Links for Oct-Dec 2018

Quarterly Links present my most important reading in the last 3 months. I aim for timelessness, conciseness, and delta.

Note: I do not endorse anything in links below.

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happiness is bullshit. the only times i’ve ever felt truly alive have been periods of total obsession with something. not always “pleasant” (perma) // people seriously underestimate the degree of high that is obsession. it is, imo, basically the greatest high there is. (perma)

There’s a debate about whether fish feel pain and the best moment is “actually plants might feel pain” (perma) (also, plants domesticate animals)

Bribery, Cooperation, and the Evolution of Prosocial Institutions (perma):

There is nothing natural about democracy. There is nothing natural about living in communities with complete strangers. There is nothing natural about large-scale anonymous cooperation.

There is something very natural about prioritizing your family over other people. There is something very natural about helping your friends and others in your social circle. And there is something very natural about returning favors given to you. These are all smaller scales of cooperation that we share with other animals and that are well described by the math of evolutionary biology. The trouble is that these smaller scales of cooperation can undermine the larger-scale cooperation of modern states. Although corruption is often thought of as a falling from grace, a challenge to the normal functioning state—it’s in the etymology of the word—it’s perhaps better understood as the flip side of cooperation. One scale of cooperation, typically the one that’s smaller and easier to sustain, undermines another.

“Fun study that asked people questions about things like where on a bike the pedals, chain, etc were. Surprisingly many people - even frequent cyclists - made basic errors when a bike wasn’t actually in front of them” (perma)

Technological convergence in drug discovery and other endeavors (perma):

You would think that the Wright brothers’ historic flight from Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903 had little to do with chemistry. And yet it did. The engine they used came from an aluminum mold; since then aluminum has been a crucial ingredient in lightweight flying machines. The aluminum mold would not have been possible had industrial chemists like Charles Hall and Paul Héroult not developed processes like the Hall-Héroult process for refining the metal from its ore, bauxite. More elementally, the gasoline fueling the flight was the result of a refining process invented more than fifty years earlier by a Yale chemist named Benjamin Silliman. There was a fairly straight line from the Bayer and Silliman processes to Kitty Hawk. …

The more positive conclusion to be drawn from the story of convergent technology is to keep track of ancillary enabling technologies if you want to stay ahead of the curve. In case of the iPod, Jobs seems to have had the patience to wait before USB, battery and internet technologies became mature enough for Apple to release the device; in spite of being the third or fourth mp3 player on the market, the iPod virtually took over in a few years. …

Technology, like life on earth, is part of an ecosystem. Even breakthrough technology does not develop in a vacuum. Without convergence between different innovations, every piece of technology would be stillborn. Without the aluminum, without the refined petroleum, the Wright Flyer would have lain still in the sands of the Outer Banks.

“The environment is genetic too” (perma)

German occupation of Czechoslovakia (perma):

In early November 1938, under the First Vienna Award, which was a result of the Munich agreement, Czechoslovakia (and later Slovakia)—after it had failed to reach a compromise with Hungary and Poland—was forced by Germany and Italy to cede southern Slovakia (one third of Slovak territory) to Hungary, while Poland invaded Zaolzie territory shortly after.

Why small isn’t always beautiful: labor regulations and firm growth (perma):

The power law of firm size in France is broken at 50 employees, exactly where the main labor regulations begin to bite. There are more French firms just below the regulatory threshold and a smaller fraction of firms greater than 50 throughout the rest of the distribution. This makes economic sense – the regulation causes some firms to hover just below 50 employees, but by being an additional cost it makes all firms with more than 50 employees smaller than they would otherwise be.

Applying polygenic risk scoring for psychiatric disorders to a large family with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder (perma, pdf); Michael Story’s summary:

Psychiatrists studying a big family with hereditary mental illness found that each generation had earlier and worse symptoms - in part because people marrying in to the family were also mentally ill

“the effective marginal tax rate when a person moves from the bottom to the middle quintile is 1 - (15.4-12.9)/(12.6-2.2), or 76 percent” (perma)

The Price Of Glee In China (perma): did Chinese become any happier thanks to the economic development?

The School Shootings That Weren’t (perma): most school shootings reported by the government never happened — the perils of doing surveys on sparse data

Криштиану Роналду всю жизнь стремился стать совершенством, но теперь его репутация под угрозой. Иван Калашников рассказывает историю футболиста (perma):

Он оставался после тренировки, чтобы нанести еще сто ударов, и требовал, чтобы в воротах при этом стоял лучший голкипер команды — дублеры его не устраивали. Защитник «МЮ» Патрис Эвра однажды сказал: «Если Роналду позовет вас к себе в гости, не соглашайтесь. Вы будете там тренироваться, а не ужинать».

