Links for Jan-Mar 2019created: ; modified:
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.
Other people’s links I read regularly
Scott Alexander’s monthly links
Note: you should subscribe to my weekly “Best of Twitter” newsletter
Facebook won because its culture was voyeuristic (perma) - read the entire thing, this essay is amazing:
What happens when our mental models are built within a culture that wants to avoid negative details? Uncomfortable grey area is structurally rewritten out of Silicon Valley’s narratives. We reduce taboo details to factoids and then model the success without them. Founders don’t emphasize certain sensitive actions. …
Seventy percent of all actions are related to viewing pictures or viewing other people’s profiles.” … The biggest usage categories are men looking at women they don’t know, followed by men looking at women they do know. Women look at other women they know. Overall, women receive two-thirds of all page views.
How to Think (perma) (h/t Misha Yagudin):
4. Always have a long-term plan. Even if you change it every day. The act of making the plan alone is worth it. And even if you revise it often, you’re guaranteed to be learning something.
Coase: The Border Between Theory and Practice (perma):
there’s a tendency for people to under-theorize in general, but to overshoot once they reify their theories. This holds any time you apply a theoretical model to a real-world situation: if you aren’t thinking of the capital asset pricing model when you judge the risk and reward of different career options, you might behave suboptimally — but if you take CAPM as gospel, you wind up assuming that all undiversifiable risks have offsetting rewards, which is hardly the case.
A study fails to replicate, but it continues to get referenced as if it had no problems. Communication channels are blocked. (perma:)
OK, fine. The paper’s only been out 3 years. Let’s look at recent citations, since 2017:
“Oxytocin increases trust in humans”: 377 citations
“Does Oxytocin Increase Trust in Humans? A Critical Review of Research”: 49 citations
Quotes (perma) - a collection of quotes by Michael Nielsen:
Leonard Adleman: I often sit for months and do no productive work that anybody can see, because I don’t feel I have a good enough question to work on. … I believe that by working on extremely hard problems, by being courageous, you may succeed. But even if you fail, you fail gloriously. And you will have learned immense amounts, you will have extended the envelope of what you can do. As a byproduct of failing on a great problem, I have always found that I could solve some lesser but still interesting problems - which then fill your vitae.
Jonathan Blow: What I learned, later on, is that I do not at all have a bad work ethic and I am not a bad person. In fact I am quite fierce and get huge amounts of good work done, when I believe that what I am doing is important. It turns out that, for me, to capture this feeling of importance, I had to work on my own projects (and even then it took a long time to find the ideas that really moved me). But once I found this, it basically turned me into a different person. If this is how it works for you, the difference between these two modes of life is HUGE.
Brian Eno: there’s a tremendously strong pressure to repeat yourself, to do more of that thing we all liked so much. … people nearly always prefer what I was doing a few years earlier - this has always been true. … Discovering things is clumsy and sporadic, and the results don’t at first compare well with the glossy and lauded works of the past. You have to keep reminding yourself that they went through that as well, otherwise they become frighteningly accomplished.
Robin Jones Gunn: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
Steven Weinberg: When I received my undergraduate degree — about a hundred years ago — the physics literature seemed to me a vast, unexplored ocean, every part of which I had to chart before beginning any research of my own. How could I do anything without knowing everything that had already been done? Fortunately, in my first year of graduate school, I had the good luck to fall into the hands of senior physicists who insisted, over my anxious objections, that I must start doing research, and pick up what I needed to know as I went along. It was sink or swim. To my surprise, I found that this works. I managed to get a quick PhD — though when I got it I knew almost nothing about physics. But I did learn one big thing: that no one knows everything, and you don’t have to.
Robert Weisbrodt: How long will you need to find your truest, most productive niche? This I cannot predict, for, sadly, access to a podium confers no gift of prophecy. But I can say that however long it takes, it will be time well spent. I am reminded of a friend from the early 1970s, Edward Witten. I liked Ed, but felt sorry for him, too, because, for all his potential, he lacked focus. He had been a history major in college, and a linguistics minor. On graduating, though, he concluded that, as rewarding as these fields had been, he was not really cut out to make a living at them. [do read this quote in full on Michael’s page]
On Progress and Historical Change (perma):
It is not an easy thing to prove science works when you have no examples of science working yet.
