Links for Jan-Mar 2020

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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Book review: The Sleepwalkers by Arthur Koestler (a):

“The progress of Science is generally regarded as a kind of clean, rational advance along a straight ascending line; in fact it has followed a zigzag course, at times almost more bewildering than the evolution of political thought. The history of cosmic theories, in particular, may without exaggeration be called a history of collective obsessions and controlled schizophrenias; and the manner in which some of the most fundamental discoveries were arrived at reminds one more of a sleepwalker’s performance than an electronic brain’s.”

Email advice from Sriram Krishnan:

Since this week’s Twitter fight is about VC cold emails, here are some thoughts on cold mails - which I love, have opened many doors for me and I often respond to. A few things I’ve learned

  • the most famous, interesting, powerful people all read their own email
  • they’re almost universally good at responding to it quickly
  • they’re always very, very curious.
  • they have very little time. Anything with friction gets done “later” …

Speed matters: Why working quickly is more important than it seems (a)

Shared Environment Proves Too Much (a)

Asymmetric Weapons Gone Bad (a):

Different problems come up when we talk about societies trying to reason collectively. We would like to think that the more investigation and debate our society sinks into a question, the more likely we are to get the right answer. But there are also times when we do 450 studies on something and end up more wrong than when we started. …

But I think I would be demolished if I tried to argue for this on Twitter, or on daytime TV, or anywhere else that promotes a cutthroat culture of “dunking” on people with the wrong opinions. It’s so much faster, easier, and punchier to say “poor single mothers are starving on minimum wage, and you think the most important problem is taking money away from them to make our millionaires even richer?” and just drown me out with cries of “elitist shill, elitist shill” every time I try to give the explanation above. …

There is a level of understanding that lets you realize communism is a bad idea. But you need a lot of economic theory and a lot of retrospective historical knowledge the early-20th-century British didn’t have. There’s some part in the resources-vs-truth graph, where you’re smart enough to know what communism is but not smart enough to have good arguments against it – where the more intellect you apply the further from truth it takes you.

The antibiotic course has had its day (a):

With little evidence that failing to complete a prescribed antibiotic course contributes to antibiotic resistance, it’s time for policy makers, educators, and doctors to drop this message, argue Martin Llewelyn and colleagues

The risks and benefits of sun exposure (a):

The body of science concerning the benefits of moderate sun exposure is growing rapidly, and is causing a different perception of sun/UV as it relates to human health. Melanoma and its relationship to sun exposure and sunburn is not adequately addressed in most of the scientific literature.

Why did Hitler chose to ignore the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty of non-aggression between Germany and the USSR during WWII? (a):

the USSR was not considered the threat that they became because of WW2. Sweden had beaten up Russia in the late 1700s and their expansion was only ended with the aid of France and Spain. Russia then participated, though not well, with the wars against Napoleon. Followed by a series of small wars against smaller neighboring countries in the Middle East. Eventually leading to confrontation with Western Powers when it attacked Crimea, which went very poorly for Russia. A series of rebellions from mid 1800s until the fall of the Tzar also made Russia look weak.

Then Russia went to war with Japan and lost almost their entire navy in 1905. WW1 did even more to make Russia look like a pushover. Followed by a series of wars that Russia lost against countries like Finland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Georgia, Poland, and Armenia from 1918-1921. Eventually culminating in the Communist takeover and formation of the USSR in 1922.

This did little to improve the impression of anyone of the Russian military. The Nazis fought the Soviets in a proxy war in Spain in the late 1930s. A proxy war where the Nazis had sided with the under dogs, and won. Then WW2 happened and the Soviets struggled to fight Finland, while the Nazis conquered France.

The USSR looked like an easy win. Right up until they weren’t.