Помимо бесконечных тренировок на поле и в тренажерном зале, Криштиану проводил часы в компании аналитиков футбольной статистики, которые помогали ему определять правильную стратегию для разных игровых ситуаций: откуда начинать разбег, чтобы выпрыгнуть выше всех при подаче углового, как рассчитать траекторию полета мяча при ударах с разных дистанций, в каких зонах открываться при передаче из глубины.

Can we even understand what the responses of a neuron ‘represent’? (perma):

  • Does it make sense to talk about a neuron representing a single feature instead of a confluence of features (a la Kording)? Is understanding the way a neuron responds in one context good enough?
  • If a neural response is correlated with something in the environment, does it represent it?

Animals who look like they’re about to release a chart topping single: THREAD (perma)

Bounded cognition (perma) (h/t JS Denain):

The Pirahã language and culture seem to lack not only the words but also the concepts for numbers, using instead less precise terms like “small size”, “large size” and “collection”. …

For many years I attempted to teach Biology and Genetics students the rudiments of statistics, with, alas, only limited success. The notions of population, sample, variance, hypothesis testing, etc. require more time and practice than can be devoted to them in such courses. Most students in the life sciences are math-phobic and few take statistics courses until they reach graduate school.

List of common misconceptions - Wikipedia (perma):

Ancient Greek sculptures were originally painted bright colors; they only appear white today because the original pigments have deteriorated. Some well-preserved statues still bear traces of their original coloration.

Open access is often argued about in the abstract. I want to talk about a specific case study where I have detailed data - usage patterns for my (open access) online book/monograph “Neural Networks and Deep Learning” (perma)

Origins and Destinations of the World’s Migrants, 1990-2017 (perma):

In 2017, 49,780,000 people living in the United States were born in other countries.

When causation does not imply correlation: robust violations of the Faithfulness axiom (perma, pdf):

We demonstrate that the Faithfulness property that is assumed in much causal analysis is robustly violated for a large class of systems of a type that occurs throughout the life and social sciences: control systems. These systems exhibit correlations indistinguishable from zero between variables that are strongly causally connected, and can show very high correlations between variables that have no direct causal connection, only a connection via causal links between uncorrelated variables. Their patterns of correlation are robust, in that they remain unchanged when their parameters are varied. The violation of Faithfulness is fundamental to what a control system does: hold some variable constant despite the disturbing influences on it. No method of causal analysis that requires Faithfulness is applicable to such systems.

The world will only get weirder (perma):

It used to be that airliners broke up in the sky because of small cracks in the window frames. So we fixed that. It used to be that aircraft crashed because of outward opening doors. So we fixed that. Aircraft used to fall out of the sky from urine corrosion, so we fixed that with encapsulated plastic lavatories. The list goes on and on. And we fixed them all.

So what are we left with? …

And so, with more rules we have solved most of the problems in the world. That just leaves the weird events left like disappearing 777’s, freak storms and ISIS. It used to be that even minor storms would be a problem but we have building codes now (rules). Free of rules, we’d probably have dealt with ISIS by now too.

Ultimately, this is why the world is getting weirder, and will continue to do so. Now with global media you get to hear about it all.

Men outraged over paying child support for kids who are not theirs (perma)

Beauty and social capital: Being attractive shapes social networks (perma):

  • Physical attractiveness influences people’s network preferences and outcomes.
  • More attractive people prefer broker positions in social networks.
  • The reported networks of more attractive people are relatively less dense.


Mexico’s drug cartels are moving into the gasoline industry (perma):

Pemex was founded on the nationalist idea that Mexicans would themselves be responsible for developing Mexico’s oil wealth, and the profits would be used to benefit the country as a whole. It eventually grew bigger than Gazprom, the Russian state oil company, but it has always had a problem with internal malfeasance and featherbedding. “Corporate governance is poor,” says Duncan Wood, head of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. “It’s disorganized. There are little fiefdoms within it. They strike deals with organized crime and turn a blind eye.” Patrick Corcoran, an analyst at InSight Crime, puts it even more succinctly: “Pemex is a massive cash cow, riddled with corruption.” …

Peña Nieto’s solution was to end Pemex’s monopoly and open the energy industry to foreign corporations, which he and his allies consider inherently more efficient and less susceptible to corruption than a state-owned enterprise. It took them five years to amend the constitution and implement a free-market framework — “the mother of all reforms,” …

The reforms were supposed to lower costs at the pumps but ended up doing the opposite. Public anger at the price hikes occasionally boiled over into riots, and contributed to the election of López Obrador.

