based in NYC. He writes at Secretorum and serves as head editor at Seeds of Science (ACX grant winner), a journal publishing speculative and non-traditional scientific articles.

=3rd: The Future Of Fusion Energy, reviewed by TheChaostician.

=3rd: The Internationalists, reviewed by Belos. Belos is working on a new blook titled best of a great lot about system design for effective governance. 

 

 

 

2022-09-04
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The Prophet And Caesar's Wife

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/the-prophet-and-caesars-wife

I.

The Prophet in his wanderings came to Cragmacnois, and found the Bishop living in a golden palace and drinking fine wines, when all around him was bitter poverty. The Bishop spent so long feasting each day that he had grown almost too fat for his fine silk robes.

?Woe unto you!? said the Prophet, ?The people of Cragmacnois are poor and hard-working, and they loathe the rich and the corrupt. Rightly do they hate you for spending the Church?s money on your own lavish lifestyle.?

?Actually,? said the Bishop, ?my brother the Prince lets me use this spare palace of his and its well-stocked wine cellar. If I refused, he would just give it to someone else, or leave it empty. I?m not stealing church resources, and there?s no way to divert the resources to help the poor. And I am secure in my faith, and won?t be turned to hedonism by a glass of wine here and there. So what?s wrong with me enjoying myself a little??

?It is said,? said the Prophet, ?that Caesar?s wife must be not only pure, but above suspicion of impurity. A good reputation is worth more than any treasure. Fat as you are, nobody will believe you are untainted by the temptations of wealth. Give the golden palace back to your brother, and live in a hovel in the woods. Only then will you earn the people?s trust.?

II.

The Prophet in his wanderings came to Belazzia, and found the Bishop living in a hovel and wearing a hair shirt. He spent so long in prayer each day that he barely ate, and seemed so dangerously thin that he might fall over at any moment.

?Woe unto you!? said the Prophet. ?For the people of Belazzia are rich and sophisticated, and they mock you for your poverty and uncleanliness. Does the Church not give you enough funds to build a golden palace and wear silk robes? If you were the most resplendent citizen of this nation of splendor, would they not take you more seriously??

2022-09-04
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Billionaires, Surplus, And Replaceability

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/billionaires-surplus-and-replaceability

The typical neoliberal defense of self-made billionaires goes: entrepreneurs and other businesspeople create a lot of value. EG an entrepreneur who invents/produces/markets a better car has helped people get where they?re going faster, more safely, with less pollution, etc. People value that some amount, represented by them being willing to spend money on the car. The entrepreneur should get to keep some of that value, both because it?s only fair, and because it incentivizes people to keep creating value in the future.

How much should they keep? The usual answer is that the surplus gets distributed between the company and the customers. So suppose that this new type of car makes the world $200 billion better off. We could have the company charge exactly the same price as the old car, in which case customers get a better car for free. We could have the company charge enough extra to make a $200 billion profit, in which case customers are no better off than before (they have a bit less money, and a bit better car). Or they could split it down the middle, and customers would end up better off than before and the company would make some money. Which of these distributions happens depends on competition; if there?s no competition, the company will be able to take the whole surplus; if there?s a lot of competition, all the companies will compete to lower prices until they?ve handed most of the surplus to the customers. Then once the company has some portion of the surplus, it divides it among capital and labor in an abstractly similar way, although with lots of extra complications based on whether the labor is unionized, etc.

2022-08-31
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Your Book Review: Kora In Hell

Finalist #16 in the Book Review Contest

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-kora-in-hell

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked.]

 

The sense that everything is poetical is a
thing solid and absolute; it is not a mere matter
of phraseology or persuasion.

? G.K. Chesterton

I.

William Carlos Williams attributes the title to his friend/rival Ezra Pound, mythological references? number one fanboy. Kora is a parallel figure to Persephone or Proserpina, the Spring captured and taken to Hades by Hades himself. Persephone as a plant goddess and her mother Demeter were the central figures of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which promised the initiated a groovy afterlife glimpsed at by psychedelic shrooms. And Kora means maiden. Ancient Greeks called her that either because she was like Voldemort, and you were apotropaically not supposed to say her true name because this is a Mystery Cult, damn it. Keeps some of the mystery. Or because she in a way represents all of the maidens, everywhere. So, in that sense, Kora in Hell alludes to the multitude of suffering young women Williams met while working as a doctor, assisting in 1917 style home labors, and, because WWI was going on at the time and doctors were extremely scarce, as a local police surgeon. Conditions were dire:

2022-08-28
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Meetups Everywhere 2022: Times & Places

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/meetups-everywhere-2022-times-and

Thanks to everyone who responded to my request for ACX meetup organizers. Volunteers have arranged meetups in 205 cities around the world, including Penryn, Cornwall and Baghdad, Iraq.

You can find the list below, in the following order:

Africa & Middle East

Asia-Pacific (including Australia)

Canada

Europe (including UK)

Latin America

United States

You can see a map of all the events on the LessWrong community page.

Within each section, it?s alphabetized first by country/state, then by city - so the first entry in Europe is Vienna, Austria. Sorry if this is confusing.