Bacon’s answer — the answer which made kingdom and crown stream passionate support and birthed the Academy of Sciences–may surprise the 21st-century reader, accustomed as we are to hearing science and religion framed as enemies. We know science will work–Bacon replied–because of God. There are a hundred thousand things in this world which cause us pain and suffering, but God is Good. He gave the cheetah speed, the lion claws. He would not have sent humanity out into this wilderness without some way to meet our needs. He would not have given us the desire for a better world without the means to make it so. He gave us Reason. So, from His Goodness, we know that Reason must be able to achieve all He has us desire. God gave us science, and it is an act of Christian charity, an infinite charity toward all posterity, to use it.
They believed him. …
It really took two hundred years for Bacon’s academy to develop anything useful. There was a lot of dissecting animals, and exploding metal spheres, and refracting light, and describing gravity, and it was very, very exciting, and a lot of it was correct, but–as the eloquent James Hankins put it–it was actually the nineteenth century that finally paid Francis Bacon’s I.O.U., his promise that, if you channel an unfathomable research budget, and feed the smartest youths of your society into science, someday we’ll be able to do things we can’t do now, like refrigerate chickens, or cure rabies, or anesthetize. There were a few useful advances (better navigational instruments, Franklin’s lightning rod) but for two hundred years most of science’s fruits were devices with no function beyond demonstrating scientific principles. Two hundred years is a long time for a vastly-complex society-wide project to keep getting support and enthusiasm, fed by nothing but pure confidence that these discoveries streaming out of the Royal Society papers will eventually someday actually do something. I just think… I just think that keeping it up for two hundred years before it paid off, that’s… that’s really cool.
“Large scale experiment shows training teachers improves student outcomes in Peru. But teachers then leave for new schools, taking the treatment effect w/ them. Schools might under invest in training as a result. Would love to see same design with managers and firms” (perma)
50 Years Ago, Sugar Industry Quietly Paid Scientists To Point Blame At Fat (perma)
an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation wanted to “refute” concerns about sugar’s possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.
An Analysis On How Deepmind’s Starcraft 2 AI’s Superhuman Speed is Probably a Band-Aid Fix For The Limitations of Imitation Learning (perma)
David Silver’s claim that AlphaStar can only perform actions that a human player is able to replicate is simply not true.
When the game is played with inhuman speed and accuracy, abusing superior control is very likely to be the best and most effective and correct way to play the game. …
Deepmind’s blog post makes no attempt at explaining TLO’s absurd numbers. If they don’t explain TLO’s funky numbers they should not include them in the graph. Period.
This is getting dangerously close to lying through statistics. Deepmind has to be held to a higher standard than this.
“Working in an Amazon fulfillment center is mostly ordinary warehousing work. It’s not way worse and it’s not way better. … Amazon is helping a LOT of people in this area go from unemployment or very low pay to a job that lets them be self-sufficient, if only barely. It’s not going to get you into a middle class lifestyle, it gets you out of poverty." (perma)
Mongol Apologia – How Genghis Khan Made the Modern World (perma):
A Mongol army would ride up to some big walled city and demand the unconditional surrender of the inhabitants. If the city acquiesced, the Mongol army would ride in, demand that their horses be fed, tell the inhabitants to hand over 15% of the city’s wealth, and execute the 100 richest guys (not counting religious figures whom they rarely touched). Then the Mongol general would tell the local city administration that they are now part of the Mongol Empire. Their duty is to report to this small group of (probably Chinese or Korean) bureaucrats that the army is going to leave behind. …
Then these Mongol Empire bureaucrats would inform the city of their new tax obligation to the Empire, which was nearly always lower than that of their old tax obligation to their previous empire. Also, religious freedom is now a thing, so anyone caught beating Jews or Yazidi Muslims better stop. And also, the Mongols have their own legal code with a zero-tolerance policy, which mostly consists of stuff like “don’t steal,” “don’t rape,” and “don’t murder.” Even the Golden Family (the close relatives of the Great Khan) and the Great Khan himself were subject to Mongol laws. For instance, no member of the Golden Family could murder another family member without achieving a proper quorum. Now that’s rule of law.