“In 1996, not only did the Clinton team influence Russia’s election to Boris Yeltsin (who collapsed their economy and made the life expectancy go down by 5 years), they bragged about it in Time Magazine." (perma)

‘How Schools Work’ Review: The Worm in the Apple (perma):

Mr. Duncan assumed that Calvin, a solid B-student from an intact, hard-working family, just needed some help studying for the ACT ahead of applying for college—until the first day that Mr. Duncan sat down with him and realized that he was reading at the level of a second-grader. Despite a summer of hard work, Calvin wasn’t going anywhere.

“The lies told to Calvin,” Mr. Duncan writes, “were not told to torture him. . . . More often than not they existed to protect resources, or to safeguard jobs, or to control what kids were taught and how or whether they were tested on what they knew.” Calvin was ill-served by a system that kept passing him along to the next grade level when he hadn’t mastered the basic skills of the one before. …

Upon taking charge of the public schools in Chicago in 2001, he discovered (with the help of the Chicago-based economist Steven Levitt) that at least 5% of the city’s teachers were helping their students cheat on standardized tests. He was appalled but felt stymied: “If I’d asked Mayor [Richard] Daley to fire 5 percent of all Chicago teachers, then there would have been hell to pay.”

why selection bias is the most powerful force in education (perma):

Immigrant students in American schools outperform their domestic peers, and the reason is about culture and attitude, the immigrant’s willingness to strive and persevere, right? Nah. Selection bias. So-called alternative charters have helped struggling districts turn it around, right? Not really; they’ve just artificially created selection bias. At Purdue, where there is a large Chinese student population, I always chuckled to hear domestic students say “Chinese people are all so rich!” It didn’t seem to occur to them that attending a school that costs better than $40,000 a year for international students acted as a natural screen to exclude the vast number of Chinese people who live in deep poverty. …

Sometimes, in fact, it is deliberately hidden in education. A few years ago, Reuters undertook an exhaustive investigation of the ways that charter schools deliberately exclude the hardest-to-educate students, despite the fact that most are ostensibly required to accept all kinds of students, as public schools are bound to. … Excluding students with cognitive and developmental disabilities is a notorious example. (Despite what many people presume, a majority of students with special needs take state-mandated standardized tests and are included in data like graduation rates, in most locales.) Simply the fact that parents typically have to opt in to charter school lotteries for their students to attend functions as a screening mechanism. …

Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school, and I can predict your outcomes – not perfectly, but well enough that it calls into question many of our core presumptions about how education works.

Using prediction markets we found that researchers were very accurate in predicting which studies would replicate and which would not. (perma)

Bacteriophage Cooperation Suppresses CRISPR-Cas3 and Cas9 Immunity; Adam Strandberg summarizes (perma):

Bacteriophage produce anti-CRISPR proteins, but they need to cooperate to have sufficient density to overwhelm bacterial defenses

On Volitional Philanthropy (perma):

Most of us have had similar experiences. A wise friend or acquaintance will look deeply into us, and see some latent aspiration, perhaps more clearly than we do ourselves. And they will see that we are capable of taking action to achieve that aspiration, and hold up a mirror showing us that capability in crystalline form. The usual self-doubts are silenced, and we realize with conviction: “yes, I can do this”.

This is an instance of volitional philanthropy: helping expand the range of ways people can act on the world.

“In research, both problem finding and problem solving are important. Surprisingly often, problem finding is more important than problem solving." (perma):

There’s a rare, related activity which I think of as field finding. It’s not about problem finding, per se, but rather about developing an underlying narrative which generates many superb problems over decades or centuries.

Most of my favourite papers are field finding.

Jobs Involving Routine Tasks Aren’t Growing (perma)

“It wasn’t until I started reading about medieval science and thechnology that I figured out how fake most of contemporary discussions on politics and ideology are." (perma):

One phenomenon jumps out to you when you get seriously interested in history (even it you happen to be amateur like me). And that is that people tend to naively judge periods' accomplishemnts largely based on how much they superficialy resemble our age. If period resembles ours we emphasize good parts and forget about flaws; if period looks alien we forget good parts, emphasize bad and sometimes even invent flaws out of tin air. Let me explain.

What’s the fastest way you’ve seen someone fuck up their life? (perma):

Brain injuries are sad. Worked with a guy who retired from the Navy (last assignment was in charge of supplies for an aircraft carrier), got a civilian logistics job with the Navy and became in charge of the warehouses in Norfolk. He was hit by a car while he was riding his bike to work; now he lives with his sister and has difficulty with his stocking job at Walmart. The worst thing is that he remembers how he used to be.

