Links & What I've Been Reading Q2 2021
1. New Science is an attempt to construct a brand new, parallel research ecosystem without all the cruft of academia. Founded by Alexey Guzey and advised (among others) by Tyler Cowen and Andrew Gelman.
2. Observing Many Researchers Using the Same Data and Hypothesis Reveals a Hidden Universe of Uncertainty: 73 teams study the same hypothesis with the same data. Chaos ensues. "Each model deployed to test the hypothesis was unique".
3. Tal Yarkoni and Joe Hilgard have exited academia. Some notes on The Science Reform Brain Drain. "I didn’t believe then that scientific reform would just fizzle out, given the attention and passion it elicited. Now, seeing how tenure insulates older researchers and competition weeds out those who don’t play by their rules, I understand the cynicism better."
4. Please Commit More Blatant Academic Fraud "The problem with this sort of low-key fraud is that it’s insidious, it’s subtle. In many ways, a fraudulent action is indistinguishable from a simple mistake. There is plausible deniability [...] Let’s make explicit academic fraud commonplace enough to cast doubt into the minds of every scientist reading an AI paper. Overall, science will benefit."
5. Nonreplicable publications are cited more than replicable ones.
6. Atoms: smart contracts for science funding. "Implicit researcher duties are now made explicit with incentives. As a result, scientific roles can become both more specialized and more diverse. PIs can focus less time on writing grants and more time on conducting research. Or the PIs who enjoy and excel at raising funds can do so and even re-deploy it to the right scientists, akin to founders who become angel investors and venture capitalists."
7. Understanding and Predicting Retractions of Published Work Based on metadata + full text. Performs surprisingly well. "Individually, SJR, abstract, country give the best performance out of all metadata features."
8. Collison, Cowen & Hsu, What We Learned Doing Fast Grants. "64% of respondents told us that the work in question wouldn’t have happened without receiving a Fast Grant."
9. Elisabeth Bik is facing legal threats. This Didier Raoult character apparently has more than 3500 publications.
10. A Retrospective on the 2014 NeurIPS Experiment: a giant post on the consistency of the review process, based on 170 papers submitted to NeurIPS. The consistency is actually fairly high, though there is "no correlation between reviewer quality scores and paper's eventual impact".
11. On the role of scientific journals in shaping the narrative around the origins of covid.
Yet this is the same prestigious journal that published a now infamous statement early last year attacking “conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin“. Clearly, this was designed to stifle debate. It was signed by 27 experts but later turned out to have been covertly drafted by Peter Daszak, the British scientist with extensive ties to Wuhan Institute of Virology. To make matters worse, The Lancet then set up a commission on the origins — and incredibly, picked Daszak to chair its 12-person task force, joined by five others who signed that statement dismissing ideas the virus was not a natural occurrence.
12. Who killed the lab leak hypothesis? (twitter thread).
13. Avraham Eisenberg: Tales from Prediction Markets
There was a market on how many times Souljaboy would tweet during a given week. The way these markets are set up, they subtract the total number of tweets on the account at the beginning and end, so deletions can remove tweets. Someone went on his twitch stream, tipped a couple hundred dollars, and said he'd tip more if Soulja would delete a bunch of tweets. Soulja went on a deleting spree and the market went crazy.
14. The Market Consequences of Investment Advice on Reddit's Wallstreetbets: "We find average ‘buy’ recommendations result in two-day announcement returns of 1.1%.[...] 2% over the subsequent month and nearly 5% over the subsequent quarter. [...] our findings suggest that both WSB posters and users are skilled." Or as /r/wallstreetbets put it, "a group of scientists checked our sub out and came to the conclusion that we are not complete morons".
15. On Sarah Ruden's translation of the gospels: Do you know how weird the gospels are?
Plenty of good reviews came out of the SSC book review contest. My favorites:
16. Double Fold, on librarians and preservation.
17. On The Natural Faculties, a defense of Galen.
18. Down And Out In Paris And London, on Orwell's experiences as a tramp and menial worker.
19. There’s no such thing as a tree (phylogenetically): a fantastic post on convergent evolution and the classification of 'trees'. "The common ancestor of a maple and a mulberry tree was not a tree. The common ancestor of a stinging nettle and a strawberry plant was a tree."
20. From the great new blog SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD: Higher than the Shoulders of Giants; Or, a Scientist’s History of Drugs. What if the productivity growth slowdown is due to the 1970s Controlled Substances Act? Come for the history of stimulants, stay for Tesla's views on chewing gum. Too many good quotes! Not entirely sure if it's serious or tongue-in-cheek, but that's part of the charm.
21. Toby Ord: The Edges of Our Universe
- Many galaxies that are currently outside the observable universe will become observable later.
- Less than 5% of the galaxies we can currently observe could ever be affected by us, and this is shrinking all the time.