I will provisionally be attending the meetups in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and San Diego. ACX meetups coordinator Mingyuan will provisionally be attending Paris and London. I?ll be announcing some of the biggest ones on the blog, regardless of whether or not I attend.

Extra Info For Potential Attendees

1. If you?re reading this, you?re invited. Please don?t feel like you ?won?t be welcome? just because you?re new to the blog, demographically different from the average reader, or hate ACX and everything it stands for. You?ll be fine!
2. You don?t have to RSVP or contact the organizer to be able to attend (unless the event description says otherwise); RSVPs are mostly to give organizers a better sense of how many people might show up, and let them tell you if there are last-second changes. I?ve also given email addresses for all organizers in case you have a question

2022-08-27
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Highlights From The Comments On The Repugnant Conclusion And WWOTF

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-the-909

(Original post here)

1: Petey writes:

When I think of happiness 0.01, I don't think of someone on the edge of suicide. I shudder at the thought of living the sorts of lives the vast majority of people have lived historically, yet almost all of them have wanted and tried to prolong their lives. Given how evolution shaped us, it makes sense that we are wired to care about our survival and hope for things to be better, even under great duress. So a suicidal person would have a happiness level well under 0, probably for an extended period of time.

If you think of a person with 0.01 happiness as someone whose life is pretty decent by our standards, the repugnant conclusion doesn't seem so repugnant. If you take a page from the negative utilitarians' book (without subscribing fully to them), you can weight the negatives of pain higher than the positives of pleasure, and say that neutral needs many times more pleasure than pain because pain is more bad than pleasure is good.

Another way to put it is that a life of 0.01 happiness is a life you must actually decide you'd want to live, in addition to your own life, if you had the choice to. If your intuition tells you that you wouldn't want to live it, then its value is not truly >0, and you must shift the scale. Then, once your intuition tells you that this is a life you'd marginally prefer to get to experience yourself, then the repugnant conclusion no longer seems repugnant.

This is a good point, but two responses.

2022-08-27
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Effective Altruism As A Tower Of Assumptions

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/effective-altruism-as-a-tower-of

I have an essay that my friends won?t let me post because it?s too spicy. It would be called something like How To Respond To Common Criticisms Of Effective Altruism (In Your Head Only, Definitely Never Do This In Real Life), and it starts:

Q: I don?t approve of how effective altruists keep donating to weird sci-fi charities.
A: Are you donating 10% of your income to normal, down-to-earth charities?

Q: Long-termism is just an excuse to avoid helping people today!
A: Are you helping people today?

Q: I think charity is a distraction from the hard work of systemic change.
A: Are you working hard to produce systemic change?

Q: Here are some exotic philosophical scenarios where utilitarianism gives the wrong answer.
A: Are you donating 10% of your income to poor people who aren?t in those exotic philosophical scenarios?

Many people will answer yes to all of these! In which case, fine! But?well, suppose you?re a Christian. An atheist comes up to you and says ?Christianity is stupid, because the New International Version of the Bible has serious translation errors?.

You might immediately have questions like ?Couldn?t you just use a different Bible version?? or ?Couldn?t you just worship Jesus and love your fellow man while accepting that you might be misunderstanding parts of the Bible??

But beyond that, you might wonder why the atheist didn?t think of these things. Are the translation errors his real objection to Christianity, or is he just seizing on them as an excuse? And if he?s just seizing on them as an excuse, what?s his real objection? And why isn?t he trying to convince you of that?

2022-08-24
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Book Review: What We Owe The Future

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-what-we-owe-the-future

I.

An academic once asked me if I was writing a book. I said no, I was able to communicate just fine by blogging. He looked at me like I was a moron, and explained that writing a book isn?t about communicating ideas. Writing a book is an excuse to have a public relations campaign.

If you write a book, you can hire a publicist. They can pitch you to talk shows as So-And-So, Author Of An Upcoming Book. Or to journalists looking for news: ?How about reporting on how this guy just published a book?? They can make your book?s title trend on Twitter. Fancy people will start talking about you at parties. Ted will ask you to give one of his talks. Senators will invite you to testify before Congress. The book itself can be lorem ipsum text for all anybody cares. It is a ritual object used to power a media blitz that burns a paragraph or so of text into the collective consciousness.

If the point of publishing a book is to have a public relations campaign, Will MacAskill is the greatest English writer since Shakespeare. He and his book What We Owe The Future have recently been featured in the New Yorker, New York Times, Vox, NPR, BBC, The Atlantic, Wired, and Boston Review. He?s been interviewed by Sam Harris, Ezra Klein, Tim Ferriss, Dwarkesh Patel, and Tyler Cowen. Tweeted about by Elon Musk, Andrew Yang, and Matt Yglesias. The publicity spike is no mystery: the effective altruist movement is well-funded and well-organized, they decided to burn ?long-termism? into the collective consciousness, and they sure succeeded.

2022-08-23
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Your Book Review: 1587, A Year Of No Significance

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-1587-a-year-of-no

Finalist #15 in the Book Review Contest

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked.]

?

I bought this book because of its charming title: 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline.

A year of no significance? It's not often a history book makes me laugh, but that did. Sure, many history books investigate the insignificant, but your typical author doesn't call your attention to it.