We Don’t Want to Know What Will Kill Us (perma):

A unique longitudinal study published in 2016 by Hanane Bouchghoul and colleagues at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris unpacks that decision-making process. They interviewed 54 women—either Huntington’s carriers or wives of carriers—and found that if a couple received a favorable result in a first prenatal test, the majority had the child and stopped there. Most of those who got an unfavorable result terminated the pregnancy and tried again. If a second prenatal test produced a “good” result, they had the child and stopped. But if it produced a “bad” result and another termination, most changed strategy. Some opted for preimplantation genetic diagnosis, removing the need for termination, since only mutation-free embryos are implanted. Some abandoned the idea of having a child altogether. But nearly half, 45 percent, conceived naturally again, and this time they did not seek prenatal testing. Summarizing the findings, the geneticist on the team, Alexandra Dürr, says, “The desire to have a child overrides all else.”

“Never forget that opposition to IQ tests is an anti-proletarian ploy cooked up by capitalist running dogs” (perma)

“This sort of reminds me of my time on /r/nootropics, back before eternal September hit. There were a lot of smart people, even ridiculously smart people like /u/MisterYouAreSoDumb/ . But for all that, we did not make any progress." (perma):

And a lot of our hypothesizing about various mechanisms of action (and even self experimentation) proved pretty futile. I don’t think we found a single drug that was more effective than nicotine as a cognitive enhancer, despite MisterYouAreSoDumb literally doing extremely impressive novel chemical research. Absent a scientific and legal tradition that supported enhancement research, little progress was made. Perhaps the problem is just intractable; I don’t know.

Instead we did what you are doing now, pattern matching various receptors and coming up with vague theories. As there are no regulatory issues blocking the kind of understanding you are hoping to achieve, I would strongly recommend formal education. For all its problems, I don’t think you will get very far outside a traditional research context.

“one of my favorite pictures ever: 29 teams analyze the same data set. Point estimates (of odds ratio for the key effect) vary by a factor of 3” (perma)

The Economics of Missionary Expansion: Evidence from Africa and Implications for Development (perma); Justin Sandefur comments (perma):

“New paper throws some shade on the long-term historical persistence literature, argues missions and colonial settlement were even less randomly placed than thought.”

Women Favour Dyadic Relationships, but Men Prefer Clubs: Cross-Cultural Evidence from Social Networking (perma)

Canadian man claiming to be ‘female’ sues 16 women for refusing to wax his genitals (perma)

Natural Resource Booms in the Modern Era : Is the curse still alive? (perma):

Despite having vast sums to invest, GDP growth per-capita outside of the booming sectors appears on average to have been no faster during the boom years than before. The paper finds no country in which (non-resource) growth per-person has been statisticallysignificantly higher during the boom years. In some Gulf states, oil rents have financed a migration-facilitated economic expansion with small or negative productivity gains. Overall, there is little evidence the booms have left behind the anticipated productivity transformation in the domestic economies. It appears that current policies are, overall, prooving insufficient to spur lasting development outside resource intensive sectors.

“Ease of piracy may have been a key component of @Adobe’s growth. No longer, with the subscription model it’s shifted to ~5y ago!” // “Companies will monitor and even maintain popular cracks of their software! If it starts getting used in commercial environments, it’s easier and more profitable to send the bill to legal dept than fight the pirates." (perma)

Enhancers active in dopamine neurons are a primary link between genetic variation and neuropsychiatric disease (perma) (via Benjamin Saunders) (perma)


CRISPR-induced null mutations trigger a pervasive up-regulation of homologs of the deleted gene (perma)

Resistant protocols: How decentralization evolves (perma):

… users flocked to the best user experience possible that was just decentralized enough to stay alive.

Precise Minds in Uncertain Worlds: Predictive Coding in Autism (seems like an uncannily accurate description of the experience of an autistic mind) (perma):

There have been numerous attempts to explain the enigma of autism, but existing neurocognitive theories often provide merely a refined description of 1 cluster of symptoms. Here we argue that deficits in executive functioning, theory of mind, and central coherence can all be understood as the consequence of a core deficit in the flexibility with which people with autism spectrum disorder can process violations to their expectations. More formally we argue that the human mind processes information by making and testing predictions and that the errors resulting from violations to these predictions are given a uniform, inflexibly high weight in autism spectrum disorder. The complex, fluctuating nature of regularities in the world and the stochastic and noisy biological system through which people experience it require that, in the real world, people not only learn from their errors but also need to (meta-)learn to sometimes ignore errors. Especially when situations (e.g., social) or stimuli (e.g., faces) become too complex or dynamic, people need to tolerate a certain degree of error in order to develop a more abstract level of representation. Starting from an inability to flexibly process prediction errors, a number of seemingly core deficits become logically secondary symptoms. Moreover, an insistence on sameness or the acting out of stereotyped and repetitive behaviors can be understood as attempts to provide a reassuring sense of predictive success in a world otherwise filled with error.