[video] Lee Kuan Yew versus the SIA Strikers
1/2 “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. // 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." (perma)
2/2 “One thing that fascinates me is how symbols from the past never mean what they originally did, but what people from present want them to." (perma)
"‘pain’ has to be painful in the sense of forcing us to be motivated to stop it, and can’t simply be a neutral sensory perception ‘oh by the way something might be wrong over here’, because otherwise we will incur enormous amounts of bodily damage for poor reasons or no reason at all." (perma)
That was then, this is now (perma):
A Cincinnati newspaper printed a malevolent editorial proclaiming that [Andrew] Jackson’s mother was a common prostitute brought to this country by British soldiers. thereupon she married a mulatto man with whom she had several children, among them Andrew Jackson. Apprised of this far-fetched, scandalous tale, [John Quincy] Adams thought it absurd, but cynically went on to comment that even if proved true it would probably not hurt Jackson. The course of the campaign seemed to substantiate all Adams’s apprehensions that fervent partisanship was demolishing reasonableness, a slugfest of calumny and lies replacing political civility. Vice was triumphing over virtue. And the cynicism expressed in his reaction to the malignant piece regarding Jackson’s mother and his birth signaled that he had begun to doubt the probity of the republic and its citizens.
Daily reminder that neurons are complex cells, not just linear summators of their inputs: if you apply a neuromodulator, the I/O function changes. Apply two, and it changes in nonlinear ways. (perma)
The Best Way To Save People From Suicide (perma):
All around him, Motto saw suicidal patients being made to feel alone. In 1965, he chanced upon a collection of papers by a German psychoanalyst named Hellmuth Kaiser. Kaiser argued that the most disturbed patients could be helped if they felt a sense of connection, even on a subconscious level. This got Motto thinking about Marilyn Ryan and how her letters had gotten him through the war, her sincerity dispensed as steadily as an intravenous drip.
“My own experience—it didn’t prove anything, of course,” Motto told me years later. But he wondered if the simple act of showing people that he was there for them—and expected nothing in return—would make suicidal patients feel less isolated, less in conflict with themselves. …
The letters were to be mailed on a set schedule: once a month for the first four months; every two months for the next eight months; every three months for the next four years. In all, the correspondence would include 24 letters, sent over the course of five years, that would vary subtly. Some of the subsequent templates included:
“This is just a note to assure you of our continuing interest in how you are getting along.”
“Just a note to say that we hope things are going well, as we remain interested in your well being. Drop us a line anytime you like.”
“We realize that receiving a letter periodically expressing our interest in how things are going may seem a bit routine. However, we continue to be interested in you and how you are doing. We hope that our brief notes will be one way of expressing this.” …
Motto recalled receiving letters that thanked him and his team for remembering them, while one replied, “You will never know what your little notes mean to me.” Even when the subject matter was dark—“Please call I don’t care what time it is. I love my kids but I need a rest because I think I am having a nervous breakdown,” a woman wrote in 1973—there was a sense of intimacy there.
Sign Here to Lose Everything. Part 1. “I Hereby Confess Judgment” (perma)
The lenders’ weapon of choice is an arcane legal document called a confession of judgment. Before borrowers get a loan, they have to sign a statement giving up their right to defend themselves if the lender takes them to court. It’s like an arbitration agreement, except the borrower always loses. Armed with a confession, a lender can, without proof, accuse borrowers of not paying and legally seize their assets before they know what’s happened. Not surprisingly, some lenders have abused this power. In dozens of interviews and court pleadings, borrowers describe lenders who’ve forged documents, lied about how much they were owed, or fabricated defaults out of thin air.
“Somebody just comes in and rips everything out,” Doug said one evening in August, pulling up a stool at a Starbucks and recounting the events that killed the Duncans’ business. After a long day spent selling houses for another company, the name tag pinned to his shirt had flipped upside down like a distress signal. “It’s cannibalized our whole life.”