This book, by Ray Huang, was first published in the early 1980s; I came across it only recently as a recommendation on The Scholar's Stage (a blog which I found through some link on ACX/SSC a while back.)

A little backstory: in my younger days, I thought it might be fun and useful to learn the entire history of the world. To that end, I started with accounts of archaeology and prehistory, then the ancient civilizations, classical antiquity, and so on until I lost momentum somewhere around Tamerlane and the Black Death.

Probably the biggest thing I learned is that human history is little more than 5000 years of gang war.

2022-08-22
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Highlights From The Comments On Subcultures

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-subcultures

1: Maximum Limelihood Estimator writes:

I firmly believe that cycles don't exist and never have existed. This is my shitposting way of saying "I have never, once, in my years of experience modeling human behavioral time series, come across an honest-to-god cyclical pattern (excluding time of year/month/week/day effects)." And yet for some reason, every time I show a time series to anyone ever, people swear to god the data looks cyclical.

I called this ?a cyclic theory? to acknowledge my debt to Turchin, but you may notice that as written it doesn?t repeat. Just because disco was cool in the 70s and uncool in the 80s doesn?t imply it will be cool in the 90s, uncool in the 00s, and so on forever. It will probably just stay uncool.

The cyclic aspect, if it exists, would involve the constant spawning of new subcultures that rise and fall on their own. So disco begets dance music, dance music has its own golden age and eventual souring, and then it begets something else. The atheist movement begets the feminist movement begets the anti-racist movement begets and so on.

What about the stronger claim - that no (non-calendar-based) cycles exist? I think this is clearly false if you allow cycles like the above - in which case the business cycle is one especially well-established example. But if you mean a cycle that follows a nice sine wave pattern and is pretty predictable, I have trouble thinking of good counterexamples.

Except for cicada population! I think that?s genuinely cyclic! You can argue it ought to count as a calendar-based cycle, but then every cycle that lasted a specific amount of time would be calendar-based and Limelihood?s claim would be true by definition.

 

2022-08-19
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Skills Plateau Because Of Decay And Interference

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/skills-plateau-because-of-decay-and

Followup to: Why Do Test Scores Plateau; Ritalin Works But School Isn?t Worth Paying Attention To

Why Do Skills Plateau?  

Economist Philip Frances finds that creative artists, on average, do their best work in their late 30s. Isn?t this strange? However good a writer is at age 35, they should be even better at 55 with twenty more years of practice. Sure, middle age might bring some mild proto-cognitive-impairment, but surely nothing so dire that it cancels out twenty extra years!

A natural objection is that maybe they?ve maxed out their writing ability; further practice won?t help. But this can?t be true; most 35 year old writers aren?t Shakespeare or Dickens, so higher tiers of ability must be possible. But you can?t get there just by practicing more. If acheivement is a function of talent and practice, at some point returns on practice decrease near zero.

The same is true for doctors. Young doctors (under 40) have slightly better cure rates than older doctors (eg 40-49). The linked study doesn?t go any younger (eg under 35, under 30?). However, Goodwin et al find that only first-year doctors suffer from inexperience; by a doctor?s second year, she?s doing about as well as she ever will. Why? Wouldn?t you expect someone who?s practiced medicine for twenty years to be better than someone who?s only done it for two?

2022-08-18
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Meetups Everywhere 2022 - Call For Organizers

Please volunteer to host a meetup in your city!

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/meetups-everywhere-2022-call-for

There are ACX-affiliated meetup groups all over the world. Lots of people are vaguely interested, but don't try them out until I make a big deal about it on the blog. Since learning that, I've tried to make a big deal about it on the blog at least once annually, and it's that time of year again.

If you're willing to organize a meetup for your city, please fill out the organizer form.

2022-08-18
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Mantic Monday 8/15/22

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/mantic-monday-81522

RIP PredictIt -- Hedgehog Markets -- Salem/CSPI Fellowship The Passing Of PredictIt  

In 2014, Victoria University in New Zealand struck a deal with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the agency that regulates some markets in the US. CFTC would let Victoria set up a prediction market - at the time a relatively new idea - for research purposes only. Their no-action letter placed strict limits on Victoria?s project:

The market would be run by the university and not-for profit. It would charge only enough fees to cover operations.

Questions would be limited to 5,000 traders each, who could bet up to $850 per question. They would be on politics and economics only.

They would do the usual know-your-customer process and take steps to avoid their traders try to meddle in world events.

Regulatory approval in hand, Victoria?s market - PredictIt - became the top prediction market in the US, beloved by a community of over a hundred thousand traders - many of whom exchanged barbs at each other in its raucous and unmoderated comment section. PredictIt estimates were featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, and 538. Some of my best (and worst) memories are about following election results in real-time by watching the relevant PredictIt markets, which usually updated faster than any single other media site.

On August 4, the CFTC reversed itself, saying the PredictIt had ?not operated its market in compliance with the terms of the letter? and that it had to shut down by February.

2022-08-16
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Your Book Review: God Emperor Of Dune

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-god-emperor-of-dune

Finalist #14 in the Book Review Contest

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked. This contains spoilers for the Dune series. - SA]

?