“Against the Social Brain Hypothesis, large scale analysis finds no link from primate social group size to brain size” (perma)

Sovereignty in the Ancient Near East (perma):

if a general planned to attack a city, he should promise to cancel the debts and free the slaves, in order to get the debtors to come over to his side. And if you’re defending a city, you also promise to cancel everyone’s debts and free the slaves. That’s how you get people on your side. Coriolanus did that in Rome, and Zedekiah in Judah. But both rulers went back on their word as soon as the fighting was over.

Stunning Videos of Evolution in Action: The MEGA-plate allows scientists to watch bacteria adapting to antibiotics before their eyes. (perma)

No, it’s not The Incentives—it’s you (perma):

As best I can tell, the words “it’s the incentives” are magic. Once they’re uttered by someone, natural law demands that everyone else involved in the conversation immediately stop whatever else they were doing, solemnly nod, and mumble something to the effect that, yes, the incentives are very bad, very bad indeed, and it’s a real tragedy that so many smart, hard-working people are being crushed under the merciless, gigantic boot of The System. Then there’s usually a brief pause, and after that, everyone goes back to discussing whatever they were talking about a moment earlier.

highlights from Giftedness and Genius: Crucial Differences by Arthur Jensen (perma)

Why Correlation Usually ≠ Causation: Causal Nets Cause Common Confounding (perma):

It is widely understood that statistical correlation between two variables ≠ causation. But despite this admonition, people are routinely overconfident in claiming correlations to support particular causal interpretations and are surprised by the results of randomized experiments, suggesting that they are biased & systematically underestimating the prevalence of confounds/common-causation. I speculate that in realistic causal networks or DAGs, the number of possible correlations grows faster than the number of possible causal relationships. So confounds really are that common, and since people do not think in DAGs, the imbalance also explains overconfidence.

The story of Oleg Melnikov, liberating people from slavery (perma):

In Dagestan, there were five people in slavery - two girls and three men, and one of these people was just a relative of a friend. My friend and I set them free. The girls were from a provincial town near Nizhny Novgorod, they studied at vocational schools, and suddenly they were called to work at one of the fast food chains in Moscow. They arrived, and they were told that there are no places here, but there are vacancies in Sochi. So they got to Dagestan, where they began to engage in prostitution in order to “work out” the money that was allegedly spent on their relocation. And the men worked in a brick factory, but the story of how they fell into slavery was very similar.

Health Services As Credence Goods: A Field Experiment (perma) Misha Yagudin summarizes (perma):

A test patient who does not need treatment is sent to 180 dentists to receive recommendations …

27% of dentists recommend a filling to someone with no dental problems. 13 teeth suggested.

There’s recent news about some really interesting hardware implants. I wanted to take a bit to share more technical thoughts and details that can’t be reduced to a mainstream article on the topic. (perma)

Questioning the evidence on hookworm eradication in the American South (perma):

the deworming campaign in the American South did not coincide with breaks in long-term trends that would invite eradication as the explanation.

Connie Chan’s top 50 tweets in 2018. (perma): China lives in the future

Siege of Baghdad (1258) (perma):

the waters of the Tigris ran black with ink from the enormous quantities of books flung into the river and red from the blood of the scientists and philosophers killed.

Book Review: The Black Swan (perma):

Taleb gives cautionary examples of what happens if you ignore this. You make some kind of beautiful model that tells you there’s only a 0.01% chance of the stock market doing some particular bad thing. Then you invest based on that data, and the stock market does that bad thing, and you lose all your money. You were taking account of the quantified risk in your model, but not of the unquantifiable risk that your model was incorrect.

In retrospect, this is an obvious point. But it’s also obvious in retrospect that everything classes teach about probability fall victim to it, to the point where it’s hard to even think about probability in non-ludic terms. I keep having to catch myself writing some kind of “Okay, assume the risk of a Black Swan is 10%…” example in this review, because then I know Taleb will hunt me down and violently assault me. But it’s hard to resist.

“Contrary to popular belief, the poor do not eat more fast food than the rich." (perma)

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