“Contact almost surely can be either harmful or beneficial with respect to intergroup hostility. But, just as surely, the benefits of contact have been wildly oversold to an overeager social psychology consuming audience. End." (perma)
“TIL that PNAS study about judges issuing harsher sentences before lunch was almost entirely driven by the fact that prisoners who didn’t have legal representation went last before breaks” (perma)
2018: a mildly muddled review of the year in neuroscience (perma)
“Activating the tagged neurons still worked after 30 days between training and testing. It worked after 60 days. An infant mouse’s memory of what happened in the bad place could be turned back on at will. It was there, but they could not access it. Which opens up the slightly worrying idea that infant amnesia is not the erasure of memory, but the hiding of memory.”
UK productivity gap narrows with new measure (perma):
The UK’s productivity gap with France is only half as big as previously thought because British workers work far fewer hours than official measures suggest.
Nobody Knows Anything About China (perma):
We don’t know China. Nor, however, do the Chinese — not even the government.
We don’t know China because, in ways that have generally not been acknowledged, virtually every piece of information issued from or about the country is unreliable, partial, or distorted. The sheer scale of the country, mixed with a regime of ever-growing censorship and a pervasive paranoia about sharing information, has crippled our ability to know China. Official data is repeatedly smoothed for both propaganda purposes and individual career ambitions. That goes as much for Chinese as it does for foreigners; access may sometimes be easier for Chinese citizens, but the costs of going after information can be even higher.
What Happens When Techno-Utopians Actually Run a Country (perma):
Casaleggio had recently watched V for Vendetta, a 2005 dystopian futuristic thriller. (Tagline: “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”) In the film, Britain is ruled by a fascist dictatorship; one night, a lone insurgent wearing a Guy Fawkes mask hacks into a state-controlled news broadcast and tells the people of Britain to meet him outside Parliament in exactly one year, setting in motion the end of the regime. Inspired by the movie, Casaleggio wrote a late-night post, published under Grillo’s name, on June 14, 2007. Beneath a picture of a Guy Fawkes mask, Casaleggio summoned all of Grillo’s readers to gather in person for something called Vaffanculo Day, or “Fuck Off Day,” in three months’ time—a mass collective middle finger to the political establishment. …
By the afternoon of V Day, September 8, 2007, the square had swollen with a crowd of about 50,000 people.
Muscle memory discovery ends ‘use it or lose it’ dogma (perma):
New research shows that extra nuclei gained during exercise persist even after a muscle shrinks from disuse, disease or aging — and can be mobilized rapidly to facilitate bigger gains on retraining
Malaysia: The Inside View and the Outside View (perma)
Wednesday saw a historic Malaysian election, where the opposition defeated the incumbent government coalition — a coalition built of parties that had founded the nation of Malaysia.
The inside view suggests that this is an unprecedented, historic victory. We think anything can happen, because nothing like this has happened before. I’ve read pieces saying that a “New Malaysia” is born, that the people have spoken, and that Malaysia has set a “World Benchmark in Reclaiming Democracy”. …
The fact is, democratically elected ruling parties have generally floundered after about half a century to three-quarters of a century. They become corrupt, riven by internal strife, and eventually prompt a previously loyal electorate to vote them out. …
If we take the Outside View, what has happened in Malaysia isn’t particularly new. We may actually forecast what happens next, calibrated using the experience of other countries, but informed by our inside knowledge of Malaysia’s unique circumstances.
Study: Most Rigorous Large-Scale Educational RCTs are Uninformative–Should We Be Concerned? (perma):
Typically the pattern goes: pilot study finds a large effect size (perhaps even very large, as in Bloom’s effect size of 2.0 from individual instruction and mastery learning), replication study finds a much more modest effect size (IIRC Bloom replicated around .3 or .4), and then when you roll it out to a general setting the effect disappears almost completely. For whatever reason a more limited intervention by original researchers tends to have much larger effects than replications or broader implementations of those interventions.
The Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club, was a club for mutual improvement established in 1727 by Benjamin Franklin in Philadelphia. The Leather Apron Club’s purpose was to debate questions of morals, politics, and natural philosophy, and to exchange knowledge of business affairs.
My disabled son’s amazing gaming life in the World of Warcraft (perma):
Robert and Trude mourned what they thought had been a lonely and isolated life for their disabled son. But when Mats died, they discovered that people all over Europe lit candles in his memory.
a much higher proportion of women (64.5 percent) than men (35 percent) ideally wanted their hookups in general to lead to romantic involvement. Again, the gender difference was even more pronounced when they were asked about their most recent hookup: 60 percent of women versus 13 percent of men said a romantic relationship was the ideal outcome of that sexual encounter.
RIP Culture War Thread (perma):
But once you remove all those things, you’re left with people honestly and civilly arguing for their opinions. And that’s the scariest thing of all. …
It doesn’t matter if taboo material makes up 1% of your comment section; it will inevitably make up 100% of what people hear about your comment sectionand then of what people think is in your comment section. Finally, it will make up 100% of what people associate with you and your brand. The Chinese Robber Fallacy is a harsh master; all you need is a tiny number of cringeworthy comments, and your political enemies, power-hungry opportunists, and 4channers just in it for the lulz can convince everyone that your entire brand is about being pro-pedophile, catering to the pedophilia demographic, and providing a platform for pedophile supporters. And if you ban the pedophiles, they’ll do the same thing for the next-most-offensive opinion in your comments, and then the next-most-offensive, until you’ve censored everything except “Our benevolent leadership really is doing a great job today, aren’t they?” and the comment section becomes a mockery of its original goal.
“For years Facebook claimed the adding a phone number for 2FA was only for security. Now it can be searched and there’s no way to disable that." (perma)
“Antedisciplinary” Science (perma):
the history of science is full of ideas that seemed radical, unfathomable, and interdisciplinary at the time, but that now we teach to undergraduates. Every generation, we somehow compress our knowledge just enough to leave room in our brains for one more generation of progress. This is not going to stop.
“you can’t compare educational categories (some high-school, high-school graduate, some college, etc.) as if they’re stable demographics of people. A high-school drop-out was around the 40th %-ile of academic achievement in 1973. Now a high-school drop-out is around the 10th %-ile” (perma)
The “devalue and dismiss” fallacy, methodological pluralism, and DSGE models (perma):
One of the most common fallacies in the economics blogosphere — and elsewhere — is what I call “devalue and dismiss.” That is, a writer will come up with some critique of another argument, let us call that argument X, and then dismiss that argument altogether. Afterwards, the thought processes of the dismisser run unencumbered by any consideration of X, which after all is what dismissal means. Sometimes “X” will be a person or a source rather than an argument, of course. The “devalue” part of this chain may well be justified. But it should lead to “devalue and downgrade,” rather than “devalue and dismiss.”
It has proven hard for me to appreciate exactly how confused the Haitians are about some things. Gail, our program director, explained that she has a lot of trouble with her Haitian office staff because they don’t understand the concept of sorting numerically. Not just “they don’t want to do it” or “it never occurred to them”, but after months and months of attempted explanation they don’t understand that sorting alphabetically or numerically is even a thing. …
getting more medicine of any type is always a good thing and will make them healthier, and doctors are these strange heartless people who will prevent them from taking a stomach medication just because maybe they don’t have a stomach problem at this exact moment. As a result, they lie like heck. I didn’t realize exactly how much they were lying until I heard the story, now a legend at our clinic, of the man who came in complaining of vaginal discharge. He had heard some woman come in complaining of vaginal discharge and get lots of medication for it, so he figured he should try his luck with the same. And this wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Complaints will go in “fads”, so that if a guy comes in complaining of ear pain and gets lots of medicine, on his way out he’ll mention it to the other patients in line and they’ll all mention ear pain too - or so the translators and veteran staff have told me.
The Etoro believe that young males must ingest the semen of their elders to achieve adult male status and to properly mature and grow strong.
Though Edison, Einstein, Musk (and anybody you may have heard of) have done real work, their projects would have been stillborn or failed if they didn’t know the right people: partners, employees, backers, supporters.
Ursula von der Leyen (perma) - I don’t have anything bad to say about her specifically, but this is an interesting peek into German culture:
Ursula Gertrud von der Leyen … is a German politician serving as Minister of Defence since 2013. … Over the years she has often been described as a potential successor to Merkel as German Chancellor. Since 2018, she has however been described as the favourite to succeed Jens Stoltenberg as Secretary General of NATO. …
A 2015 VroniPlag Wiki investigation published evidence that parts of von der Leyen’s doctoral dissertation could have been plagiarised. As of 27 September 2015, VroniPlag detected plagiarism from 27 sites, out of 62 sites examined, or 43.5 percent. Three pages contained 50 to 75 percent plagiarised content, and five pages contained more than 75 percent plagiarised content.
Gerhard Dannemann [de], a professor at Humboldt University of Berlin, said that it was particularly dangerous for von der Leyen’s medical work to contain 23 false references, for which the sources cited did not support the cited content. …
The German Higher Education Commission found that 20% of the work was flawed, but only three “serious errors”. Christopher Baum, the president of the university[clarification needed], said: “In the central part of the dissertation, no shortcomings were found. […] The results of the dissertation were scientifically new, valid and of practical relevance.” In particular, there was “no misconduct directed by the intention to deceive”.
Reasoning from a price change, example #341 (perma):
“But if real interest rates are negative, why isn’t demand for credit going up?”
This is common mistake in economics. Many people think prices impact demand. They do not, they impact quantity demanded. Draw a supply and demand curve, and then shift the demand curve to the left. Interest rate fall. See what happens to equilibrium quantity.
Things I Learned From Working With A Marketing Advisor (perma):
“People hate reading,” she tells me.
Seriously? You’re going to rip up my nice, fluent, carefully-written essay explaining my rationale and replace it with a table?
Yes. Yes we are.
She’s not wrong, though. I’ve had the experience of meeting with executives after sending them a two-page document, worrying that I should have written something more comprehensive, and finding they didn’t even read the two-pager. I learn best through text, but clearly not everyone does. So promotional content needs to make allowances for the skimmers, the glancers, the reading-avoidant.
Why you can’t have privacy on the internet (perma):
Will you pay 120rs for a 100rs movie ticket in order to protect your privacy from your payment provider? It’s important to note that while the extra 20rs may seem to go to the payment network, in reality it will go to the smartest scammers.
“I’ve come to believe everyone systematically underestimates how influenceable people are in the last inning of deciding major life decisions like jobs. The smallest moment magnifies. Managing the last mile so key. And conversely getting lazy for a second so fatal” (perma)
The first chemist says “Maybe she knows things like that water makes iron rust. That’s a chemical fact.”
The second chemist says “No, she knows that (clear shiny appearance + wetness + refreshment) makes (dull metallic appearance + hardness) get (patchy redness). She doesn’t know that H2O + Fe = iron oxides. She knows many statistical relationships between sense-data, but none of them ever connect to the deeper chemical reality.”
The first chemist says “Then on what level can we be said to understand water ourselves? After all, no doubt there are deeper things going on than chemical reactions – quantum fields, superstrings, levels even deeper than those. All we know are some statistical relationships that must hold true, despite whatever those things may be.”
How Delusions in the Real World Disappointed My Expectations (perma)
Rather than updating the belief, people just stop being so motivated by it. That is to say, in the large majority of people, rather than the belief changing, the centrality of the belief changes. I find this very unsatisfying. “Yeah, I still think drones are probably following me everywhere but I don’t worry about it that much.” This isn’t all that much different from belief in health - confirmation bias is all-pervasive, and recall that science advances one funeral at a time.
Deep Listening at the Recurse Center (perma):
Deep listening, in contrast, involves listening to someone with the fullness of your attention, the same kind of attention one gets in a deep flow state. It involves calmly monitoring your own field of awareness and bringing your attention back to what the person is saying if it wanders too much. If emotions, judgements, or impulses to speak flare up, they’re noticed immediately and let go. In this way, it creates a sense of safety for the conversational partner, that they could say anything and the other person would not have an adverse reaction. It also involves a genuine interest in what the other person is communicating, not just with their words but their facial expressions, body movements, word choice, tone of voice, reactions to prompts, conversational themes, etc. I don’t think it would be too much to say that this interest, when fully cultivated, is indistinguishable from a sense of love and compassion for the other person.