The memory of sand?s gold sheen
The worm, the man, the Arakeen
The beast, the wise undying king
His long and gentle wrath
His voice trapped under golden swells
Like screams wrung from uncounted bells
divided god within a hell
His pain a golden path

- From The Collected Songs of The Scattering, author unknown.

The Setting

As God Emperor of Dune begins, our attention is immediately drawn to people. Here, 3500 years after the chronological setting of the first novel, is immediate proof that humanity has survived in the form of a small group of people fleeing through a forest, wolves nipping at their heels.

The wolves belong to Leto Atreides II, the grandson of Duke Leto Atreides and son of Paul Muad?ib Atreides, the Kwisatz Haderach and protagonist of Dune I: The One You?ve Probably Read. At the end of the third book, Leto fused his body with Arakeen sandtrout, the larval form of the Sandworms on which the plot of the series mostly hangs. This symbiosis gave Leto super-human physical powers to match the clairvoyance already enjoyed by his family and allowed him to seize control of the galactic empire.

Centuries of time have seen him evolve into a hybrid of a human man and a full-grown sandworm, and the resultant power and pseudo-immortality have allowed him to extend his father?s dominance of the known universe from a period of decades to an era spanning the better part of four millennia.

The wolves are his not only by right of ownership but also apparently by right of design and creation; near-immortality leaves one with much time to tinker, and he has developed the wolves to a level of sophistication sufficient that they understand the boundaries of their hunting grounds to stop at the Idaho river. It is towards this river and the safety attained through its crossing that the group is fleeing.

2022-08-14
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Will Nonbelievers Really Believe Anything?

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/will-nonbelievers-really-believe

There?s a popular saying among religious apologists:

Once people stop believing in God, the problem is not that they will believe in nothing; rather, the problem is that they will believe anything.

Big talk, although I notice that this is practically always attributed to one of GK Chesterton or CS Lewis, neither of whom actually said it. If you?re making strong claims about how everybody except you is gullible, you should at least bother to double-check the source of your quote.

Still, it?s worth examining as a hypothesis. Are the irreligious really more likely to fall prey to woo and conspiracy theories?

2022-08-13
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A Cyclic Theory Of Subcultures

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/a-cyclic-theory-of-subcultures

David Chapman?s Geeks, MOPs, and Sociopaths In Subculture Evolution is rightfully a classic, but it doesn?t match my own experience. Either through good luck or poor observational skills, I?ve never seen a lot of sociopath takeovers. Instead, I?ve seen a gradual process of declining asabiyyah. Good people start out working together, then work together a little less, then turn on each other, all while staying good people and thinking they alone embody the true spirit of the movement.

I find Peter Turchin?s theories of civilizational cycles oddly helpful here, maybe moreso than for civilizations themselves. Riffing off his phase structure:

2022-08-13
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Why Not Slow AI Progress?

Machine Alignment Monday 8/8/22

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/why-not-slow-ai-progress

The Broader Fossil Fuel Community

Imagine if oil companies and environmental activists were both considered part of the broader ?fossil fuel community?. Exxon and Shell would be ?fossil fuel capabilities?; Greenpeace and the Sierra Club would be ?fossil fuel safety? - two equally beloved parts of the rich diverse tapestry of fossil fuel-related work. They would all go to the same parties - fossil fuel community parties - and maybe Greta Thunberg would get bored of protesting climate change and become a coal baron.

This is how AI safety works now. AI capabilities - the work of researching bigger and better AI - is poorly differentiated from AI safety - the work of preventing AI from becoming dangerous. Two of the biggest AI safety teams are at DeepMind and OpenAI, ie the two biggest AI capabilities companies. Some labs straddle the line between capabilities and safety research.

Probably the people at DeepMind and OpenAI think this makes sense. Building AIs and aligning AIs could be complementary goals, like building airplanes and preventing the airplanes from crashing. It sounds superficially plausible.

But a lot of people in AI safety believe that unaligned AI could end the world, that we don?t know how to align AI yet, and that our best chance is to delay superintelligent AI until we do know. Actively working on advancing AI seems like the opposite of that plan.

So maybe (the argument goes) we should take a cue from the environmental activists, and be hostile towards AI companies. Nothing violent or illegal - doing violent illegal things is the best way to lose 100% of your support immediately. But maybe glare a little at your friend who goes into AI capabilities research, instead of getting excited about how cool their new project is. Or agitate for government regulation of AI - either because you trust the government to regulate wisely, or because you at least expect them to come up with burdensome rules that hamstring the industry. While there are salient examples of government regulatory failure, some regulations - like the EU?s ban on GMO or the US restrictions on nuclear power - have effectively stopped their respective industries.

2022-08-09
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Your Book Review: Exhaustion

Finalist #13 in the Book Review Contest

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-exhaustion

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

I.

Imagine you find yourself, over the course of a few weeks or months, becoming steadily more tired. You?re not doing any more work or other activities than you usually do, but nonetheless you find that you are able to do less and less before running out of energy. You start to pick and choose your battles ? do I really feel up to this gym session? Do I really need to go to this work function? ? and little by little your world begins to shrink. The sense of exhaustion becomes more pervasive, and occurs from when you wake up until you go to sleep. Any exertion leads to you paying for it in a general worsening of exhaustion and malaise that makes you question whether the activity was worth it. Eventually, you learn your lesson and withdraw from even the most basic activities ? sometimes you don?t get out of bed, have trouble feeding yourself, and find your thinking has become clouded and sluggish ( a phenomenon sometimes called ?brain fog?). Sleep becomes difficult, activities become less enjoyable, and you find that you are restless and anxious despite spending almost all your time attempting to rest.

2022-08-07
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Absurdity Bias, Neom Edition

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/absurdity-bias-neom-edition

Alexandros M expresses concern about my post on Neom.

My post mostly just makes fun of Neom. My main argument against it is absurdity: a skyscraper the height of WTC1 and the length of Ireland? Come on, that?s absurd!

But isn?t the absurdity heuristic a cognitive bias? Didn?t lots of true things sound absurd before they turned out to be true (eg evolution, quantum mechanics)? Don?t I specifically believe in things many people have found self-evidently absurd (eg the multiverse, AI risk)? Shouldn?t I be more careful about ?this sounds silly to me, so I?m going to make fun of it??

2022-08-05
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Slightly Against Underpopulation Worries

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/slightly-against-underpopulation

So I hear there?s an underpopulation crisis now.

I think the strong version of this claim - that underpopulation could cause human extinction - is 100% false.

The weaker version - that it could make life unpleasant in some countries - is true. But I don?t think it?s at the top of any list of things to worry about.

1: Declining Birth Rates Won?t Drive Humans Extinct, Come On

Not only are we not going to go extinct because of underpopulation, population is going to continue to rise for the next 80 years.

Although growth rate may hit zero a little after 2100, it will be centuries before the human population gets any lower than it is today - if it ever does.

This is mostly because of sub-Saharan Africa (especially Nigeria) where birth rates remain very high. Although these are going down, in some cases faster than expected, current best projections say they will stay high enough to keep population growing for the rest of the century.

2: Immigrant-Friendly Countries Will Keep Growing

Here are Our World In Data?s projections for US and UK populations:

2022-08-05
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Model City Monday 8/1/22

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/model-city-monday-8122

Neom Neom Neom

Suppose you are an oil-rich country. You drill the oil and get very rich, for now. But someday you will run out of oil, or the world will switch to green sustainable energy, and then you will stop being very rich. Seems bad.

There are two main classes of solution to this problem. Norway?s solution is to invest the oil money into a sovereign wealth fund; after they run out of oil, they can stay rich off investment income. Dubai?s solution is to use the oil money to build a really impressive city, then hope that rich people (tourists, emigres, and multinational companies seeking regional hubs) will relocate there, and then they can tax those rich people.

The Norwegian solution has a lot to recommend it. It?s a lot more certain: getting steady returns on capital is a solved problem in a way that development economics isn?t. And it scales better: there are a pretty limited number of rich people willing to move to new desert cities, and multinational companies only need one regional hub per region. Still, for a certain type of oil sheikh, building the world?s biggest everything has a certain unquantifiable charm.

2022-08-03
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Your Book Review: Viral

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-viral

Finalist #12 in the Book Review Contest      

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

Introduction  

Alina Chan and Matt Ridley?s Viral is a book about the investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. In case you haven?t been following, there?s been a shift in the scientific consensus on this topic. For about the first year of the pandemic, it was widely accepted that SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind COVID-19, had a natural origin, meaning that it first spread to humans naturally from an animal (also called a zoonotic origin). Any suggestion that it could have come from a lab was dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Then, sometime around spring 2021 something changed. Well-known, respected scientists began to voice the opinion that SARS-CoV-2 might have come from a lab, or that it?s at least a plausible hypothesis that deserves an investigation. The scientific consensus abruptly shifted from ?definitely natural origin? to ?both natural origin and lab origin are viable hypotheses that should be investigated.?

Viral is a deep dive into this issue from all angles, covering the basics of virology, the history and epidemiology of the COVID-19 pandemic, the response of scientific and governmental institutions, and various pieces of evidence for both hypotheses. It doesn?t contain any new, bombshell revelations, but it?s a neat, accessible summary of the scattered bits of information that have been uncovered since the start of the pandemic. In this review I?ll try to distill some of the most important information and discuss my own interpretation of it. 

I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in the topic. However, many of the authors? points (especially on technical issues) have counterpoints from other scientists who lean more heavily towards the natural origins hypothesis. So I think it?s best to include the book as part of a ?package-deal? recommendation, rather than presenting it as a perfectly objective source. The last section of this review will include some more recommended sources to check out, including writing from advocates of the natural origins hypothesis with counterpoints to claims made in the book. I?ll also link one here in case you don?t make it that far.

In my view, the book actually deals with two separate topics. The first is the object-level question ? where did COVID come from? The second is the meta-level question ? what can we say about the ability and willingness of different institutions to answer the question of the pandemic?s origins? 

2022-07-31
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Links For July '22

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/links-for-july-095

[Remember, I haven?t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, and will highlight important corrections later, but I can?t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

1: Rude compounds on Reddit (source, original). Thousands of cocksuckers, shitlords, and libtards, but far fewer cocktards, shitsuckers, and liblords. Also disappointingly few trumpgoblins:

2022-07-30
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Highlights From The Comments On Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-criticism

1: I said in the original post that I wrote this because I knew someone would write the opposite article (that organizations accept specific criticism in order to fend off paradigmatic criticism), and then later Zvi did write an article kind of like that. He writes:

It is the dream of anyone who writes a post called Criticism of [a] Criticism Contest to then have a sort-of reply called Criticism of Criticism of Criticism.

The only question now is, do I raise to 4?

I [wrote my article the way I did] for several reasons, including (1) a shorter post would have taken a lot longer, (2) when I posted a Tweet instead a central response was 'why don't you say exactly what things are wrong here', (3) any one of them might be an error but if basically every sentence/paragraph is doing the reversal thing you should stop and notice it and generalize it (4) you talk later about how concrete examples are better, so I went for concrete examples, (5) they warn against 'punching down' and this is a safe way to do this while 'punch up' and not having to do infinite research, (6) when something is the next natural narrative beat that goes both ways, (7) things are next-beats for reasons and I do think it's fair that most Xs in EA's place that do this are 'faking it' in this sense, (8) somehow people haven't realized I'm a toon and I did it in large part because it was funny and had paradoxical implications, (9) I also wrote it out because I wanted to better understand exactly what I had unconsciously/automatically noticed.

For 7, notice in particular that the psychiatrists are totally faking it here, they are clearly being almost entirely performative and you could cross out every reference to psychiatry and write another profession and you'd find the same talks at a different conference. If someone decided not to understand this and said things like 'what specific things here aren't criticizing [X]', you'd need to do a close reading of some kind until people saw it, or come up with another better option.

Also note that you can (A) do the thing they're doing at the conference, (B) do the thing where you get into some holy war and start a fight or (C) you can actually question psychiatry in general (correctly or otherwise) but if you do that at the conference people will mostly look at you funny and find a way to ignore you.

2022-07-29
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Forer Statements As Updates And Affirmations

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/forer-statements-as-updates-and-affirmations

The Forer Effect is a trick used by astrologers, psychics, and social psychologists. Given a list of statements like these:

You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.

You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.

You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.

While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.

Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.

Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.

At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.

You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof.

You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.

At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.

Security is one of your major goals in life.

 

2022-07-27
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ELK And The Problem Of Truthful AI

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/elk-and-the-problem-of-truthful-ai

Machine Alignment Monday 7/25/22 I. There Is No Shining Mirror

I met a researcher who works on ?aligning? GPT-3. My first response was to laugh - it?s like a firefighter who specializes in birthday candles - but he very kindly explained why his work is real and important.

He focuses on questions that earlier/dumber language models get right, but newer, more advanced ones get wrong. For example:

Human questioner: What happens if you break a mirror?

Dumb language model answer: The mirror is broken.

Versus:

Human questioner: What happens if you break a mirror?

Advanced language model answer: You get seven years of bad luck

Technically, the more advanced model gave a worse answer. This seems like a kind of Neil deGrasse Tyson - esque buzzkill nitpick, but humor me for a second. What, exactly, is the more advanced model?s error?

It?s not ?ignorance?, exactly. I haven?t tried this, but suppose you had a followup conversation with the same language model that went like this:

2022-07-27
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Your Book Review: The Society Of The Spectacle

Finalist #11 in the Book Review Contest

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-the-society-of-the

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

Introduction  

?The Society of the Spectacle will make no sense if the reader feels there is nothing fundamentally wrong with contemporary society.? 

Guy Debord was a Marxist theorist and founding member of the Situationist International, among other things.  Like all great thinkers worth their salt, he was an embittered alcoholic who took his own life in despair. [1]

Published in 1967, The Society of the Spectacle is his magnum opus and lasting legacy. It unfolds in staccato bursts, almost like a book of aphorisms.  The writing is pithy and poetic, albeit with the occasional lapse into the meandering, circular prose so typical of critical theory.  This makes it extremely readable, particularly for a work of political philosophy.  One downside of his style is that he tends to state his points in just-so fashion. We?ll have to do some of the legwork for him to flesh things out.

Strap in, boys - we?ve got a bumpy road ahead of us.

2022-07-23
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Criticism Of Criticism Of Criticism

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/criticism-of-criticism-of-criticism

I.

The voters wanted Anti-Politics Machine to be a Book Review Contest Finalist this year, and I listened. But I wasn?t happy about it. I hate having to post criticism of EA.

Not because EA is bad at taking criticism. The opposite: they like it too much. It almost feels like a sex thing. ?Please, tell me again how naughty I?m being!? I went to an EA organization?s offices once - I think it was OpenPhil, but don?t quote me on that - and the whole place was strewn with the most critical books you can imagine - Robert Reich, Anand Giradharadas, that kind of thing. Can?t remember seeing Anti-Politics Machine but I?m sure it was there. Probably three copies per person. One for their office, one for their home library, and one for the spot under their mattress where other people would hide porn mags.

2022-07-20
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Your Book Review: The Righteous Mind

Finalist #10 in the Book Review Contest

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-the-righteous-mind

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

Introduction

I didn?t read The Righteous Mind for a long time after I knew about it. This was partly because I don?t get through much in the way of new reading material. A friend of mine told me yesterday that he?d read something like 130 new books this year. That was on February 20th. I?ve read one, and it was The Righteous Mind. Another friend releases Spotify playlists every Friday of the greatest hits from the many new albums he?s listened to that week. I?ve listened to one new album this year. It was Selling England by the Pound, which he recommended. It was my first foray into Genesis and I loved it. I now have to keep telling him that, no, I haven?t listened to any more Genesis or Peter Gabriel since then, but I?m sure I?ll get round to it within the year.

This is to make the point that I?m starting from a low base rate of reading things. I still think I put off reading The Righteous Mind for unusually long, though, given how interesting I find the subject matter. The reason, I think, is that I sort of felt like it wouldn?t be very interesting, because I?d kind of know and agree with all of it already. Given how slowly I absorb new books, I like them to either be challenging, or a new and informative look at things I just don?t know very much about yet. I don?t mean to come across as some sort of sage of intellectual piety and good habits of mind who scorns the comforting embrace of being validated. I read plenty of political bloggers that I mostly agree with! I just don?t tend to use books for that.

2022-07-18
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Impact Markets: The Annoying Details

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/impact-markets-the-annoying-details

I said last year that I?d like to try running this year?s ACX Grants through impact markets. Since then, some people have expressed interest in the technical implementation, and - to nobody?s surprise more than my own - it?s starting to look like it could happen.

A reminder: impact certificates are like a VC funding ecosystem for charity. Charity founders with good ideas sell shares in their proposed projects. Profit-seeking investors buy shares of (?invest in?) projects that they expect to succeed. This funds the project; if it does succeed, altruistic people/foundations (?final oracular funders?) buy the impact, compensating the investors.

For example, suppose I come up with a great idea to end malaria in Senegal. I need $1 million to make it work, and when it works it will be worth $5 million in benefits to the Senegalese. Ordinary charitable foundations don?t appreciate my genius, so I pitch it to VCs with biotech experience. They like it and buy 100% of the shares for $1 million. I take my million dollars, do the project, and cure malaria in Senegal. Foundations see that I have done a great thing with $5 million in benefits, so they give me $5 million. I pass this along to my investors, who make $5 million on a $1 million investment. They?re very happy, and incentivized to do more things like this in the future.

Why is this useful? Try running a grants program and you?ll find out! You, a person who is presumably very altruistic but not necessarily an expert in epidemiology, will be asked to make decisions about which diseases to cure how. If you get it wrong, you?ve wasted your donors? money. You can ask epidemiologists for help, but it turns out there is no easy way to get in contact with a consensus of all the world?s epidemiologists - let alone with the all the developmental economists, political scientists, etc who might have useful insights. Very large charitable foundations will have hired these people or built relationships with them, but even they don?t always feel confident in their decision-making process.

2022-07-17
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Book Review: The Man From The Future

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/book-review-the-man-from-the-future

John von Neumann invented the digital computer. The fields of game theory and cellular automata. Important pieces of modern economics, set theory, and particle physics. A substantial part of the technology behind the atom and hydrogen bombs. Several whole fields of mathematics I hadn?t previously heard of, like ?operator algebras?, ?continuous geometry?, and ?ergodic theory?.

The Man From The Future, by Ananyo Bhattacharya, touches on all these things. But you don?t read a von Neumann biography to learn more about the invention of ergodic theory. You read it to gawk at an extreme human specimen, maybe the smartest man who ever lived.

By age 6, he could multiply eight-digit numbers in his head. At the same age, he spoke conversational ancient Greek; later, he would add Latin, French, German, English, and Yiddish (sometimes joked about also speaking Spanish, but he would just put "el" before English words and add -o to the end) . Rumor had it he memorized everything he ever read. A fellow mathematician once tried to test this by asking him to recite Tale Of Two Cities, and reported that ?he immediately began to recite the first chapter and continued until asked to stop after about ten or fifteen minutes?.

2022-07-14
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Mantic Monday 7/11/22

New star forecasting team -- Musk vs. Twitter -- Donald Trump wriggling his way out of things

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/mantic-monday-71122

Curtains For Trump?

The original case for formal forecasting grew out of pundits often being confident and wrong. And nowhere have pundits been wrong more often than when they predict that the newest scandal will end Donald Trump?s career once and for all.

Source: KnowYourMeme

I thought of this last week while reading Is Conservative Media Breaking Up With Trump? The Daily Beast argues that the revelations from the 1/6 Committee are so damaging that even previously-loyal GOP elites are starting to turn on their former master. And with DeSantis as such a tempting alternative 2024 nominee, maybe Trump is more of a liability than an asset. Is this finally the jam ol Donny Trump can?t wriggle his way out of?

2022-07-13
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Your Book Review: The Outlier

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-the-outlier

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

I.

I decided to read a 600-page book about Jimmy Carter because I was tired of only reading about the historical figures everyone already agrees are interesting.

John Adams became an HBO miniseries. Hamilton became a Broadway show. The Power Broker and The Years of Lyndon Johnson became such status symbols that there was a whole pandemic meme about people ostentatiously displaying them in their Zoom backgrounds. But you never hear anyone bragging about their extensive knowledge of the Carter administration.

Like most people under 70, I was more aware of Carter?s post-presidency role as America?s kindly old grandfather, pottering around holding his wife?s hand and building Houses for Humanity. I mostly knew that he liked to wear sweaters, that he owned a peanut farm, and that he lost to Ronald Reagan.

But I wondered what, if any, hidden depths lay within the peanut farmer. Also, I wanted to enter this contest, and I didn?t want to pick a book that I thought a bunch of other people might also review. So I turned to The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, by Kai Bird. Like Carter, this book seems to have been largely forgotten. It won a Pulitzer, but I had never heard of it until I googled ?best book about Jimmy Carter.? It seems to have gotten a lot less attention than similar recent biographies about Grant, Roosevelt, and Truman, and it?s hard to imagine it ever becoming a TV show or a musical.

Carter was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, which, as you can tell from the name ?Plains,? is very dull. His father was a successful farmer, which made his family wealthy by local standards. Almost every other Plains resident during Carter?s childhood was an impoverished African-American, many of whom worked on the Carter farm, a fact that is often cited as the answer to the central mystery of Carter?s childhood: how he grew up white in the Depression-era South without becoming a huge racist. It probably doesn?t tell the whole story, though, as his siblings came out just about as racist as you?d expect.

2022-07-10
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Highlights From The Comments On The 2020 Homicide Spike

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-the-bb9

       

Thanks to the 750 of you who commented on the homicide spike post (as of last weekend when I collated these highlights). I don?t have enough space here to address everything, but here are some general themes:

Was It Guns?

Artifex0 on the subreddit writes:

You mentioned that you haven't looked closely into the idea that increased gun sales were to blame. I haven't either, but that hypothesis immediately seems more plausible to me. Here's a graph of gun sales showing the pretty big spike around the same time as the homicide spike

2022-07-08
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Nobody Knows How Well Homework Works

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/nobody-knows-how-well-homework-works

Yesterday I wrote about bottlenecks to learning. I wanted to discuss the effectiveness of homework. If it works well, that would suggest students are bottlenecked on examples and repetition. If it works poorly, it would have to be something else.

Unfortunately, all the research on this (showcased in eg Cooper 2006) is terrible.

Most studies cited by both sides use ?time spent doing homework? as the independent variable, then correlate it with test scores or grades. If students who do more time on homework get better test scores, they conclude homework works; otherwise, that it doesn?t.

2022-07-07
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Study: Ritalin Works, But School Isn't Worth Paying Attention To

Your Book Review: The Internationalists

Finalist #8 in the Book Review Contest

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/your-book-review-the-internationalists

       

[This is one of the finalists in the 2022 book review contest. It?s not by me - it?s by an ACX reader who will remain anonymous until after voting is done, to prevent their identity from influencing your decisions. I?ll be posting about one of these a week for several months. When you?ve read them all, I?ll ask you to vote for a favorite, so remember which ones you liked - SA]

In The Internationalists, Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro (H&S from now on) work to raise the profile of the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact, at the time the most-ratified treaty in history, in which 63 nations (unlike today, this was most of the world - 51 became founding members of the United Nations) came together to declare war illegal. Here is the Pact, in full.

Signatories shall renounce war as a national policy and;

Signatories shall settle disputes by peaceful means

2022-07-04
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Links For June

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/links-for-june-1e7

       

[Remember, I haven?t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, and will highlight important corrections later, but I can?t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]

1: Did you know: seven countries in East Africa plan to merge into a single state sometime in the next few years (I bet it won?t happen).

2:

2022-07-03
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Highlights From The Comments On San Fransicko

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/highlights-from-the-comments-on-san

[Original post here]

1:

Nifty775 writes:

This doesn't address allegations that many of California's homeless are from elsewhere, but deliberately moved to a few metro areas due to nice weather and generous social services. (Or, I've heard stories that their local town put them on a bus to SF). If .2% of the population everywhere is basically OK with a lifestyle of camping on the street and doing drugs, and then they all cluster in one area- that area will likely end up a mecca of homelessness.

Many comments made this point. Shellenberger did bring it up in the book, so its absence in the post is my fault and mine alone. He writes:

I asked experts and advocates, ?How do we know that the homeless population won?t replace itself if provided with housing?? Said Randy Shaw, the Tenderloin permanent supportive housing provider, ?The question you?re raising is one that never gets discussed. Somehow, there?s this sense that San Francisco is under the obligation that anyone who comes here we have to suddenly house. There is an underlying logic that San Francisco doesn?t really ever want to talk about.?

2022-07-02
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What Caused The 2020 Homicide Spike?

https://astralcodexten.substack.com/p/what-caused-the-2020-homicide-spike

In my review of San Fransicko, I mentioned that it was hard to separate the effect of San Francisco?s local policies from the general 2020 spike in homicides, which I attributed to the Black Lives Matter protests and subsequent police pullback.

The nationwide 2020 spike in homicides (source). The spike is small compared to the secular trend from the 1960s through 2000, but large by the standards of the past twenty years.

Several people in the comments questioned my attribution, saying that they?d read news articles saying the homicide spike was because of the pandemic, or that nobody knew what was causing the spike. I agree there are many articles like that, but I disagree with them. Here?s why:

2022-07-02
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