Is it Time to State That Diet Restriction Does Not Increase Life span in Primates? (a)

The natural selection of bad science (a):

Poor research design and data analysis encourage false-positive findings. Such poor methods persist despite perennial calls for improvement, suggesting that they result from something more than just misunderstanding. The persistence of poor methods results partly from incentives that favour them, leading to the natural selection of bad science. This dynamic requires no conscious strategizing—no deliberate cheating nor loafing—by scientists, only that publication is a principal factor for career advancement. Some normative methods of analysis have almost certainly been selected to further publication instead of discovery. In order to improve the culture of science, a shift must be made away from correcting misunderstandings and towards rewarding understanding. We support this argument with empirical evidence and computational modelling. We first present a 60-year meta-analysis of statistical power in the behavioural sciences and show that power has not improved despite repeated demonstrations of the necessity of increasing power. To demonstrate the logical consequences of structural incentives, we then present a dynamic model of scientific communities in which competing laboratories investigate novel or previously published hypotheses using culturally transmitted research methods. As in the real world, successful labs produce more ‘progeny,’ such that their methods are more often copied and their students are more likely to start labs of their own. Selection for high output leads to poorer methods and increasingly high false discovery rates. We additionally show that replication slows but does not stop the process of methodological deterioration. Improving the quality of research requires change at the institutional level.

“This mechanism explains perfectly why policy and politics seem to have decoupled so neatly: when problems are solved, people are more likely to see more of them." (a)

“Utilitarian responders don’t need to deliberate to correct an initial deontological response; their intuitive response is already utilitarian in nature." (a)

Diane Coyle on The Rise and Fall of American Growth (a)


Growth and the case against randomista development (a):

people in such countries do not want these policies. They show that by how they think, how they act, how they vote, how they protest. Here in Chile, for example, people have been fighting tooth and nail against the policies that made the country the wealthiest, most educated one in South America, the only OECD member in the subcontinent. The content of the protests is explicitly against the pro-market policies that have prevailed for the last 40 years here. It is likely that an April referendum on a new constitution will pass, and replace the current basic law with another, much less growth-oriented.

Disposable Income for a Hypothetical Single Parent with One Child, by Earnings, in 2012 – income goes 0–>30k; disposable income goes from 20k to 28k (a) (see Summary Figure 1.)

“blackbox” models aren’t just a messy approximation to some elegant TBD truth; in many/most cases, they’re the literal answer to “how does the brain do it?" (a)

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned as a psychiatrist? (a):

How innocently people are awful at communication. I know the word “innocent” sounds out of place here, so let me explain what I mean.

A Sea Story (a):

It is not known whether victims trapped in the cabins and common spaces saw Thiger or the others who navigated the superstructure while the hull was horizontal. From below the escapees would have seemed like shadows in a dream, passing overhead against a pale night sky. They would have seemed like fugitives on the run. One of them put his foot through a window and was injured but not caught. There was no communication between the two worlds, which had grown impossibly far apart.

Kary Mullis (a):

Mullis was quoted saying “the never-ending quest for more grants and staying with established dogmas” has hurt science.[10] He believed that “science is being practiced by people who are dependent on being paid for what they are going to find out,” not for what they actually produce.[10] Mullis was described by some as an “impatient and impulsive researcher” who finds routine laboratory work boring and instead thinks about his research while driving and surfing. He came up with the idea of the polymerase chain reaction while driving along a highway.[32]

In his 1998 (54) humorous autobiography, Mullis expressed disagreement with the scientific evidence supporting climate change and ozone depletion, the evidence that HIV causes AIDS, and asserted his belief in astrology.[15] [33] Mullis claimed climate change and the HIV/AIDS connection are due to a conspiracy of environmentalists, government agencies, and scientists attempting to preserve their careers and earn money, rather than scientific evidence.[15]

Coercive Contract Enforcement: Law and the Labor Market in Nineteenth Century Industrial Britain (a):

British Master and Servant law made employee contract breach a criminal offense until 1875. We develop a contracting model generating equilibrium contract breach and prosecutions, then exploit exogenous changes in output prices to examine the effects of labor demand shocks on prosecutions. Positive shocks in the textile, iron, and coal industries increased prosecutions. Following the abolition of criminal sanctions, wages differentially rose in counties that had experienced more prosecutions, and wages responded more to labor demand shocks. Coercive contract enforcement was applied in industrial Britain; restricted mobility allowed workers to commit to risk-sharing contracts with lower, but less volatile, wages.

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