- But we can affect some of the galaxies that are receding from us faster than the speed of light.
22. Scott Alexander Contra Smith On Jewish Selective Immigration. The final paragraph is absolutely spot on: if the Ashkenazi advantage is cultural, then studying it is by far the most important question in the social sciences.
23. Shocks to human capital persist, shocks to physical capital do not: BOMBS, BRAINS, AND SCIENCE: THE ROLE OF HUMAN AND PHYSICAL CAPITAL FOR THE CREATION OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE. Also interesting for the data on Jewish contributions to German science before the war: "While 15.0% of physicists were dismissed, they published 23.8% of top journal papers before 1933, and received 64% of the citations"! h/t @cicatriz
24. Social Mobility and Political Regimes: Intergenerational Mobility in Hungary,1949-2017. Social mobility rates ~the same during and after communism. Aristocrats still privileged after 1949. h/t @devarbol
25. No causal associations between childhood family income and subsequent psychiatric disorders, substance misuse and violent crime arrests: a nationwide Finnish study of >650 000 individuals and their siblings. A new study from Amir Sariaslan and colleagues, corroborating earlier results from Sweden. Perhaps the Scandinavian nations with their generous social spending are different from countries with greater inequality though?
26. The Lead-Crime Hypothesis: A Meta-Analysis. "When we restrict our analysis to only high-quality studies that address endogeneity the estimated mean effect size is close to zero." That's quite the funnel plot:
27. Better air is the easiest way not to die. On particles in the air, the harm they cause, and how to avoid them. "By all means, control your body-mass, eat well, and start running. Those are important, but they’re also kind of hard. You might fail to lose weight, but if you try to fix your air, you’ll succeed. You should put the stuff with the highest return on effort first, and that’s air."
28. On Fantastic Mr. Fox and Ted Kaczynski.
By the end of the movie Mr. Fox has pillaged and salted three of the country's largest industrial farms and set a small town on fire with acorn bombs. He got symbolically castrated, lost his home, almost lost his marriage, children, and destroyed the homes and businesses of 20 people who were lucky they didn't starve to death—but he's gotten people to read his column.
29. In 1989 there was an ecoterrorist attack on California, using an invasive species of fruit fly.
30. Viral Visualizations: How Coronavirus Skeptics Use Orthodox Data Practices to Promote Unorthodox Science Online. A seemingly-Straussian (but possibly not) paper on the social epistemology of covid skepticism. "Most fundamentally, the groups we studied believe that science is a process, and not an institution. [...] Moreover, this is a subculture shaped by mistrust of established authorities and orthodox scientific viewpoints. Its members value individual initiative and ingenuity, trusting scientific analysis only insofar as they can replicate it themselves by accessing and manipulating the data firsthand."
31. Robin Hanson: Managed Competition or Competing Managers? On how attitudes toward competition influence our judgments about things like evolution and alien civilizations. "This strong norm favoring management over competition helps explain the widespread and continuing dislike for the theory of natural selection, which explicitly declares a system of competition to be the largest encompassing system."
32. The Deep History of Human Inequality. Rousseau, Darwin, and Boehm on the question of evolution and inequality. "Going further, it could be that culture was essential for reversing polygyny. That’s because practising reverse dominance requires collective action. It’s only by working together that bachelors can depose the big boys."
33. Applied Divinity Studies on Stubborn Attachments, longtermism, progress studies, and effective altruism: The Moral Foundations of Progress. "If we stagnate now, we may be able to restart growth in the future. In comparison, an existential catastrophe is by definition unrecoverable. Given the choice, we ought to focus on stability."
34. A new essay from Houellebecq: The narcissistic fall of France.
No, we are not really dealing with a “French suicide” — to evoke the title of Eric Zemmour’s book — but a Western suicide or rather a suicide of modernity, since Asian countries are not spared. What is specifically, authentically French is the awareness of this suicide. [...] By refusing all forms of immigration, Asian countries have opted for a simple suicide, without complications or disturbances. The countries of Southern Europe are in the same situation, although one wonders if they have consciously chosen it. Migrants do land in Italy, in Spain and in Greece — but they only pass through, without helping to sort out the demographic balance, although the women of these countries are often highly desirable. No, the migrants are drawn irresistibly to the biggest and fattest cheeses, the countries of Northern Europe.
35. The Borderless Welfare State, a report from the Netherlands on the costs and benefits of immigration. Summary in English on p. 19. Scroll down for some great charts.
36. Learning to Hesitate: people tend to spend too much time gathering info on low-impact choices, and too little time gathering info on high-impact choices.
37. What if humans and chimpanzees diverged because of ticks? Hair loss as defense against ticks caused babies to be unable to cling to their mothers, which caused upright walking?! Obviously speculative, but I love this kind of speculation.
