Links for Apr-Jun 2019

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.

Note: you should subscribe to my weekly “Best of Twitter” newsletter


Notes on teaching in prison (perma):

The academic level of most inmates is very, very low. About one in ten is illiterate, another tenth doesn’t speak a word of French, and around half would struggle to write a single decent sentence. …

The EU funds research or public projects. It does so partially according to criteria: does your initiative involve educating kids from tough neighbourhoods ? File for an XYZ678 grant. Could it lead to the empowerment of women ? Then you can find money thanks to TRF98 (I just invented these, but they probably exist). This incentivizes a lot of people to frame their initiative in such a way that they can apply for as many grants as possible, even when the effects on e.g. disadvantaged kids or woman empowerment are very speculative (some people are experts at just that). …

How much should hedonic treadmill effects be taken into account when considering inmate welfare? I feel like there is a very real sense in which convicts who did not expect to ever go to prison tend to be traumatised and extremely depressed whereas convicts who grew up in an environment where prison was ’normal’, or at least not unheard of tend to be better equipped to deal with the situation.

Daughter of BTK Killer Dennis Rader struggled to forgive dad (perma):

Everybody assumed BTK was some sort of sadistic genius.

The real BTK was an ordinary, inarticulate doofus, Darian thought.

And a good dad, Kerri told him.

He did not hit. Did not abuse. With Mom, Dad taught godliness. Kerri had two college degrees; Brian, her older brother, had been an Eagle Scout and was training to serve on U.S. Navy nuclear submarines. …

Dennis, in jail, couldn’t understand why no family visited. As he told Pastor Clark, he had been a good man “who just did bad things.”

Writing in the Morning (perma):

We know that acute sleep deprivation seems to have a manic and euphoric effect on at least some percent of the population some percent of the time. For example staying up all night is one of the most effective ways to temporarily aleve depression. Of course the problem is that chronic sleep deprivation has the opposite effect, and the temporary mania and euphoria is not sustainable.

My speculative take is that whatever this mechanism, it was the main reason you experienced a productivity boost. By waking up early you intentionally were fighting against your chronobiology, hence adding an element of acute sleep deprivation regardless of how many hours you got the night before. That mania fuels an amphetamine like focus.

“Kuhn and Lakatos assumed scientists would argue with ideas they disagree with. Didn’t anticipate that, faced with ideas they couldn’t refute, scientists would just passively ignore them” (perma)

How the Soviet Union Transformed Terrorism - The Atlantic (perma):

The USSR developed two tools that changed the world: airplane hijackings and state-sponsorship of terror

Deep Listening at the Recurse Center (perma):

this interest, when fully cultivated, is indistinguishable from a sense of love and compassion for the other person. Deep listening isn’t just about listening, either, though that’s the core of the skill. One aspect of deep listening that seems to be useful is in reflecting back insights to the person you’re in conversation with. This seems to help the person relate more clearly to their present internal reality — what’s actually happening for them right this second. I believe that over time people start to absorb this skill and begin listening to their own thoughts, emotions, impulses, and bodies in a deeper way, and this mindfulness will help them make better decisions about their lives.

Crucially, deep listening does not involve much advice-giving. In my experience, most unasked-for advice comes out of a place of ego (wanting to feel smart) or ignorance (not truly understanding where a person is coming from), and as such has limited utility.

Littlewood’s Law and the Global Media (perma):

Selection effects in media become increasingly strong as populations and media increase, meaning that rare datapoints driven by unusual processes such as the mentally ill or hoaxers are increasingly unreliable as evidence of anything at all and must be ignored. At scale, anything that can happen will happen a small but nonzero times.

Why You Should Ignore Every Founder’s Story About How They Started Their Company (perma):

He was the most successful independent operator in the US & had 15 years of experience in retail, surely it should have been easy for him to raise money from investors…?


Sam asked other store owners, entrepreneurs, competitors… basically everyone said no.

He got a measly 5% from his own brother & a store manager and had to borrow the other 95% (signing their house and all their other stores as collateral).

Even the great Sam Walton couldn’t find investors to start the 1st Walmart, on the back of a near-perfect record in retail.

Facebook is asking some new users for their email passwords and appears to be harvesting their contacts without consent (perma)

The Amazing Tale of Possibly the Most Successful Financial Fraudster in History - Jho Low (perma):

There are rich people, and then there are rich people. Leonardo Dicaprio is the former but not the latter. His net worth is $245 million according to some Googling, and yet even he is willing to hang out with some nerdy, awkward guy for money. This is something the book brings up a lot - even people accustomed to wealth, like Paris Hilton who was born an heiress, were simply astounded by Jho Low’s spending habits. He would show up at a club and just spend more than everybody. He would bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on single hands of poker. He would hand out handbags worth tens of thousands of dollars to random girls at parties. He would send strangers private jets to give them lifts. There is a level of wealth that even the wealthy can’t resist.

“Brains drastically change how they respond and representations of the world can change depending on an animal’s state - here is a look at single neurons across the brain when an animal is thirsty or not” (perma)

“If you don’t know Chinese, or learn from someone who does, you don’t know what’s going on in China. This is basic information hygiene that surprisingly many smart people don’t practice. In particular, the Western press exaggerates the capabilities of Chinese science & tech." (perma)

Occam’s dice (perma):

knocking out a gene with CRISPR leads to the expression of homologous genes to compensate for the loss

“Thirteen Misunderstandings about Natural Selection” (perma)

“The patent bargain is utterly broken. The people who work within the patent system realize it. That’s why no one raised red flags when Theranos received hundreds of patents without telling the scientific community how its machines actually worked." + “Makes one wonder about all the economic literature using “number of patents” as a proxy for scientific innovation [in a field, in a country, under particular regulatory regimes, etc.]" (perma)


“the human back is just complete garbage” (perma)

Be Skeptical of Income and Wealth Claims (perma):

A recent study by Stephen Rose of the Urban Institute illustrates the wide variation in incomes data, as shown in the table. He compared six scholarly estimates of U.S. real median income growth between 1979 and 2014. The results span a huge range—from an 8 percent decrease to a 51 percent increase in a recent CBO study. Four of the six indicate solid middle-class income gains.

“We Pivoted a few yrs ago. This is the story- mostly my feelings. It has never been told publicly. / This will be rambly and represents the chaos in my head at the time. There is [hopefully] no advice here. I don’t know if we did it right." (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." (perma)

Can Things Be Both Popular And Silenced? (perma):

Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said “Probably for the same reason I did”.

The Narrowing Circle (perma):

The “expanding circle” historical thesis ignores all instances in which modern ethics narrowed the set of beings to be morally regarded, often backing its exclusion by asserting their non-existence, and thus assumes its conclusion: where the circle is expanded, it’s highlighted as moral ‘progress’, and where it is narrowed, what is outside is simply defined away. When one compares modern with ancient society, the religious differences are striking: almost every single supernatural entity (place, personage, or force) has been excluded from the circle of moral concern, where they used to be huge parts of the circle and one could almost say the entire circle. Further examples include estates, houses, fetuses, prisoners, and graves.

This Too Shall Pass: Unassailable Monopolies That Were, in Hindsight, Eminently Assailable (perma):

With each cycle in tech, companies find ways to build a moat and make a monopoly. Then people look at the moat and think it’s invulnerable. They’re generally right. IBM still dominates mainframes and Microsoft still dominates PC operating systems and productivity software. But… It’s not that someone works out how to cross the moat. It’s that the castle becomes irrelevant. IBM didn’t lose mainframes and Microsoft didn’t lose PC operating systems. Instead, those stopped being ways to dominate tech. PCs made IBM just another big tech company. Mobile and the web made Microsoft just another big tech company. This will happen to Google or Amazon as well. Unless you think tech progress is over and there’ll be no more cycles … It is deeply counter-intuitive to say ‘something we cannot predict is certain to happen’. But this is nonetheless what’s happened to overturn pretty much every tech monopoly so far.

Faceless Together (perma):

If you were in a public place, you’d pick the answer that makes you look good. It’ll be something pretentious (if you’re around pretentious people), or something relatively normal and acceptable (if you’re around normal people), and you’ll choose the answer that doesn’t ostracize you otherwise negatively affect you socially.

In the room of invisible people, that pressure does not exist. You are speaking to the equivalent of an empty room. You can say the most embarrassing shit you can think of - let them know about that horrible, poorly-drawn DeviantArt comic series you are super into. If they laugh at you for it and you regret your choice to bring it up, then all you have to do is step a few feet to the left and say you like something else.

The Graphing Calculator Story (perma):

There was one last pressing question: How could we get this thing included with the system software when the new machines shipped? The thought that we might fail to do this terrified me far more than the possibility of criminal prosecution for trespass. All the sweat that Greg and I had put in, all the clandestine aid from the friends, acquaintances, and strangers on whom I had shamelessly imposed, all the donations of time, expertise, hardware, soft drinks, and junk food would be wasted.

Once again, my sanity was saved by the kindness of a stranger. At 2:00 one morning, a visitor appeared in my office: the engineer responsible for making the PowerPC system disk master. He explained things this way: “Apple is a hardware company. There are factories far away building Apple computers. One of the final steps of their assembly line is to copy all of the system software from the ‘Golden Master’ hard disk onto each computer’s hard disk. I create the Golden Master and FedEx it to the manufacturing plant. In a very real and pragmatic sense, I decide what software does and does not ship.” He told me that if I gave him our software the day before the production run began, it could appear on the Golden Master disk. Then, before anyone realized it was there, thirty thousand units with our software on the disks would be boxed in a warehouse. (In retrospect, he may have been joking. But we didn’t know that, so it allowed us to move forward with confidence.)

5-HTTLPR: A Pointed Review (perma):

First, what bothers me isn’t just that people said 5-HTTLPR mattered and it didn’t. It’s that we built whole imaginary edifices, whole castles in the air on top of this idea of 5-HTTLPR mattering. We “figured out” how 5-HTTLPR exerted its effects, what parts of the brain it was active in, what sorts of things it interacted with, how its effects were enhanced or suppressed by the effects of other imaginary depression genes. This isn’t just an explorer coming back from the Orient and claiming there are unicorns there. It’s the explorer describing the life cycle of unicorns, what unicorns eat, all the different subspecies of unicorn, which cuts of unicorn meat are tastiest, and a blow-by-blow account of a wrestling match between unicorns and Bigfoot.

“There’s been a lot of associated commentary of the form “let’s get the evil for-profits out of science”. This commentary is well-intentioned, but misdiagnoses the underlying problems." (perma):

My thinking about the role of for-profits started to change after reading John Willinsky’s pro-open access book “The Access Principle”.

Willinsky points out that in the second half of the 20th century, not-for-profit society publishers were often remarkably conservative. A new adjacent sub-field of science would open up, they’d respond “not our area”, and only very slowly expand the scope of their journals.

Much of the slack was taken up by for-profit publishers, who were far more willing to provide a space for people developing new sub-fields of science.


Harnessing vision for computation (perma):

Might it be possible to harness the visual system to carry out artificial computations, somewhat akin to how DNA has been harnessed to carry out computation? I provide the beginnings of a research programme attempting to do this. In particular, new techniques are described for building `visual circuits' (or `visual software') using wire, NOT, OR, and AND gates in a visual modality such that our visual system acts as `visual hardware' computing the circuit, and generating a resultant perception which is the output.

Gwern’s review of The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (perma):

The disappointment generates dissonance: many people genuinely believed that the solutions had been found and that the promises could be kept and the goals were realistic, but somehow it came out all wrong. (“We wanted the best, but it turned out like always.") Why? It can’t be that the ideology is wrong, that is unthinkable; the ideology has been proven correct. Nor is it the great leader’s fault, of course. Nor are there any enemies close at hand: they were all killed or exiled. The cargo cult keeps implementing the revolution and waving the flags, but the cargo of First World countries stubbornly refuses to land.

The paranoid yet logical answer is that there must be invisible enemies: saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, and society remaining ‘structurally’ anti-ideological. No matter that victory was total, the failure of their policies proves that the enemies are still everywhere. (“One man’s modus ponens…") And the rot must go all the way to the top. (But, of course, not to the very top, as the actually powerful are too powerful to criticize; the emperor is—as always—innocent & benevolent & a benediction unto his people, and merely misled or betrayed by evil officials). In actuality, the middle’s evil incompetence & sabotage, in addition to the doubtless high levels of corruption (which may be much less than that of the top and often economically-efficient work-arounds), is merely a muddling through with a mix of ideology, pragmatism, and incompetence, and there is nothing to purge.

As China Hacked, U.S. Businesses Turned A Blind Eye (perma):

Technology theft and other unfair business practices originating from China are costing the American economy more than $57 billion a year, White House officials believe, and they expect that figure to grow.

Yet an investigation by NPR and the PBS television show Frontline into why three successive administrations failed to stop cyberhacking from China found an unlikely obstacle for the government — the victims themselves.

In dozens of interviews with U.S. government and business representatives, officials involved in commerce with China said hacking and theft were an open secret for almost two decades, allowed to quietly continue because U.S. companies had too much money at stake to make waves.

“New work from my lab and @circadianumbers published in @PNASNews today shows massive (>50-fold) individual differences in the response to evening light, but also high average sensitivity. Big implications for vulnerability to circadian disruption." (perma)

What I Wish I Knew in College (perma):

I feel like I only learned how to optimize effectively during my senior year of college. At that point I was mostly set into my college path: I was an economics major, I had already used my off-terms, I was involved in particular organizations, I had my group of friends, etc. What I could change was the entire course of my future, but I still looked back on the previous three years and thought about how I wasted so much time and possibility. I wished that someone had told me what I needed to know back when I was a freshman, it seemed like such a unique opportunity that I simply didn’t know how to optimize when I first got to college.

Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad (perma):

What if there are some issues where rational debate inherently leads you astray?

Five Lessons from History (perma):

What kind of person makes their way to the top of a successful company, or a big country?

Someone who is determined, optimistic, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and is relentlessly confident in their own abilities.

What kind of person is likely to go overboard, bite off more than they can chew, and discount risks that are blindingly obvious to others?

Someone who is determined, optimistic, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and is relentlessly confident in their own abilities.

Subscribe to receive updates (archive):