38. Wikipedia: Meteor burst communications "is a radio propagation mode that exploits the ionized trails of meteors during atmospheric entry to establish brief communications paths between radio stations up to 2,250 kilometres (1,400 mi) apart."
39. Niccolo Soldo interviews Marc Andreessen(?!?!) "I predict that we — the West — are going to WEIRDify the entire world, within the next 50 years, the next two generations. We will do this not by converting non-WEIRD people to WEIRD, but by getting their kids." His interview with "Unrepentant Baguette Merchant" PEG is also entertaining.
40. Everyone with an e-reader has run into public domain ebooks with horrible formatting/OCR errors on Amazon or Project Gutenberg. Standard Ebooks produces high-quality (and free) versions of public domain books.
41. AI-designed hardware. "We believe that more powerful AI-designed hardware will fuel advances in AI, creating a symbiotic relationship between the two fields."
42. ETH token fights back against frontrunning bots by trapping them in the position.
43. How I Taught The Iliad to Chinese Teenagers
44. On the virtues of frozen food.
45. Great non-fiction books under 250 pages.
46. DeepMind's AlphaGo documentary is quite good.
47. Doom on a holographic(?) display.
48. And here's Viagra Boys with Girls & Boys from Shrimp Sessions 2.
What I've Been Reading
The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects by Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was a painter and architect who lived in the first half of the 16th century and personally knew many of the greats (including Michelangelo). In this gossipy collection of biographies he covers more than 180 artists, starting with Cimabue and Giotto in the 13thC and ending with Michelangelo and others who were still alive at the time of writing (like Titian and Jacopo Sansovino). The ideas of progress and renaissance are front and center: the great ancients, the decline in the middle ages, and finally the triumphant rebirth of art in his own era. Parts of it are excellent, but it can get a bit dry and repetitive when he describes various minor artists, so I probably wouldn't recommend the full 2000+ page unabridged version. There's a good two-part BBC documentary called Travels With Vasari. Full review forthcoming.
Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution by Robert Boyd & Peter Richerson. I was curious to see if there was anything in B&R that Henrich failed to capture in his work, and the answer is broadly "no", but there are a few interesting differences: while Henrich is rather triumphalist, B&R take a much more skeptical view of cultural evolution (a Nietzschean perspective, though of course they don't cite him). Unfortunately most of the book is bogged down by a series of dull arguments against various opponents of cultural evolution. My recommendation would be to read The Secret of Our Success, then read just chapter 5 ("Culture is Maladaptive") in this one.
Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis. A fun pot-pourri of hubristic futurist ideas (cryonics, space habitats, interstellar travel, and so on), and the wild eccentrics who come up with them (Bob Truax, Hans Moravec, Freeman Dyson). The subjects are fascinating, but the book is a bit disorganized and repetitive.
Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer. Selections from Parerga und Paralipomena. Very funny, Schopenhauer would have been one hell of a twitter poaster. Surprisingly similar to the pragmatists in some respects. And a pessimistic inverse of Nietzsche in others: "Between the spirit of Graeco-Roman paganism and the spirit of Christianity the real antithesis is that of affirmation and denial of the will to live – in which regard Christianity is in the last resort fundamentally in the right." Will be tackling World as Will and Representation soon-ish.
Selected Writings by William Hazlitt. How pathetic the petty political polemics of the past appear to the present... I despise his style, especially in the political pieces: cheap bluster that aims only to dazzle, never to illuminate. The puffed-up rhetoric of a third-rate ochlagogue. The non-political writings are much better—they are merely unreadable rather than actively offensive.
The Literary Art of Edward Gibbon by Harold L. Bond. A fine, short overview. Not aimed at a general audience.
Fiscal Regimes and the Political Economy of Premodern States, edited by Andrew Monson & Walter Scheidel. I read the three chapters on Rome and skimmed the rest. If an edited volume on the taxation regimes of pre-modern states sounds interesting topic to you, check it out. Revenue sources, coinage, debt, trade, principal agent problems in collection, constraints to budget allocation, and so on. I should probably get to Scheidel's other works at some point.
- The Viennese Students of Civilization: The Meaning and Context of Austrian Economics Reconsidered by Erwin Dekker. On the dry/academic side of things in terms of its style. Ultimately feels a bit superficial: this guy said this, the other guy said that...but we never get a critical examination of the substance of the arguments. The key take-away is that the "Austrian school" focused mostly on humbleness before evolved institutions, and emphasized the necessity of limits in order to have practical freedom.
- Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz. Fascinating subject, but written in a dry, militaristic, PR-conscious style. Even the story of Apollo 13 can become almost boring when told in this manner. Focused entirely on the mission control perspective. The most interesting aspect is how uncredentialed and inexperienced everyone was, and how quickly the space program moved. Reminiscent of Napoleon after the revolution. Feels like they really got lucky sometimes. Genius in hiring?
- The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. For some reason I read a bunch of "self-help"(-adjacent) books. This one is really anodyne compared to what I was expecting. It's mostly famous as a book read by ruthless rappers, but it's just a bunch of amusing historical anecdotes plus a boatload of confirmation bias. Greene likes the history of Japanese tea ceremonies, France during the Ancien Régime and the revolution, ancient Rome and Greece, and even takes several stories from Giorgio Vasari! Above all he likes Baltasar Gracián, whose The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence I can heartily recommend.
- Influence: Science and Practice by Robert Cialdini. While 48 Laws of Power presents itself as a manual of manipulation and Influence presents itself more as a disinterested scientific study, the former is actually about airy stories of kings and courtiers while the latter is a cynical dark arts manual for manipulating your coworkers. Make of that what you will. Repetitive & overlong. Also, Cialdini loves to cite dubious social science papers—Milgram, Robber's Cave, etc. Still, the broad strokes are fairly convincing.
- The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Class-signaling behaviors, profession-signaling behaviors, and so on, viewed through the lens of theatrical presentation. Rather one-sided, I feel it misses situations that can't be boiled down to actor-audience. Nothing really surprising, I think most people will have noticed most of this stuff. Also draws on many questionable historical examples (for example he repeatedly uses the Thugs to illustrate his points).
- Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone. The general observations on status, presentation, space, etc. are quite good, but when he gets into the specifics about theater and masks it's rather dull and fluffy. Would have preferred something a bit more solid.
Uzumaki by Junji Ito. Horror manga. Starts with a simple idea: spirals are kinda creepy. From there it spins out in every direction, finally ending up in a bizarre post-apocalyptic Lovecraftian scenario. A virtuosic display of variations on a visual theme. Fantastic art, fantastically weird. Highly recommended. Lots of crazy body horror, not for the squeamish.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima. A great short novel about the sea, glory, death, and wanting to have sex with your mother. Somewhat autobiographical, in a symbolic way. Nihilism, tradition vs westernization, youth vs age, all in a lyrical and nautical style.
Mao II by Don DeLillo. Cults, mass media, a reclusive author. Love the style, very impressionistic. Lots of great sentences and great paragraphs, unfortunately they do not combine to form a Great Novel, the ideas never coalesce into anything solid. DeLillo revisits many of his typical themes here: American foreign policy, terrorism, cults, etc. Rather presciently written in 1991, very pessimistic on the potentials of mass action. "The future belongs to crowds."
Libra by Don DeLillo. A semi-fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald, based on the CIA/Cuban exiles conspiracy theory of the JFK assassination. Somewhat conventional in its style, and Pynchonesque in its attitude: conspiracies, axes of control and influence, strange coincidences, overeager pattern-matching, taking liberties with history. It's lacking the humor though. There's also a kind of meta parallel story of an FBI agent trying to piece together all the evidence, meticulously going through even the tiniest element (much like DeLillo). Pretty good, but The Names remains my favorite DeLillo.
The Pussy by Delicious Tacos. A collection of autobiographical vignettes about sex and relationships. Starts out extremely vulgar and extremely funny, ends up in deep ugliness and despair. A tragedy disguised as a comedy. Pure blackpill fuel: a dystopian vision of work, love, aging, and human connection in our society. Slightly longer review.
The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett. If you're interested in the extremes of experimental literature, this is a book for you. The novel at its most abstract and formless. Virtually no characters, plot, movement, imagery, dialogue, paragraphs, or really anything else you might normally associate with a novel. I wouldn't say it's a pleasurable read, but it's an interesting one at least. Isolation, existential loneliness, death.
How It Is by Samuel Beckett. It can't possibly be sparser and more formless than The Unnamable, you think. But it is! Beckett does away even with coherent, full sentences in this one. Nothing but a series of roughly sketched impressions, in a halting and disjointed language. Not really my jam.
Wasteland of Flint by Thomas Harlan. A fun space opera in a unique setting (an Aztec-Japanese space empire), focused on xenoarchaeology. Ancient aliens, some cool Solaris-like ideas, some really out-there imagery. Unfortunately it's mostly sequelbait and the sequels don't seem to be very good.
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (dropped it half-way through). Wat. My reaction to this book is just pure bewilderment. I love Ada Palmer's blog, but wtf is going on here? Am I supposed to be laughing at the terrible narrator and his horrifically bad similes? Is it for children? The magical boy protagonist and philosophy 101 stuff certainly seems to indicate so. Or maybe "young adults"? What's with the nonsensical worldbuilding (an SF/fantasy future that worships 18th century philosophers, with absurd coincidences piled on top of each other)? And apparently none of the plot is resolved by the end of the book! The whole thing reminded me of the "taxation of trade routes" stuff from the prequels, and this image kept popping into my head: