On the Pleb Filter

Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.

A pleb filter is a piece of art which, by virtue of its impenetrability, "filters out" people with bad taste. What makes the pleb filter such an entertaining addition to online Discourse is that it's a ready-made kafkatrap, a perfect concept for trolls and shitposters to weaponize: once an artwork has been declared a "pleb filter"—no matter how absurd the claim—any disagreement instantly labels you an unsophisticated rube, a pleb who has been filtered.

Thus one may find oneself in futile internet conversations trying desperately to explain that, no, Ishtar really is quite bad, that Ringo is not the best Beatle, and that Joel Schumacher's nipple-Batman is not actually a sublime work of misunderstood cinematic genius. The troll choices are virtually infinite, but work best when applied to creations that are universally agreed to be terrible: the prequels, St. Anger, or the oeuvre of 6ix9ine.

There are fake filters, like Tarr's Werckmeister Hamornies—art which tries to be challenging and hints at great depths while actually being quite shallow. A picture of a pool drawn on a piece of paper, and often frustrating because they are a pleb's idea of a pleb filter. Still, some (like The Magus or The Recognitions) have their charms.

Finally we have the actual pleb filters, works which are both brilliant and inaccessible. Trout Mask Replica, Michael Mann's Miami Vice, Faust Part Two, Enter the Void, the Paradiso, Season 2 of True Detective, Fanged Noumena, the Iliad's catalogue of ships.

The IQ of Shitposters

To proclaim the genius of Hamlet is commonplace; to successfully defend The Two Gentlemen of Verona as Shakespeare's greatest play takes some serious intellectual firepower. Defending the indefensible is a great signal of brainpower: a recent study finds that "bullshit ability is associated with an individual’s intelligence and individuals capable of producing more satisfying bullshit are judged by second-hand observers to be more intelligent". The pleb filter is not just a fun tool for trolling, it also offers a great opportunity to show off one's smarts.

It is genuinely challenging to truly appreciate the talent and artistry that goes into bullshit—Armond White (perhaps the greatest bullshitter of our time) is himself a pleb filter, perhaps the ultimate one. Some are liable to react with horror, but I think it's a game worth indulging in.

At the same time, there's a countersignaling game being played. On the barber pole of intellectual status, the highbrow will adopt lowbrow tastes in order to signal that they're not midwits. Thus we get fancy restaurants serving mac and cheese, and big-brained shitposters defending Showgirls. It is no coincidence that the very idea of the pleb filter was invented on a website whose users are famous for being very smart and pretending to be very stupid.

Sometimes isolated communities spiral local status markers into overdrive, creating unintentional bad pleb filters, with wild signaling and counter-signaling battles cascading downwards, leaving outside onlookers utterly bewildered. The famously unintelligible world of high fashion offers a memorable, and sometimes beautiful, instance of this phenomenon.

Criticism and the Anxiety of the Filter

The pleb filter is also a formidable force in the realm of art criticism: the critic must always maintain a position of superiority over his audience, for it is this stance which gives him the authority to dictate what is good or bad. He must therefore never be filtered, and even more importantly never appear to be filtered. Thus he will praise formulaic "high culture" garbage, lest he be mistaken for someone who doesn't get it.

When a critic encounters a work that eludes his understanding, something that may surpass his grasp, the anxiety of being filtered becomes palpable—and he often reacts to such works in an extreme way by denigrating them. This is why so many of the great classics were initially met with unfavorable reviews: The Thing, Moby-Dick, Lolita, half of Kubrick's movies. Chimes at Midnight, Orson Welles's best film, was savaged when it came out and barely got distribution due to the terrible advance reviews. The anxiety of the filter is to the critic what the anxiety of influence is to the artist.

The Case of Michael Thomas Green

The most interesting pleb filters are those that lie exactly on the line between being a troll pleb filter and a real pleb filter: Speed Racer, Love Exposure, the Book of Numbers, the Metal Gear Solid series, perhaps Dhalgren—works where powerful arguments can be made in both directions, works stuck in the limbo between stupidity and genius. Who can forget the iconic image of Sean Connery in the red trunks from Zardoz? There's a particular form of failure that is borne of great ambition. Take Southland Tales, for example, an utterly bizarre work of deranged grandeur. It is bad beyond belief. And yet there's something there, something alluring, something that pulls you in and props you up and keeps you watching.

In 2001, Tom Green wrote, directed, and starred in Freddy Got Fingered, a stupid yet brilliantly fearless comedy about a failed cartoonist and his relationship with his family. The critics hated it, filling their reviews with adjectives like "embarrassing", "witless", "vile", and "sad", but the film maintains a dedicated following to this day. Some have described it as a surrealist masterpiece, others as a $14 million dollar prank on a movie studio, others as a film before its time. Nathan Rabin writes that "studios exist precisely to keep films this audacious, original, and transgressive from ever hitting theaters", while Lindsay Ellis calls Green "the Orson Welles of our time" and describes Freddy as a film of pure insight into the soul of its creator and a "dadaist masterpiece".

Freddy offers a perfect example of the anxiety of the filter: Ebert gave it zero stars, but in his infamous review he compares Tom Green to Buñuel, and declares that "the day may come when "Freddy Got Fingered" is seen as a milestone of neo-surrealism." 16 months after his initial review, Ebert was still thinking about the inscrutable genius of Freddy, writing in his review of Stealing Harvard:

Seeing Tom Green reminded me, as how could it not, of his movie Freddy Got Fingered, which was so poorly received by the film critics that it received only one lonely, apologetic positive review on the Tomatometer. I gave it—let's see—zero stars. Bad movie, especially the scene where Green was whirling the newborn infant around his head by its umbilical cord. But the thing is, I remember Freddy Got Fingered more than a year later. I refer to it sometimes. It is a milestone. And for all its sins, it was at least an ambitious movie, a go-for-broke attempt to accomplish something. It failed, but it has not left me convinced that Tom Green doesn't have good work in him. Anyone with his nerve and total lack of taste is sooner or later going to make a movie worth seeing.

Ἐγὼ δ ̓οἶδα μὲν ὡς αἱ ὑπερμεγέθεις φύσεις ἥκιστα καθαραί

Longinus, in his essay On the Sublime, observes that mediocre artists don't make mistakes: their works are faultless because they stay within convention and take no risks. Perfection is an merely artifact of insufficient ambition. Errour is the purview of the Great!

Is it not by risking nothing, by never aiming high, that a writer of low or middling powers keeps generally clear of faults and secure of blame? Whereas the loftier walks of literature are by their very loftiness perilous? [...] Though I have myself noted not a few faulty passages in Homer and in other authors of the highest rank, and though I am far from being partial to their failings, nevertheless I would call them not so much wilful blunders as oversights which were allowed to pass unregarded through that contempt of little things, that “brave disorder,” which is natural to an exalted genius; and I still think that the greater excellences, though not everywhere equally sustained, ought always to be voted to the first place in literature, if for no other reason, for the mere grandeur of soul they reveal. [...] Would you rather be a Homer or an Apollonius?

Bolaño plays with this notion in the famous passage on the bookish pharmacist, but I find the most striking echo of this idea is found in Flaubert's final novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet. He spent nearly a decade working on it, but did not manage to complete it before his death. It is a strange, repetitive work teetering on the brink between comedy and tragedy; ostensibly a work of social criticism, it is really about Flaubert looking inwardly. And it was a radical departure from anything that he (or anyone else) had written before. He writes in a letter:

At times, the immense scope of this book stuns me. What will come of it? I only hope I’m not deceiving myself into writing something goofy rather than sublime. No, I think not! Something tells me I’m on the right path! But it will be one or the other.

He even places some self-relferential meta-commentary on just this topic within the book—

He was assailed by doubts. For if mediocre minds (as Longinus observed) are incapable of faults, then faults are committed by the masters—and we should admire them? That’s too much!

And for critics, it is exactly this ability to appreciate something great and flawed, as opposed to something small-souled and perfect, that separates the plebeian from the noble taste.

...We Yearn, Nonetheless...

What unites these works in the interstice between the goofy and the sublime is a reckless ambition that goes against all standards of good taste, no not even against but beyond, powered by some unprincipled eruption of creative élan, and not due to some misguided contrarianism but because the old standards are simply incapable of containing the artist's vision which, pushing out against its own limits, bursts like a star. They are a dive off the edge, a rejection of any interpolation between known points, a heroic leap beyond the confines of the billion-dimensional latent space of ideas, riding exotic vectors into unknown territories, vectors invisible to to all but their discoverer—what Bolaño had in mind when he was writing about those "great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze a path into the unknown".

Perhaps this ought to be our attitude not just toward our artistic creations, but also the sculpting of our life and character and even our beliefs.

Great philosophers and artists have always endeavored to chart their own path, to avoid recapitulating the shackles of their social conditioning, to find new vantage points that will allow them to see farther and more clearly. Is this not what Plato was after when he sought out the Pythagoreans in Italy? Is this not what Herodotus was looking for when he was interviewing the sages of Egypt and the Scythians of the Don? Is this not what Nick Land was reaching for when he was "lying on the ground, croaking into a mic while Mackay played jungle records in the background"? It doesn't always work. But one must at least try.

"There are two kinds of scientific progress," declares my old pal Prokhor, "the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn, nonetheless, for the latter." We yearn indeed, but what dear old Prokhor has omitted is that the leap is risky, and the risk usually fails to pay off. Make no mistake—this is a perilous path. Tradition is Smarter Than You Are, so striking out in your own direction is almost always doomed to fail. Rapid change is almost always for the worse. Human beings are almost constitutionally incapable of taking ideas seriously. Virtually every gene in our body militates against it. "The more people have epistemic learned helplessness and less they trust extreme ideas, the more they'll just default to playing Civilized American." But the Romantically low odds of that heroic action have a bewitching appeal, and our social epistemology works only to the extent that brilliant people are able to ignore it.

This all converges on liberalism, which postulates that ideas are not to be taken seriously.2 All true masterpieces bear within them an implication of extremism, a deep conviction in the importance of some new, radical idea, an implication that this singular point of view really does matter, and has the strength to overcome all others. Every great artwork is a fascist revolt—a form of revolt that, alas, does not fit very well into our æra.

Freddy Got Fingered can be streamed on Amazon. Why not check it out tonight? Perhaps you will catch a glimpse of the sublime in the scene where Tom Green jerks off an elephant and sprays his father with a pachyderm-penis firehose of sperm. You're not a...pleb, are you?

  1. 1."A sophistical rhetorical device in which any denial by an accused person serves as evidence of guilt."
  2. 2.Cowen's conversation with Knausgård features some interesting comments on the relation between liberalism and the aesthetic impulse. (ctrl+f "exhausted")

The Myth of Austerity in the UK

Over the last decade there's been virtually endless discussion about the effects of austerity on the UK economy. The Guardian: The lost decade: the hidden story of how austerity broke Britain. FT: Years of austerity are now writ large on the UK state. NYT: What Is Austerity and How Has It Affected British Society?. And just a few days ago David Wallace-Wells, discussing the country's growth problems, wrote that "the country’s obvious struggles have a very obvious central cause: austerity".

There's just a little problem with all of this: there was never any austerity in the UK. It's a pure media fabrication that persists only because nobody cares to look at the data.

So, let us bring out the charts! First of all, the UK has been running deficits for more than 20 years now. The deficits were huge even right in the middle of the supposedly austere period. Living beyond your means is not austerity, it's profligacy.

What does Wallace-Wells say to justify his claims about "austerity"?

In the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, and in the name of rebalancing budgets, the Tory-led government set about cutting annual public spending, as a proportion of G.D.P., to 39 percent from 46 percent.

This is technically true, but stupid. The 46% figure comes from the middle of the Global Financial Crisis, when GDP dropped by more than 15% and the government was trying to stimulate the economy. A decade later, spending as % of GDP had simply returned to its pre-recession level. This isn't "austerity", it's just good old regular Keynesian countercyclical fiscal policy. In fact, the UK had already escaped from recession in 2010, and it continued to run huge deficits anyway.1

And to emphasize just how unsustainable this profligacy has been, the UK's debt-to-GDP ratio has gone from ~35% to ~100% during this period of "austerity"!

Did spending ever actually go down? Nope:

"But Alvaro, there were cuts to this one particular thing I care about, therefore there was austerity." Sure, spending has been moved around a bit; some areas have gotten more money and others less. As you'd expect from an aging society,2 the UK spends a lot more on healthcare these days than it did 20 years ago; this is just a natural shift in priorities, not austerity. Here's inflation-adjusted spending broken down by category, straight from His Majesty's Treasury:3

I would also add that despite the huge increase in healthcare spending, this is the one area that Wallace-Wells chooses to highlight in his article blaming austerity!

On average, English ambulances were taking an hour and a half to respond to stroke and heart-attack calls, compared with a target time of 18 minutes; nationwide, 10 times as many patients spent more than four hours waiting in emergency rooms as did in 2011. The waiting list for scheduled treatments recently passed seven million — more than 10 percent of the country — prompting nurses to strike. The National Health Service has been in crisis for years, but over the holidays, as wait times spiked, the crisis moved to the very center of a narrative of national decline.

Despite this incredible profligacy, the effects of deficit spending on growth have clearly not been very successful—why then does Wallace-Wells expect that yet more profligacy would somehow avert national decline? The UK government and economy obviously have many problems; austerity is not one of them.

  1. 1.You could make some output gap arguments for deficit spending here but whatever.
  2. 2.The median age in the UK has increased by ~6 years since the GFC; the elderly have gone from ~15% of the population to over 25%.
  3. 3.Note that the education figures are not comparable before and after 2011 due to a methodological change.

The Best and Worst Books I Read in 2022

The Best

Cormac McCarthy, The Passenger/Stella Maris

A salvage diver (Bobby Western) is sent to investigate a plane at the bottom of the ocean. Somehow the plane is intact and one of the passengers is missing. When he gets back, shadowy government agents are after him. Western is also a genius mathematician and a racing car driver. This is a potboiler!

On the other hand we have the deranged visions of his sister, in a Pynchonian absurdist mode. The thriller plotline is quickly abandoned, and the rest of the novel plays out mostly in a series of conversations. Mathematics, physics, the atomic bomb, JFK assassination conspiracy theories, the role of the unconscious: this is a novel of ideas in many ways. At the same time it's deeply romantic, filled to the brim with longing, regret, loss, and love. It's an incredibly sad book.

Overall this is a novel that strikes out in many directions, many times in unsatisfying and imprecise and undisciplined ways, but it somehow achieves an effect. "Blaze paths into the unknown" etc. To the usual McCarthyan mix of Hemingway and Captain Ahab, he now adds heavy doses of Pynchon and DeLillo.

Perhaps the passenger is the conscious, or the unconscious, or they're both passengers (probably all of the above).

The second novel is a series of conversations between Bobby's sister Alicia and her psychiatrist, a short time before she commits suicide. It's mostly a companion piece, and many times it feels like Alicia is McCarthy's mouthpiece. It's about mathematics and giving up mathematics and the foundation of mathematics, about language, about meaning in a godless world, about the inability to experience the world directly and the effects of various intermediation mechanisms (including language), about love and longing, about the burden of knowledge, about intelligence, evolution and evolutionary psychology, physics and the bomb and the sins of the father. Both books try their damnest to tackle Gnosticism.

One of the best works in many years, I can't wait to go back to it.

Here is a story. The last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow. Out of the pitiable and exhausted remnants of what was once his soul he’ll find nothing from which to craft the least thing godlike to guide him in these last of days.

Cantor, Gauss, Riemann, Euler. Hilbert. Poincaré. Noether. Hypatia. Klein, Minkowski, Turing, von Neumann. Hardly even a partial list. Cauchy, Lie, Dedekind, Brouwer. Boole. Peano. Church is still alive. Hamilton, Laplace, Lagrange. The ancients of course. You look at these names and the work they represent and you realize that the annals of latterday literature and philosophy by comparison are barren beyond description.


Gene Wolfe, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories

Slightly uneven but the best stories are really great: in particular I loved Feather Tigers, Death of Dr. Island, Toy Theater, and Seven American Nights. Loads of classic Wolfeian mindfuckery. Many of the stories are in that classic Wolfe style where you have to piece together what's going on from tiny hints left in the text, and it's all a bit ambiguous in the end and so on. There's a lot of focus on religion (often explicitly Christian) and death. Two stories, The Hero as Werwolf and The Doctor of Death Island, being fairly explicitly death-ist. Technology and its social effects, the problem of evil, mastery of art versus human relations, the hollowness of immortality, how people would react to a messianic figure, and more!

An exaggerated and solemn respect always indicates a loss of faith.


François, Baron de Tott, The Memoirs of the Baron De Tott, on the Turks and the Tartars

A look into the past, from the past. Filled with fascinating little observations (I found the book through an anecdote about forks which Braudel mentions in C&C). Roughly at the time the American revolution was happening, the same time when Johnson and Boswell were drinking too much claret at the Mitre, de Tott was joining the Crimean Tatars on a slave raid into Southern Russia. He spent many years in the Ottoman empire over two stints, and finally also traveled around the middle east. Most fascinating for its observations of Ottoman society, and the role de Tott played in the Russo-Turkish war of '68-'74. Somewhat niche, but definitely worth a read if this is your kind of thing.

What causes the fall of empires? Culture, Tott says: all decay ultimately comes from within. He's particular critical of the effects of despotism in government: everyone's place is precarious and there is no room for prosocial ambition. Simultaneously totally lawless but also extremely despotic—anarcho-tyranny at its finest, made worse by abitrary and capricious system of punishments.

Oh, and the introduction by the translator is absolutely hilarious (unintentionally).

How can so Sovereign a contempt for human nature amongst the Turks consist with that whimsical beneficence they display towards certain animals the most useless to fociety? Barbarity itself, no doubt, stands in need of some relaxation, whilst it crushes mankind under the weight of its iron secptre, it condescends to smile on objects whole insignificance give no occasion for alarm; and the pride of the despot blending all beings together in one common Contempt, selects its favourites from amongst the weakelt.


Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

A review of a fictional philosophical tome on clothing, with various notes on the life of its author, the also fictional Diogenes Teufelsdröckh. Imagine a mix between Borges, Laurence Sterne, and Fichte. And it's got Carlyle's ridiculous style (which was extreme even in his own time) to top things off. And you can almost never tell when it's serious and when it's not. This book caused Emerson to start corresponding with Carlyle, and even inspired Borges to learn German!

In Sartor Resartus, only a lifelong quest for knowledge can lead one to the truth that knowledge is unattainable (or perhaps the other way around?). Carlyle hates the limiting effect of the standard philosophical approaches of his time, so he instead opts for this extreme type of illegible, non-linear anti-discourse in which everything is both deadly serious and potentially an ironic joke. What I'm saying is that Carlyle was the first zoomer.

The age of Curiosity, like that of Chivalry, is indeed, properly speaking, gone. Yet perhaps only gone to sleep: for here arises the Clothes-Philosophy to resuscitate, strangely enough, both the one and the other! Should sound views of this Science come to prevail, the essential nature of the British Dandy, and the mystic significance that lies in him, cannot always remain hidden under laughable and lamentable hallucination. The following long Extract from Professor Teufelsdröckh may set the matter, if not in its true light, yet in the way towards such. It is to be regretted however that, here as so often elsewhere, the Professor’s keen philosophic perspicacity is somewhat marred by a certain mixture of almost owlish purblindness, or else of some perverse, ineffectual, ironic tendency, our readers shall judge which


Joseph Conrad, Nostromo

To say that it's about a dockworker would be both true and misleading. Nostromo is the dashing Capataz de Cargadores, a man obsessed with his image and driven to heroic tasks out of a desire to maintain it.

A chopped-up story from various points of view, the narrative is kaleidoscopically structured: fragmented, unclear, conflicting, and circular. Character motivations and world-views clash with each other as the fate of Costaguana is determined. Politics, heroism, revolt (internal and external), the worth of social status, reputations, perceptions, allegiances, and material vs idealistic interests. Betrayals of all kinds. Private and public vindications and redemptions. Great stuff.

To be a millionaire, and such a millionaire as Holroyd, is like being eternally young. The audacity of youth reckons upon what it fancies an unlimited time at its disposal; but a millionaire has unlimited means in his hand—which is better. One's time on earth is an uncertain quantity, but about the long reach of millions there is no doubt.


Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

A story set in a future in which a cloistered religious-academic order is devoted to playing the Glass Bead Game, a kind of unification of all the arts and sciences. A kind of nihilistic telos for all intellectual pursuits, with an alluring beauty all of its own. The actual game itself is never described; instead we follow the life of Joseph Knecht from student, to leader of the order, and the next steps after that, as he is torn between the real world and the ivory tower.

The Borges influence can be felt throughout, and there's nothing quite like it.

The life of the mind, asceticism, the lifecycle of organizations, hierarchies and servitude, purpose and nihilism, beauty, sacrifice, duty, transcendence.

Especially for young men with gifts like those of Joseph Knecht, who have not been driven by a single talent to concentrate on a specialty, but whose nature rather aims at integration, synthesis, and universality, this springtide of free study is often a period of intense happiness and very nearly of intoxication. Were it not preceded by the discipline of the elite schools, by the psychic hygiene of meditation exercises and the lenient supervision of the Board of Educators, this freedom would even be dangerous for such natures and might prove a nemesis to many, as it used to be to innumerable highly gifted young men in the ages before our present educational pattern was set, in the pre-Castalian centuries. The universities in those days literally swarmed with young Faustian spirits who embarked with all sails set upon the high seas of learning and academic freedom, and ran aground on all the shoals of untrammeled dilettantism. Faust himself, after all, was the prototype of brilliant amateurishness and its consequent tragedy.


Laurent Binet, HHhH

Himmlers Hirn heißt Heydrich. The story of Operation Anthropoid (to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague) and everything that led up to it. 257 short chapters, sometimes consisting of nothing more than a quotation. It's a blend of a mostly-historical retelling of the operation with a ton of metafictional elements on top. Binet constantly comments on the issues with constructing a historical novel, compares his approach to other books and movies, and even brings his personal life into it. Irony, humor, self-consciousness (especially about the author's view of Heydrich), the tension between history and fiction, and a slow, horrific build-up that absolutely fills you with terror. Incredible that this book can manage such a powerful emotional effect despite the ironic tone. The absurd scenes (whether comical or horrific) are true, which makes the whole thing so strange. Goring is showing off his model train set to Heydrich when he's there to get the final solution started...

Anyway, the RSHA hydra has enough heads to keep him busy. So now he has to delegate. He gives each of the RSHA’s seven divisions to a colleague who is selected first and foremost for his abilities rather than his politics—and this is rare enough to be worth mentioning in the lunatic asylum that is the Nazi regime. Heinrich Müller, for example, who is put in charge of the Gestapo—and who identifies so completely with his job that hereafter he is known simply as “Gestapo” Müller—is a former Christian Democrat: an affiliation that does not prevent him from becoming one of the Nazis’ most devastating weapons. The other RSHA offices are given to brilliant intellectuals: youngsters such as Ohlendorf (Inland-SD) and Schellenberg (Ausland-SD), or experienced academics like Six (Written Records). Such men contrast strongly with the cohort of cranks, illiterates, and mental degenerates who populate the Party’s higher echelons. One minor branch of the Gestapo—a status that does not reflect its true importance, but it’s always better to remain discreet with such sensitive subjects—is devoted to Jewish affairs. Heydrich already knows who he wants to run it: that little Austrian Hauptsturmführer who did such good work before, Adolf Eichmann.


Gustave Flaubert, Bouvard and Pecuchet

It's difficult to write anything about this bizarre, unfinished novel. Despite being comic or satirical, it's never really funny. It's extraordinarily repetitive. There are really no characters, no plot, no development of any sort. And yet it's a powerful commentary on the tragedy of the human quest for knowledge. With it, Flaubert renounced all his earlier technique and essentially inaugurated the 20th century (post-)modernist tradition in literature. I can't really recommend it, but it's a unique masterpiece.

They no longer had a single fixed idea about the individuals and events of that time. To form an impartial judgment, they would have to read every history, every memoir, every newspaper and manuscript, for the slightest omission could foster an error that would lead to others, and on unto infinity. They gave up. But they had acquired a taste for history, a need for truth for its own sake. Perhaps the truth was more easily uncovered in earlier periods? Surely the authors recounted events more dispassionately at a greater remove. And they delved into the good Rollin. “What a load of hogwash!” cried Bouvard as of the first chapter.


Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Here's a book that manages to entirely live up to its reputation. Parts of it can be a slog, but it's filled with great observations on psychology, sociology, economics, politics, law, the future of America, and more. Tocqueville's analysis of the pressures of social conformity prefigure the (great) work of Timur Kuran.

Fascinating both for how it reveals how things have changed, and how they have stayed the same.

The Americans of the United States must inevitably become one of the greatest nations in the world; their offspring will cover almost the whole of North America; the continent that they inhabit is their dominion, and it cannot escape them. What urges them to take possession of it so soon? Riches, power, and renown cannot fail to be theirs at some future time, but they rush upon this immense fortune as if but a moment remained for them to make it their own.


The Worst

David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

An unstructured mishmash of warmed-over pop science and a cavalcade of bad arguments around abduction, philosophy of science, intelligence, infinity, qualia, etc.

The arguments about superhuman general intelligence not being possible because humans are universal Turing machines are utterly absurd.

One of the worst treatments of abduction in the history of philosophy, and that's really saying something.

Deutsch's comments on heritability are downright idiotic, and it's clear that he didn't even bother spending 30 seconds reading the wikipedia page. He just makes stuff up (incorrectly). A lot of uppity commentary about shit he doesn't understand.

And then it's just filled with a whole bunch of random shit, like a galaxybrained theory of why the UK has the best voting system, a terrible theory of aesthetics, etc.

Qualia are currently neither describable nor predictable — a unique property that should make them deeply problematic to anyone with a scientific world view (though, in the event, it seems to be mainly philosophers who worry about it).


Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies

Tainter's theory mostly comes down to decreasing marginal returns to additional societal complexity, which eventually leads to collapse. Parts of it are highly reminiscent of Chaisson's Energy-Rate Density paper (which everyone should read), but much more limited in scope. He's too focused on explaining everything with a single theory, leaving little room for contingency in history. He ignores the aspect of time: just because a system works well for 10 years does not mean it can work for 1000. And he treats rulers as being virtually unconstrained in their policy choices.

Ultimately I just found it badly argued and completely unconvincing. Full review.

In the evolution of a society, continued investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy yields a declining marginal return.


Tad Williams, City of Golden Shadow

Absurdly overlong scifi story about virtual realities and sinister conspiracies. There's a series of parallel fantastical stories set in a virtual reality and they're all pointless and awful. After 800 pages there is no resolution, only sequelbait. A bit outdated in terms of how it imagines the internet, it does have a few interesting ideas but overall not worth the effort at all.

Ho! We are being taunted by some sort of otherworldly fireflies. Someone fetch me my rifle!

Links & What I've Been Reading Q4 2022



1. The Passenger: A brief and imperfect guide for the perplexed. A bit over the top, but I thought this was the best piece on The Passenger.

The Passenger is an omni-dissolver, an intergalactic acid rain, a necromantic encyclopedia whose entries are unfamiliar tarot cards.

2. A new conversation with David Krakauer. 100% worth listening to.

3. An article by Krakauer in Nautilus: The Cormac McCarthy I Know. Montaigne, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Melville, and more.

It is over tea and lunch with our friends and colleagues that we discussed everything. A typical day might include new results in prebiotic chemistry, the nature of autocatalytic sets, pretopological spaces in RNA chemistry, Maxwell’s demon, Darwin’s sea sickness, the twin prime conjecture, logical depth as a model of evolutionary history, Godel’s dietary habits, the weirdness of Spengler’s Decline of the West, and allometric scaling of the whale brain. I believe Cormac’s recent novels The Passenger and Stella Maris have their origins partly in this foment of ideas that connect domains of unyielding precision to the frailty of life and the militancy of society.

4. James Wood's review is pretty good: "To traffic in serious mathematics is to commune with truth; to traffic in words, to merely write novels, is to produce dim approximations of the truth. This is what too many colloquies at the Santa Fe Institute will do to a novelist’s self-esteem."

5. Joy Williams is also not bad: Great, Beautiful, Terrifying

Perhaps the business of The Passenger, for all its somber romanticism and Gnostic leanings, is to defer to this unconsciousness, to give shape to that which might well be the soul, or at least its most faithful companion.

McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation.

6. This negative(!) review in Slate compares the book to Pynchon, DeLillo, Ellroy, and Lovecraft.

Machine Learning/AI

7. Building A Virtual Machine inside ChatGPT

So, inside the imagined universe of ChatGPT's mind, our virtual machine accesses the url https://chat.openai.com/chat, where it finds a large language model named Assistant trained by OpenAI. This Assistant is waiting to receive messages inside a chatbox.

8. On the persistent mental effects of looking at AI art: Relaxed/Flawed Priors As A Result Of Viewing AI Art. "Since this period of consuming a large amount of this flawed AI art, perhaps a dozen notable times, I've recognized myself initially parsing some visual stimulus in an incorrect way - one that maps to some flaw common in AI art - only to moments later consciously realize that I must have parsed the stimulus incorrectly and fix my initial perception."

9. Ebook semantic search using AI.

10. Wordcraft Writers Workshop

The Wordcraft Writers Workshop is a collaboration between Google's PAIR and Magenta teams, and 13 professional writers from a diverse set of creative writing backgrounds. Together we explore the limits of co-writing with LaMDA and foster an honest and earnest conversation about the rapidly changing relationship between technology and creativity.

11. Midwit AI: Inverse scaling can become U-shaped

12. Riffusion: using an image model to generate images of spectrograms, which are then turned into audio.

13. Nintil makes predictions about AI in 2026.


14. Scoring the midterm election forecasts from PredictIt, 538, and Manifold.

15. Prediction market does not imply causation

Take the other 95% of the proposed projects, give the investors their money back, and use the SWEET PREDICTIVE KNOWLEDGE to pick another 10% of the RCTs to fund for STAGGERING SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS and MAXIMAL STATUS ENHANCEMENT.

16. Michael Story: Why I generally don't recommend internal prediction markets or forecasting tournaments to organisations.


17. Nintil: Limits and Possibilities of Metascience.

The failure of meta-entrepreneurship to establish deep links with entrepreneurship, given stronger incentives for improvement, makes me be pessimistic about the possibilities of these bidirectional linkages from manifesting in metascience. Hence I predict metascience and metascience entrepreneurship will continue walking separate paths: The next big NIH reform or new institution started will not be strongly influenced by academic or theoretical metascience.

The Rest

18. The Sweet Life: The Long-Term Effects of a Sugar-Rich Early Childhood. Using the end of WWII rationing in the UK to look at the effects of early sugar consumption. "Excessive sugar intake early in life led to higher prevalence of chronic inflammation, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and arthritis." Not entirely convinced, a lot of marginal/non-significant results, but Figure 5 is really wild.

19. On Galton: How to keep cakes moist and cause the greatest tragedies of the 20th century (Straussian)

Here’s a few highlights of Galton’s many experiments, studies, and investigations:

  • Tries to learn arithmetic by smell, succeeds

  • Worships a puppet to see if he can convince himself it has godlike powers, succeeds

  • Makes a walking stick with a hidden high-pitched whistle inside it, takes it to the zoo and whistles at all the animals (most don’t care, but the lions hate it)

  • Replaces the blood of a silver-grey rabbit with the blood of a lop-eared rabbit to see if it can still breed (it can)

  • Tells himself that everyone is spying on him to see if he can make himself insane, succeeds

  • Tries to consciously control all of his automatic bodily processes, nearly suffocates

  • Hears animal magnetism is all the rage, learns it in secret (it’s illegal), magnetizes 80 people

20. Scott Sumner on...Robert Louis Stevenson?! A very good piece that will probably add some items to your to-read list. "So what’s going on here? It cannot be that Stevenson is too difficult for the literary establishment, as he’s also popular with average readers. I suspect it is more nearly the opposite problem—Stevenson is too pleasurable. Some critics wrongly equate greatness with difficulty."

21. What it's like to dissect a cadaver. One of the many hidden benefits of living in the Bay Area?

22. The robot on EA. Don't fully endorse it, but quite interesting.

23. Walking with Nietzsche

The path that Nietzsche took is documented, so I followed him in his walking again (this time solo), starting with the Le Chemin de Nietzsche from the Hotel Cap Estel, the exact hiking trail Nietzsche took almost daily, now dedicated to him. The 2.5-mile arduous ascent with coastal views of the Mediterranean, which goes from the village of Èze bord-de-Mer to the main town of Èze, is perhaps the most beautiful hike I had ever summited, crowned by Èze’s Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, perhaps also the most sublime church I had ever seen.

24. Pynchon's archive.

25. Erik Hoel on the MFA's influence on literature.

Faulkner didn’t finish high school, recent research shows Woolf took some classes in the classics and literature but was mostly homeschooled, Dostoevsky had a degree in engineering. Joyce did major in literature, but even he entered medical school (before leaving), and also failed multiple classes in his undergraduate days. Not one of these great writers would now be accepted to any MFA in the country. The result of the academic pipeline is that contemporary writers, despite a surface-level diversity of race and gender that is welcomingly different than previous ages, are incredibly similar in their beliefs and styles, moreso than writers in the past.

26. Stuart Ritchie on the NIH deliberately crippling human genetics research because the results are politically inconvenient: The NIH's misguided genetics data policy.


27. And here's the 37-minute live version of Sister Ray.

What I've Been Reading

  • The Passenger/Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy. Dark and beautiful. This may well be the last great novel of the human era in literature. It would be fitting for the 89-year old McCarthy to be writing a coda for himself and humanity at the same time. Especially since he views the 20th century productions of science and engineering as far more important and groundbreaking than those in literature.

    The plot is mostly irrelevant. Both books consist mostly of conversations: bars and restaurants for the first, a psychiatric institution for the second. McCarthy grapples with every idea that's been on his mind for the last few decades: mathematics, physics, language, the unconscious, the sins of the father, Kant, evolution, psychology, gnosticism, genius. It's not just a novel of ideas, though—The Passenger is filled with yearning, regret, nostalgia, isolation...just an incredibly melancholic atmosphere in general. Stella Maris is geekier, and basically The Virgin Internal Voice vs The Chad Cerebration: The Novel.

    To the usual mix of Hemingway and Captain Ahab, McCarthy adds strains of Pynchon and DeLillo. It works.

    There's even a cool, oblique Borges allusion: toward the end, Bobby writes down a couple of lines from a 17th century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Those lines form the epigram of A New Refutation of Time!

  • Tiger Technology: The Creation of a Semiconductor Industry in East Asia, by John a. Matthews. This book comes out of academic "management" studies, which entails a lot of bullshit. A lot of overdone abstract ideas that are never really tested, a lot of extremely silly diagrams, etc. And its predictions about the future (it came out in 2000) turned out quite wrong. Viewed purely as a collection of facts it's quite an interesting book, however.

  • Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology, by Chris Miller. Much stronger than the above, and also up to date as it just came out. Covers both the history of chip production across the world, as well as current issues and where they will lead in the future.

  • Bouvard and Pecuchet, by Gustave Flaubert. A comic(?) novel of ideas, which is also about Ideas. Quite weird, very bad, very good, not sure if I can really recommend it to anyone. Full review forthcoming.

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. Some interesting differences between the book and the movie. The latter is vastly superior. There's very little of the cyberpunk aesthetic present here, and Scott wisely ripped out almost everything about the artificial animals, the futuristic cult with the TV host antagonist, etc. Still, it's not bad.

  • Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert. I can confirm these get sillier and worse as the series goes on.

  • The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony. Pretty cool book on the origins of Indo-European, combining archaeological and linguistic evidence. Unfortunately it was written just before the ancient DNA era, so it contains some things we know today are inaccurate (though to Anthony's credit, he was leaning in the right direction). Dull in sections (dry lists of finds at various sites), but easily skimmable. It's difficult to recommend it when Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here exists.

  • The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I love some of his work, but overall not a fan of the average poem.

  • Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by George MacDonald Fraser. The audiobooks for this series are really well done. This time Flashman gets embroiled in the First Sikh War, a rather silly affair all around even without the fictional elements. Naturally, he gets his hands on the Koh-i-Noor. Not the best Flashman novel, but still good fun. The ending is pure perfection.

  • Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell. Historical detective fiction, in which an old, opium-addled De Quincey and his hot, spunky daughter are roped into a murder mystery and become citizen-detectives. Meticulously researched but not very good, unfortunately.

  • Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals: Critical Essays. Just a dull collection of academic essays focusing on pointless minutiae and ignoring the big questions.

Forecasting Forecasting

The forecasting ecosystem is in a weird spot right now. The "traditional" approach began with large-scale experiments focusing on the wisdom of the crowds, market mechanisms, etc. People were inspired by the predictive power of financial markets and wanted to replicate their strengths in other domains—policy, diplomacy, war, disease, science.

We quickly began to see a divergence, starting with the "superforecaster" phenomenon: researchers noticed that certain people consistently outperformed the rest, and if you focused on their views you could outperform both the experts and the crowd. Competitive prediction aggregation/market platforms also have serious issues with information sharing between participants, which is a big part of why teams of top forecasters outperform markets as a whole. It has taken a long time for this movement to play out, but I feel it has been accelerating lately and wanted to write down a few comments on where I think forecasting is headed.

One issue is identifying superforecasters. If you don't have access to them (they are GJO's moat in a way), then you need to find them on your own (or at least find a way to reach out to them and attract them). Thus other projects like CSET/INFER ran crowd forecasting platforms and then picked out the top predictors for their "pro team", for example. Recent AI forecasting efforts have also tried to pick out a small number of top forecasters. And then you have groups like Swift and Samotsvety (as Scott Alexander says, "If the point of forecasting tournaments is to figure out who you can trust, the science has spoken, and the answer is “these guys”."). Why pay tens of thousands for a prediction market (which takes time and effort to organize) when you can just give a couple of grand to Nuño and get better answers, faster?

Others have tried to do away with the market mechanism even without having access to top forecasting talent. The DARPA SCORE program (which I've written about before) had two separate components for prediction, one market-based (Replication Markets) and another which used a structured group discussion format to arrive at estimates (RepliCATS). The results aren't out yet, but my understanding is that RepliCATS outperformed the markets.

Personally, I find the shift from open markets and various fancy scoring and incentive mechanisms to "put a handful of smart dudes in a room and ask them questions" a bit disappointing. Why did we even need the markets and forecasting platforms in the first place? To identify the smart dudes, of course—but is that all there is to it? As the top forecasters abandon markets and start competing against them, they are (in a way) pulling up the ladder behind them. We need the public tournaments to identify the talent in the first place, but if the money just goes straight into Samotsvety's pockets instead of open tournaments, new people can't join the ecosystem any more. Where is the next Samotsvety going to come from? Part of the problem is that there's a positive externality to identifying forecasting talent and it's difficult to capture that value, so we end up with a bit of a market failure.

Perhaps the only way to make markets competitive is to make them lucrative enough that it's worthwhile to form hedge fund-like teams which can generate internal benefits from information-sharing and deploy those onto the market, with the added benefit of honing them through competition. But that seems unlikely at the moment, the money just isn't there.

In one of the possible worlds ahead of us, the endpoint of this process will be the re-creation of the consulting firm—except for real this time. With the right kind of marketing angle I could easily see Samotsvety becoming a kind of 21st century McKinsey for the hip SV crowd that wants to signal that it needs actual advice rather than political cover. Could the forecasters avoid the pitfalls of the consultancy world?

What are the limits to forecasting accuracy? Eli Lifland is skeptical about the possibility of improving his abilities, but I'm not sure I buy that line entirely. We're still very early on, and many obvious low-hanging fruits have yet to be tried. If the forecasting-group-as-consultancy takes off, I would expect to see many serious attempts at improvement, starting with things like teaching domain experts forecasting and then putting them in close collaboration with top-tier generalists and forecasters.

What worries me is that this is a movement away from objective scoring and back towards reputation-based systems of trust. Once you leave the world of open markets and platforms, you become disconnected from their inescapable, public, and powerful error-correcting mechanisms—weak arguments can once again be laundered in the dirty soapwater of prominence and influence. Perhaps the current crop of top forecasters have the integrity to avoid going down that path, but how can that be maintained in the long run, with a powerful headwind of incentives and entryism blowing against us?

Against Effective Altruism

From Above: Metaethics

You're (probably) all theological anti-realists; just apply the same reasoning to the existence of moral facts! If the magical invisible sky god is obviously fake, why do you accept magical invisible sky moral facts? Just take the standard "rationalist" toolkit, apply it to realism, and it disappears in a puff of smoke. The arguments can just be copy pasted: for example, one of the classic (and most powerful) arguments from the New Atheism internet wars was that theists are really atheists about every god except their own. The moral realist is an anti-realist about all moral claims except the ones he happens to like! What is the base rate of moral truth, and why do you believe your inside view is enough to overcome that?

Realist arguments always come across as utterly absurd because their task is 1) extremely simple and obvious, and 2) impossible. All they have to do is say "we used methods x, y, z to uncover moral facts a, b, c, and you can replicate the procedure independently to verify our results". But it's never like that, it's always some interminable verbcel nonsense to cover up the fact that they don't actually have any access to the moral facts that their theory says they should have access to!

Whenever I hear the word "intuition" out of the mouth of a philosopher I reach for my Browning!1

It comes down to this:

  • Naturalism: no evidence
  • Non-naturalism: magic

Often they'll back off and come up with excuses about why moral facts aren't accessible in that way, but that just wrecks the whole thing. Even if realism is true, if there's no reliable empirical access to moral facts, then that's functionally equivalent to anti-realism. Any defense based on the immunity of moral propositions to empirical investigation also makes it impossible to find the truth. Your metaethics either has to have a way to determine what's true in ethics, or you're practically a nihilist.

Traditionally the problem has been solved with an appeal to God but EAs are, to a first approximation, 100% atheist. You can't pull an Euthyphro any more, so WHAT'S YOUR MORAL EPISTEMOLOGY MOTHERFUCKER? Why do epistemic standards seem to suddenly disappear when it comes to utilitarianism? Why am I constantly being asked to believe in the existence of these ontologically redundant entities?

The theologians at least have the decency to offer some kind of story: ask them about the origin of God and they might invoke the cosmological argument or the principle of sufficient reason. Ask a moralogian about the origin of moral facts and all you'll get in return is a stupefied bovine expression. The theologians can at least appeal to miracles. The moralogians appeal to nothing and expect you to accept it! Is the origin of moral facts natural, or supernatural? If natural, can we engineer our own? Why or why not? The universe, fundamentally, is dumb. You are positing the existence of entities that are very much not dumb. Where the hell did they come from?

Above all the moralogian is conspicuously shameless. Even in the 13th century, a man like Aquinas (who would not meet a single doubter in his entire life) felt it necessary to justify his faith and present arguments in favor of the existence of God. Today's moralogian on the other hand feels no such compulsion, although he is beset on all sides by skeptics! The EA.org page on meta-ethics speaks for itself:

Is this an excess of certainty, or is it because deep down the moralogian knows he has no real arguments?

And the moralogians are not stuck in airy castles of thought, they operate in the real world. The neoconservatives, for example, are a showcase of what happens when the moralogian takes hold of the reins of foreign policy—and it is a consistent ideology that genuinely seeks to spread the values it values. Buckhardt wrote that the foreign policy of Italian states of the Renaissance, free as it was from "moral scruples", gave him "the impression of a bottomless abyss". But who today could not prefer that naked self-interest to the neocon disaster of democracy and human rights? The effective altruists have yet to screw up that badly, but just look at the people who want to eliminate all wildlife and you have a good preview of what is possible—"Man, your head is haunted!"

Peter Singer offers one of the most memorable instances of intellectual cowardice in the entire history of philosophy. Like any reasonable person, he used to be an anti-realist. Then he read Parfit and realized that anti-realism meant utilitarianism was not the case (not sure why it took Parfit to point that out to him). Instead of abandoning utilitarianism, he became a realist just to salvage his ideology! Pathetic.

Hilariously, Parfit later abandoned realism for what he calls "non-realist cognitivism", which is basically the Sam Harris view except with bigger words.2 Part 7 of vol. 3 of On What Matters is an incredible trainwreck, worth skimming just to see what kind of pretzel shapes people will contort themselves into in order to avoid accepting the obvious. At least Parfit understands that adding a magical normative layer on top of reality is completely incompatible with the scientific weltanschauung.

"But Alvaro, your instrumental goals are sort of like morality, maybe we could just re-brand..." Just let it go, man.

From Straight Ahead: What's Going On Here?

You're not actually a utilitarian anyway. At best it's a kind of ideal. That's why you tithe 10%. Just go with the 90% of your intuition that says "this shit is whack, yo". How do ideologies avoid purity spirals? Heuristics against demandingness. It’s one heuristic battling another! Why not go all the way with the one that’s winning?

So you're probably not a realist, and probably not a utilitarian either...where does this EA compulsion come from? You must have been memed into it. Don't feel bad, it happens to all of us, that's how these things work.

From Below: Genealogy

Nature has never generated a terminal value except through hypertrophy of an instrumental value. To look outside nature for sovereign purposes is not an undertaking compatible with techno-scientific integrity, or one with the slightest prospect of success.

Banger tweet Mr. Land, as the */acc transsexual teenagers of twitter dot com like to say.

Instead of getting tangled up in all this philosophy mumbo jumbo we can just pulverize the question with Bulverism.3

What is morality for, exactly? What does it mean for altruism to be "effective"? EAs take it for granted that the most effective altruism is the altruism that helps its targets the most. I would argue that altruism is really meant to help the altruist, not the altruee. That's the only way it could have evolved. So here's my pitch to you: effective altruism is the altruism that raises your status the most. The conspicuous lack of caring about the "effectiveness" of altruism among normal people is a hint! Hundreds of millions per year for the NY Metropolitan Opera? Sure, why not! They're not misfiring, you are.

Of course the problem with optimizing for status is that if you're seen as optimizing for status rather than having a plausible excuse4, it's bad—the altruism that increases your status the most is also the one that you can credibly signal that you actually believe in. Thus we get Triversian self-deception where the altruist "really means it" (but of course if he really meant it he wouldn't be giving 10%). So Actual Effective Altruism is simply too gauche to exist. If you hang around the Bay Aryan rationalists then EA may well satisfy those goals (and I'm sure there are many in EA purely for cynical reasons). But if you're not part of that crowd...

Scott Alexander writes that "all of our values are unjustifiable crystallizations of heuristics at some level", and then continues specifically on utilitarianism:

To be absolutely brutal about it:

EXPLICIT MODEL: Helping others will key me in to networks of reciprocal altruism and raise my status in the community
EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE: Desire to help others, empathy, horror at the suffering of others
ENDORSED VALUE: Utilitarianism, the belief that maximizing utility is the highest good regardless of what other goods it produces"

It's spot on! How someone can write that and go on believing in utilitarianism is beyond me, and Scott offers no explanation.

Now, you might be thinking "But Alvaro, you idiot, we're adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers! This is all perfectly alright, you see." Sure, we're adaptation executors, but that doesn't give you a blank check to execute whatever retarded adaptation was bred into your hairy great-....great-grandfather 500,000 years ago, and is now incompatible with the world you live in (or worse, become enslaved to "unjustified crystallizations" and meticulously engineered hyperstimuli designed to abuse your adaptations). Effective altruism is the coca cola of morality, and you are morally obese!

The adaptation for helping out people in your community has hypertrophied in the toxic sludge of modern civilization into an absurd ideology about maximizing imaginary sky utilons by helping people you will never meet, or who do not yet (and may never) exist. Given the rapid shift in our environment it's unsurprising that there are maladaptations in our system; but we can recognize and avoid them. Your "adaptation execution" has been memetically hijacked—where once you would get good things in return for your "altruism" (a stronger community, status, reciprocal altruism, coalition-building, or even "niceness, community, and civilization"), a runaway meme has now convinced you that it's actually better to get nothing!5 You get all the costs of religion, and none of the prosocial benefits! Even worse, the infected are trying to spread this meme to others. Things are in the saddle, and ride you! It's a particularly dumb version of your typical California cult in which there isn't even a creepy guy with a harem of underage girls at the top. What's the point, man?

There was a type of deer in Ireland whose antlers hypertrophied (probably through sexual selection) to the point that it killed off the entire species. When I look at effective altruists, all I see is overgrown antlers pulling them to the ground.

The absurdity is heightened because we obviously know where these tendencies come from, regardless of what philosophers try to imagine. We know where the evolved desire to gobble up an entire cake comes from—as you resist the clarion call of the chocolate cake, so you must also resist the call of "effective" altruism. A serious valuing of values can only begin when this baggage is dispensed with and laughed at.


There are plenty of arguments against utilitarianism's internal logic: problems with interpersonal comparisons, aggregation, second-order effects, negative utility, average utility, discounting, etc. Whether you go negative, average, rule, or fluorescent there are tons of inescapable and fatal flaws. Empirically, human beings don't have coherent utility functions so what are we even maximizing? Above all, utilitarians ignore the value (and necessity) of suffering—for life and for Life. The fine porcelain of your being was forged in the fires of hell.

But I don't think it's necessary to meet utilitarianism on its own turf, so...6

Let me also say that atheism for the masses, in retrospect, was an enormous error. Organized religion as a social technology is invaluable and the modern atomized welfare state is a pathetic replacement. Atheism for the intellectual class is perfectly alright, but in the age of mass literacy there is really no barrier between them and the rest of society. Was atheism inevitable? Perhaps. But the New Atheists certainly didn't help. Extrapolating this line of reasoning is left as an exercise to the reader.

Are there values which are not merely instrumental? In a way—Gnon and all that. Do they have anything to do with the values of effective altrusim? Of course not. But that's a story for another time.

  1. 1.In case anyone actually wants to take the intuitionist route: why trust your intuition? If it's due to some second-level intuition you're stuck in an infinite regress, if it's due to some external fact verifying the intuition then we can just use the empirical procedure and skip your intuition altogether. Where does your intuition come from, and what does the process that created it optimize for? It certainly did not optimize for truth—read Hoffman!
  2. 2.Unlike Wiblin, who believes in the Sam Harris view except with smaller words.
  3. 3.But Alvaro, isn't Bulverism...Bad? No. Genealogy matters.
  4. 4.Haha, would you look at that, I was just doing this other thing and by complete coincidence my status has gone up!
  5. 5."It is somewhat paradoxical that the tendencies and pressures in the direction of idealized moral systems should serve everyone in the group up to a point, but then be transformed by the same forces that molded them, into manipulations of the behavior of individuals that are explicitly against the interests of those being manipulated". Alexander, Biology of Moral Systems (1987).
  6. 6.Daybreak 95: "In former times, one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God arose and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no God thereby becomes superfluous."

Links & What I've Been Reading Q3 2022


Machine Learning/AI

1. Language Models Can Teach Themselves to Program Better

2. Ajeya Cotra update on AI timelines (shorter, of course).

3.The Library of Babel, stable diffusion edition. I love this bit from the Borges story:

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure. The universe was justified; the universe suddenly became congruent with the unlimited width and breadth of humankind's hope.

The certitude that everything has been written negates us or turns us into phantoms.

4. On how various plans miss the hard bits of the alignment challenge.

5. Understanding Conjecture: Notes from Connor Leahy interview

We think that in order for things to go well, there needs to be some sort of miracle. But miracles do happen. When Newton was thinking about stuff, what were the odds that motion on earth was governed by the same forces that governed motion in the stars? And what were the odds that all of this could be interpreted by humans? Then you see calculus and the laws of motion and you’re like “ah yes, that just makes sense.

6. Inverse scaling prize winners!


7. Five Questions for Michael Story: "Nearly all forecasters are paid more by their day jobs to do something other than forecasting. The market message is “don’t forecast”!"

8. On training experts to be forecasters. Lots of good points in this one, especially on the softer social aspects of forecasting.


9. Rain, Rain, Go Away: 192 Potential Exclusion-Restriction Violations for Studies Using Weather as an Instrumental Variable

10. Status bias in peer review. Would be curious to see an attempt at estimating how much of this is actually justified. After all, research quality follows a power law, and past results are certainly indicative of future performance. Perhaps there is not enough status bias in peer review!

The Rest

11. All the cool kids are listening to The Lunar Society. José Luis Ricón says Dwarkesh "is probably the best podcaster there is right now". Tyler Cowen says "highly rated but still underrated!". The Stephen Hsu episode is my favorite, but do check out the other ones too.

12. From the robot: the map is of the territory. "I am affirming that you have write access to the realm of the Gods."

13. From the banana, on the efficacy of depression treatments and more.

14. Dysgenics by the Numbers. In my view probably overstates the rate of loss within societies a bit. But overall completely right. Probably doesn't matter though.

15. Scraping training data for your mind. “But Karl Ove”, Renberg says about his writing, “there is… nothing _there_”.

16. A Future History of Biomedical Progress

Progress in tools has created the potential for a radically different research ethos that will end biomedical stagnation. But to understand this new research ethos, we must first understand the telos of the mechanistic mind and why it is at odds with the biomedical problem setting.

17. Good interview with Vitalik. "The kinds of communities you get when low taxes are the primary reason to come are just really boring and lame".

18. Evaluating Longtermist Institutional Reform. Public choice, counterfactuals, long-range forecasting.


What I've Been Reading

  • Nostromo by Joseph Konrad. Tangled, fragmented, unclear, conflicting, and circular narratives/motivations/goals/priorities. A chopped-up story from various points of view, taking a look at a world filled with great characters surrounding the titular Nostromo. Politics, heroism, revolt, the worth of social status, reputations, perceptions, allegiances, and material vs idealistic interests. Betrayals of all kinds. Private and public vindications and redemptions. Great stuff.

  • The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse. Fascinating Borgesian novel about a futuristic game that combines all arts and sciences into some sort of grand unified plaything. It's about music, duty, the lifecycle of organizations, transcendence, the life of the mind, and probably much more on top of that. Highly recommended.

  • Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen R. Platt. Kind of weirdly structured, it mainly takes a look at the era from the point of view of various minor players, mostly traders, "supercargos", and so on. The big politics don't get much attention. Somewhat revisionist I guess? It's fine.

  • Break-Out from the Crystal Palace: The Anarcho-Psychological Critique; Stirner, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky by John Carroll. A fairly shallow exegesis, written in an indefensible style. Just go straight to the primary sources.

  • The Twilight World by Werner Herzog. Another Herzog book! Nowhere near as brilliant as Conquest of the Useless, unfortunately, but still not bad. Concerns of those Japanese soldiers who kept up the guerilla war for decades after the end of WW2, refusing to surrender and refusing to face reality. Very Herzogian with the jungle and everything. Some wonderful metaphors.

  • City of Golden Shadow by Tad Williams. Gwern gave it 5 stars so I couldn't resist, but I didn't enjoy it at all. Absurdly overlong at 800 pages, it just ends with a cliffhanger (and there's more than one sequel). There's a series of parallel fantastical stories set in a virtual reality and they're all pointless and awful. A bit outdated in terms of how it imagines the internet, it does have a few interesting ideas but overall I don't think it's worth the effort.
  • Zero to One by Peter Thiel. I guess it's the best business book I've ever read. A bunch of concepts from it have penetrated the broader culture (definite vs indefinite optimism for example). It's a quick read so go for it

  • Philip Larkin: Poems selected by Martin Amis by Philip Larkin. His best poems are great, but be warned that they are also extraordinarily pathetic in a way that can really fuck up your mood (if not your soul).

  • HHhH by Laurent Binet. Split into 257 short chapters, it blends a straightfoward and minimally fictionalized retelling of Operation Anthropoid (the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich) with all sorts of metafictional elements, as Binet constantly comments on the issues with constructing a historical novel, compares his approach to other books and movies, and even brings his personal life into it. Irony, humor, self-consciousness (especially about the author's view of Heydrich), the tension between history and fiction, and a slow, horrific build-up that absolutely fills you with terror. Strange how powerful emotionally a book that is at the same time so detached can be. Quite good and very different.

  • The Man Who Loved Only Numbers: The Story of Paul Erdős and the Search for Mathematical Truth by Paul Hoffman. Fun and highly readable pop biography, I blasted through it in a day. "I doubt if he would have recognized my first name even though I worked with him for twenty years. The only person he called by his first name was Tom Trotter, whom he called Bill."

  • The Making of the Fittest: DNA and the Ultimate Forensic Record of Evolution by Sean B. Carroll. A curious artifact from a different era. Perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the peak of internet atheism and creationism debates. One could make statements about human evolution then which would be quite dangerous today. The stuff on DNA and evolution is pretty wide and not that deep. All of it has been covered better elsewhere. There's a chapter on EvoDevo for example, but it stays on the surface of things and I would recommend reading Endless Forms Most Beautiful (by the same author!) instead. On top of the evolution stuff you also have a random sprinkling of skeptic-related causes (dull and cringey rants about chiropractors), plus a very generic liberal environmentalism which basically ignores everything the author had written up to that point. Probably more interesting as a marker of a (short, but memorable) era than a book about DNA and evolution.

  • The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset W. Maugham. A fictionalized retelling of the life of Paul Gaugin, as a middle-aged English man abandons his family to go be a painter in Paris (and eventually Tahiti). I wasn't convinced by the central character, and there's nothing to this novel beyond him. The "egotistic, single-minded genius" trope has been done much better elsewhere, and the novel really strays very far from the actual life of Gaugin.

  • The Golden Bowl by Henry James. I made it about 50 pages in. Not for me.

  • The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World by David Deusch. An unstructured mishmash of warmed-over pop science and a cavalcade of bad arguments around abduction, philosophy of science, intelligence, infinity, qualia, etc. The arguments
    about superhuman general intelligence not being possible because humans are universal Turing machines are utterly absurd and could be added verbatim to "On the Impossibility of Supersized Machines". One of the worst treatments of abduction in the history of philosophy, and that's really saying something. Deutsch's comments on heritability are downright idiotic, and it's clear that he didn't even bother spending 30 seconds reading the wikipedia page. He just makes stuff up (incorrectly). A lot of uppity commentary about shit he doesn't understand. And then it's just filled with a whole bunch of random shit, like a galaxybrained theory of why the UK has the best voting system, a terrible theory of aesthetics, etc.

  • First Light by Geoffrey Wellum. Fairly conventional WW2 memoir from a British fighter pilot. Not bad, not great.

  • The Marsh Arabs by Wilfred Thesiger. A standard tale of a British explorer somehow making himself accepted and comfortable among the primitive natives (look up Thesiger's pics), and bemoaning the disappearance of their way of life. This particular one, among the pastoral tribes of the marshes of southern Iraq. Perhaps what makes it unique is that it is set not in the 19th century, but in the late 1950s. Comfy but unexceptional, ultimately the Madan are just not that interesting.

Links & What I've Been Reading Q2 2022


Machine Learning

1. Large Language Models are Zero-Shot Reasoners: "Simply adding “Let’s think step by step” before each answer increases the accuracy on MultiArith from 17.7% to 78.7% and GSM8K from 10.4% to 40.7% with GPT-3." Here's how different prompts compare:

2. DALL·E 2 is pretty crazy. Tons of good threads on twitter featuring its work, here's one of my favorites.

3. Gwern comments on GPT-3's 2nd Anniversary

A psychologist thrown back in time to 2012 is a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind, with no advantage, only cursed by the knowledge of the falsity of all the fads and fashions he is surrounded by; a DL researcher, on the other hand, is Prometheus bringing down fire.

4. Speaking of AI and Prometheus...

5. A model trained on /pol/ data successfully(?) sends out thousands of shitposts.

6. Yarvin contra AI x-risk fears. I am not convinced.


7. Very good and important: Beware boasting about non-existent forecasting track records.

8. Future Fed Chair Basil Halperin on prediction markets and monetary policy.

9. Nuño Sempere released 3 short and sweet papers on designing prediction scoring rules. Also subscribe to his excellent forecasting newsletter if you haven't already.


10. The New Science report on the NIH. Enormous but very much worth your time.

11. On that baby brainwave study and more general issues around that sort of research.

12. In the Guardian: The big idea: should we get rid of the scientific paper?

13. Ideological biases in research evaluations? The case of research on majority—minority relations

Within this field, social contact and conflict theories emphasize different aspects of majority—minority relations, where the former has a left-liberal leaning in its assumptions and implications. We randomized the conclusion of the research they evaluated so that the research supported one of the two perspectives. Although the research designs are the same, those receiving the social contact conclusion evaluate the quality and relevance of the design more favorably. We do not find similar differences in evaluations of a study on a nonpoliticized topic.

Note the effect is quite small though.

Economic History

14. On the role of millet, rice, and timing of agriculture in Chinese state formation.

Book Reviews

15. The SSC book review contest is pretty strong this year as well. My favorite thus far: The Dawn Of Everything

A “Gossip Trap” is when your whole world doesn’t exceed Dunbar’s number and to organize your society you are forced to discuss mostly people. It is Mean Girls (and mean boys), but forever. And yes, gossip can act as a leveling mechanism and social power has a bunch of positives—it’s the stuff of life, really. But it’s a terrible way to organize society. So perhaps we leveled ourselves into the ground for 90,000 years.

16. Judge Woolsey on Ulysses: ""[i]n respect of the recurrent emergence of the theme of sex in the minds of [Joyce's] characters, it must always be remembered that his locale was Celtic and his season Spring. [...] [W]hilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac."

17. SMTM on Disco Elysium.

18. Devis Kedrosky reviews Koyama & Rubin's How the World Became Rich.

The Rest

19. Latest news from the Good, Actually dpt: incarceration cuts mortality by half.

20. Matt Lakeman continues his travel blogs, this time he reports from Ukraine.

21. What I learned gathering thousands of nootropic ratings.

22. Daniël Lakens has released a free ebook on improving your statistical inferences.

23. New evidence on the genetic history of Ashkenazi Jews: "our results suggest that the AJ founder event and the acquisition of the main sources of ancestry pre-dated the 14th century and highlight late medieval genetic heterogeneity no longer present in modern AJ."

24. Mechanical Watch (lots of crazy shit on this blog)

25. On foreign aid and ethnic conflict.

26. Eigenrobot gives advice to academic refugees.

Academia is characterized by well-trodden problems, hashed over for decades, and negligible novel data for resolving them. Industry is by comparison a mass of green field areas of inquiry with large budgets, minimal bureaucracy, and ample data.


27. And here's Masayoshi Takanaka's The Rainbow Goblins.

What I've Been Reading

  • Democracy in America, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Lives up to its reputation. Fascinating observations on law, politics, psychology, sociology, America's Westward expansion, and more. Prefigures Timur Kuran in many ways. Incredibly prescient. Interesting both in terms of what has stayed the same since it was written, but also for a look at all that has changed. "The French lawyer is simply a man extensively acquainted with the statutes of his country; but the English or American lawyer resembles the hierophants of Egypt, for like them he is the sole interpreter of an occult science."

  • The Memoirs of the Baron de Tott, on the Turks and the Tartars, by the Baron de Tott. Found through Braudel. Written just a few decades before Democracy in America, the Baron de Tott went East instead of West. And instead of seeing the future, he saw the past. Roughly at the time the American revolution was happening, the same time when Johnson and Boswell were drinking too much claret at the Mitre, de Tott was joining the Crimean Tatars on a slave raid into Southern Russia. Most fascinating for its observations of Ottoman society, and the role de Tott played in the Russo-Turkish war of '68-'74. Somewhat niche and obviously nowhere near as insightful as Democracy in America, but definitely worth a read if this is your kind of thing. What causes the fall of empires? Culture, Tott says: all decay ultimately comes from within.

  • Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter. Tainter's theory mostly comes down to decreasing marginal returns to additional societal complexity, which eventually leads to collapse. Parts of it are highly reminiscent of Chaisson's Energy-Rate Density paper (which everyone should read), but much more limited in scope. He's too focused on explaining everything with a single theory, leaving little room for contingency in history. He ignores the aspect of time: just because a system works well for 10 years does not mean it can work for 1000. And he treats rulers as being virtually unconstrained in their policy choices.

    The examples he marshals in support of this theory are not particularly convincing, and (at least in some cases like the Western Roman Empire), the Mancur Olson view which focuses on public choice issues (which Tainter pretty much dismisses out of hand) seems like a vastly better fit to me. Especially when it comes to contemporary society, the examples Tainter brings up seem like a slam dunk in favor of Olson and against Tainter! Take education for example: is it really plausible that the ballooning costs and declining efficiency of educational spending over the past few decades is due to increased complexity? Of course not, it's clearly an issue of special interest groups with socially misaligned incentives. Tainter misses it because he never actually dives into the details of exactly how increased complexity is supposed to be working to produce all these effects.

  • The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom, by James Burnham. On Machiavelli and some of his successors: Mosca, Sorel, Michels, Pareto. Published in 1943 and it shows. Strong on the general ideas about the objective treatment of power and politics, divorced from sentimentality and moralizing. Pretty weak on the specifics. I was expecting something deeper based on its reputation. A bit dull overall.

  • Sartor Resartus, by Thomas Carlyle. Borges mentions that it inspired him to read German philosophy and that's how it ended up on my list. What can I even say about this crazy book? Carlyle invents a fictional German philosopher, who has written a treatise on clothing, and then also invents a fictional English editor who tries to explain the German philosopher's work, which turns out to be a philosophy of everything. Layer upon layer of irony and postmodern misdirection, and that outrageous Carlylean 19th century style to top it off. Heavily influenced by Tristram Shandy. Surprisingly influential (especially in America), though I'm really not sure how seriously one is meant to take the ideas presented within.

  • Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX, by Eric Berger. Fast-paced and exciting, mostly based on insider interviews, Liftoff gives a good idea of what the crazy early years were like at SpaceX. Once they start launching the Falcon 9 it skips over a decade in a few paragraphs, which kind of sucks. If you were wondering exactly what factors made SpaceX succeed where everyone else has failed, you will probably come away from the book disappointed. Still, recommended.

  • Apollo: The Race to the Moon, by Charles Murray (yes, that Charles Murray). One of the better Apollo books, this one is focused mostly on the bureaucratic aspects with a few glimpses into engineering as well. At 500 pages it still feels far too short, as some major events and personalities are given very little space. Overall very strong, and it's truly astonishing how there was almost nothing at all in terms of the space program in 1960, how young everyone was, how nobody really knew what they were doing, etc. For some reason it seems to be out of print.

  • The Book That Changed Europe: Picart & Bernard's Religious Ceremonies of the World, by Lynn Hunt. The story of the publication of the titular book, and a look at the religious environment of the 18th century. Freethinking Protestant refugees congregate in cosmopolitan Amsterdam and make waves through their printing presses. Fascinating subject, terrible execution. Unorganized, repetitive, badly written, and filled with pointless digressions. There's an irrelevant digression in the very first paragraph of the book! Maybe if a competent editor had gone to town on it...Also, I think the authors wildly overrate the book's ultimate importance.

  • A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, by Barbara Tuchman. Audiobook. A look at 14th century Europe, mostly as it was seen from the perspective of the French nobleman Enguerrand VII de Coucy. Mainly based on the Chronicles of Froissart. Plague, the 100 years' war, religious fanaticism, popes and antipopes, peasant revolts, crusades, etc. Very entertaining, but it sacrifices quite a lot of rigor to get there. Too many blatantly false statements from the 14th century are taken at face value. And there's more than a bit of Monty Python about this: at points, I thought I discerned the distant—but unmistakable—beat of coconuts in the background of the audiobook. This sentence gives you the vibe: "A decision was perforce taken to march straight through the dark, fobidding forest of the Ardennes, where, Froissart remarks with awed inaccuracy, "no traveler had ever before passed.""

  • Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir. Audiobook. It's the same schtick as The Martian all over again, but with more plotholes and a more impressive setting. Pleasant scifi entertaintment for the gym.

Links & What I've Been Reading Q1 2022


Machine Learning

1. Incredibly cool from deepmind: ML applied to ancient Greek fragments can generate restoration hypotheses for the missing text and locate the fragment's origin in both time and place. Paper in Nature.

2. Incredibly uncool:

These researchers built an AI for discovering less toxic drug compounds. Then they retrained it to do the opposite. Within six hours it generated 40,000 toxic molecules, including VX nerve agent and "many other known chemical warfare agents.

Sufficiently advanced AI alignment is indistinguishable from AI risk?

3. Fantastic Gwern theory-fiction: It Looks Like You're Trying To Take Over The World.

4. Also on LW, Brain Efficiency: Much More than You Wanted to Know:

Eventually advances in software and neuromorphic computing should reduce the energy requirement down to brain levels of 10W or so, allowing for up to a trillion brain-scale agents at near future world power supply, with at least a concomitant 100x increase in GDP. All of this without any exotic computing.

5. Also on LW, New Scaling Laws for Large Language Models.


6. Karger, Atanasov & Tetlock, Improving Judgments of Existential Risk: Better Forecasts, Questions, Explanations, Policies.

7. How good are generalist forecasters vs experts, really? Gavin Leech revisits the literature and argues against the superforecasters. They still do as well or slightly better than the experts, but not by much. I feel the way the results are presented is a bit misleading.


8. Derek Thompson in the Atlantic on Silicon Valley science funding.

9. In what sense is the science of science a science?

What makes my spidey sense tingle is that the objects in any such theory are (in part) a hypothetical space of possible discoveries, of possible explanations of the world. I called it a theory of discovery just above, but it might equally well be called a theory of the unknown, or theory of exploration, or theory of theories. Of course, some of the objects of any such theory would also be amenable to more standard descriptions: things like exploration strategies, or group dynamics. But some would be a lot stranger: currently unknown types of explanation, currently unknown types of theoretical entity.

Economic History

10. WW2 Japanese internment camps? You guessed it, Good, Actually! Internment had a positive effect on long-run incomes on the order of 9-22%. And remember to burn the cities, too. h/t ADS

11. Some issues with Putterman & Weil (2010), judging by the new results it doesn't seem all that problematic to the deep roots lit?

Book Reviews

12. There's a new Landmark Edition out, Xenophon's Anabasis. Here's a short review.

13. ZHPL on TLP's Sadly, Porn.

14. Scott on the same (the reviews are complementary goods).


15. Vaccination Rates and COVID Outcomes across U.S. States finds that it takes about $5000 worth of vaccines to save a life. Would be interesting to see a comparison to molnupiravir in terms of dollars per life saved.

16. A report from a covid human challenge experiment. Hopefully this paves the path for a faster response against the next pandemic.

The Rest

17. Against the Naming of Fungi

The egotism and futility of these costly initiatives is quite mind-boggling as the human threat to biological diversity multiplies. Rather than competing with animal and plant taxonomists, mycologists should show pluck in asserting philosophical independence from the waning fields of zoology and botany. By turning our attention towards experimental questions and away from cataloguing, mycologists may escape the shackles of Linnean fundamentalism.

18. Related(?), SMTM on citrus taxonomy, "in which the Bene Gesserit attempt to breed the Kumquat Haderach".

19. Luttwak on China: The myth of Chinese supremacy

Always improbable, G-2 became impossible when Xi Jinping arrived. For him only G-1 is good enough. Not because he is a megalomaniac but the opposite: he thinks, accurately, that unless the Party establishes an unchallenged global hegemony, with its rule is deemed superior to democratic governance, Communist China will collapse just as Soviet rule did. He is right.

20. Indian National Stock Exchange CEO scandal:

The drama intensified in February, when the Securities and Exchange Board of India released a 190-page regulatory order disclosing that Ramkrishna had sent sensitive information to an outsider described as a yogi in the Himalayas. [...] The yogi was non-corporeal, she said, but corresponded using the email address [email protected]

21. On the role of mathematics in the neolithic revolution. "The mathematical abilities of Neolithic humans advanced in concert with the new requirements of agricultural life. These needs can be summed up into three categories: Surplus, Trade, and Time." Here's wikipedia on the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus which dates to the 16thC BC.

22. From the new Institute for Progress, Progress is a Policy Choice.

23. Ed West on the coming demographic issues: 'Children of Men' is really happening (actually understates the problem imo).

24. Theses and counter-theses on sleep. Seems like one of those things where there's tons of variation and you're probably best off doing some rigorous self-experimentation?

25. Death Toll of Price Limits and Protectionism in the Russian Pharmaceutical Market. In 2012, Russia put price caps and protectionist regulations on various pharmaceuticals. The result was a decrease in supply, leading to a striking increase in mortality from diseases those drugs protect against.

26. Fluvoxamine-caffeine interaction:

Just learned that fluvoxamine, a common SSRI used to treat depression and other psychiatric conditions, increases the half-life of caffeine in the bloodstream. Like, to an absurd degree:

27. Modeling assortative mating and genetic similarities between partners, siblings, and in-laws

We found evidence of genetic similarity between partners for educational attainment (rg = 0.37), height (rg = 0.13), and depression (rg = 0.08). Common genetic variants associated with educational attainment correlated between siblings above 0.50 (rg = 0.68) and between siblings-in-law (rg = 0.25) and co-siblings-in-law (rg = 0.09). Comparisons between the genetic similarities of partners and siblings indicated that genetic variances were in intergenerational equilibrium. This study shows genetic similarities between extended family members and that assortative mating has taken place for several generations.

28. New EA GWAS with N=3 million, 12-16% variance explained.

29. "Las Pozas ("the Pools") is a surrealistic group of structures created by Edward James in a subtropical rainforest in the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico. It includes more than 80 acres (32 ha) of natural waterfalls and pools interlaced with towering surrealist sculptures in concrete."

30. The Senseless, Tragic Rape of Charles Bukowski’s Ghost by John Martin’s Black Sparrow Press

31. Stalin's amused notes on Lysenko.

32. A letter from Claude Shannon to Warren McCulloch, in behalf of L. Ron Hubbard.

33. No peeing towards Russia.


34. They found Shackleton's ship in the Antarctic, and it's perfectly preserved.

35. Kogonada's After Yang is one of my favorite new films in years. What if Roy Batty was a personal assistant, what happens to his adopted family after he dies? A poignant and wistful film about memory, death, and the legacy we leave behind us.

36. And here's DJ Shadow remixing King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.

What I've Been Reading

  • How to Think Like Shakespeare: Lessons from a Renaissance Education, by Scott L. Newstok. A Romantic old-man-yells-at-clouds tirade about modern education practices. It didn't change any of my views, but it didn't really attempt to do so in the first place: Newstok is a reformist, while I am strictly an abolitionist—and therefore far outside the target audience. I find it hard to separate mass education from the commoditization of knowledge, while Newstok believes we can have our cake and eat it too. In any case, if you want a passionate argument in favor of high-quality education interspersed with Shakespeare quotes, this is the book for you.
  • Dune, by Frank Herbert. Pretty great, Herbert constructs a deeply alluring world which pulls you in despite some rather hilariously implausible aspects. It's interesting how so much of the "plot" actually happens in the background. The audiobook is quite good.
  • Dune Messiah, by Frank Herbert. I was told the sequels get crazy, and this is a pretty good start in that direction! Can't wait to see where this nonsense ends up. This is basically a book of palace intrigue and scheming, with a rich religious/predestination/weird time loop sauce on top.
  • Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon. I kept thinking that it felt like a really weird throwback to the 1920s-30s, then I looked it up and it was written in 1937. Whoops. It's a non-stop torrent of interesting science fiction ideas, but there's no continuity, no characters to latch on to, and the examination of the ideas stays at the surface level. It's just a series of "this happened, then this happened, then this happened" which I found rather boring.
  • The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, by Gene Wolfe. Some fantastic stories in this collection, in particular I loved Feather Tigers, Death of Dr. Island, Toy Theater, and Seven American Nights. Many of them are in that classic Wolfe style where you have to piece together what's going on from tiny hints left in the text, and it's all a bit ambiguous in the end and so on. There's a lot of focus on religion and death (with two stories, The Hero as Werwolf and The Doctor of Death Island, being fairly explicitly death-ist).
  • Orphans of the Sky, by Robert Heinlein. Fairly standard generation ship story. Juvenile and ham-fisted (there's a scene where the protagonist literally yells out "and yet it moves!"). Mutants and knife fights and all that. 12 year old me would've loved it.
  • Wittgenstein's Nephew, by Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard documents his friendship with Paul Wittgenstein (not the pianist), a black sheep of the Wittgenstein family who suffered from various mental problems. They're both rejected by Austrian society, and they both reject it. Bernhard's attitude toward awards (he views them as a kind of insult and punishment) really sums up his relation to his country. A bitter book, sad and pathetic and miserly. Recommended if you're in the market for a feel-bad memoir.
  • The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It, by Will Storr. There's quite a bit of overlap with The Elephant in the Brain, but Storr's book is obviously more focused on status. Also reminiscent of Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Lots of references to Boehm, Henrich, Kuran, Wrangham, etc. (You're probably better off going straight to the source?) If I had to choose between this and Elephant I'd go for Elephant, but they're fairly complementary so it won't be a waste of your time to read both. Parts of the book are focused on contemporary culture war issues, which felt a bit shallow and tiresome. Overall it's not bad though.
  • The Biology of Moral Systems, by Richard Alexander. There's a great core here, but I wouldn't recommend it. The basic idea of approaching moral systems from an evopsych perspective is useful. However, huge swathes of text are wasted on dull and low-quality academic bickering, many of the specifics (eg the arguments on the development of religion) are completely off, and the last third of the book is dedicated to a mostly fruitless discussion of nuclear war and mutually assured destruction.

The Best and Worst Books I Read in 2021

The Best

Ibn Battutah, The Travels of Ibn Battutah

Also known as A Masterpiece to Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling, this is a wonderful travelogue from the 14th century (or, more appropriately, the 8th century of the Hegira). Battutah was born in Morocco; he was not wealthy, but he was well-educated and went into the family business of Islamic law. At age 21, he set out for the pilgrimage to Mecca. He would extend his journey for decades, however, following traders in ships and caravans, relying on generous Muslim institutions and his talent for befriending rulers. He eventually covered virtually the entire Islamic world and beyond, from North Africa to China.

Battutah gets into all sorts of adventures (luckily escaping death by disease, shipwreck, pirates, bandits, and so on) and provides us with some incredible ethnographic observations. In Constantinople, he meets the Emperor. In India, he becomes a prominent and wealthy administrator under the rule of an erratic Sultan. In the Maldives, he marries six local women and lives a life of leisure under the shade of the palm trees. Yet his wanderlust compels him to keep moving. Battutah himself as a person, however, remains tantalizingly obscure.

Having divorced my wives I set sail. We came to a little island in the archipelago in which there was but one house, occupied by a weaver. He had a wife and family, a few coco-palms and a small boat, with which he used to fish and to cross over to any of the islands he wished to visit. His island contained also banana bushes, but we saw no land birds on it except two crows, which came out to us on our arrival and circled above our vessel. And I swear I envied that man, and wished that the island had been mine, that I might have made it my retreat until the inevitable hour should befall me.


Don DeLillo, Libra

A semi-fictionalized biography of Lee Harvey Oswald in the Oliver Stone tradition, suffused with that great DeLillo style. 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 himself). It's quite Pynchonesque with all the criss-crossing conspiracies, the CIA, paranoia, axes of control and influence, a series of coincidences, taking liberty with history...and the ultimately mysterious "fate" that brought Oswald to the assassination. It lacks Pynchon's humor though.

"I don't know what they want me to do." "Of course you know." "Tell me where it happens." "Miami." "That means nothing to me." "You've known for weeks." "What happens in Miami?" Ferrie took a while to finish chewing his food. "Think of two parallel lines," he said. "One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest levels of the self. It's not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It's a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny."


Christopher de Hamel, Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts: Twelve Journeys into the Medieval World

Twelve chapters, each one dedicated to a different medieval manuscript, from the 6th century Gospels of St. Augustine to the 16th century Spinola Book of Hours. The book is filled with fantastic, gorgeous, high-quality prints from these manuscripts, interspersed with history and commentary in a pleasant conversational style. It's not just about the manuscripts themselves, but also who owned them, their condition, how they've been maintained or altered, where they're housed, and the people taking care of them. Cultural differences in library regulatory practices are a virtually infinite source of comedy. Just lovely all around. Make sure you get the hardcover as the paperback is apparently printed in black & white.


Confirmation that he was indeed both scribe and artist is found in the shape of the spaces left for the insertion of initials. Both scribes 2 and 3 (let us exclude 1 for the moment) left simple rectangular blank spaces where large initials were to be painted later, without thought to their shape or composition, and they added guidewords in the margins to indicate what letters were to be supplied. When Hugo came to fill them in, his flamboyantly fluid and multi-tentacled initials fitted uncomfortably into these big draughty square apertures. However, during the stint written by the last scribe from folio 185v onwards, the edges of the script are moulded line by line to fit around the curves and limbs of the painted initials, nestling together snugly like a newly married couple in bed. Text and decoration must have been executed simultaneously by the same person. In short, scribe 4 must be Hugo.


Ananyo Bhattacharya, The Man From the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

Short, dense, and with a great balance between accessibility and dumbing down complex subjects. Bhattacharya approaches his subject by focusing on ideas. The first chapter takes care of JvN's early life, and the rest of the book is split up based on the subjects he worked on: mathematics, quantum mechanics, the nuclear bomb, computing, game theory, RAND, and artificial life. Large parts of the book (I'd say about a third) are dedicated not to von Neumann but rather the work other people did based on his ideas. The game theory chapter, for example, covers Nash, Schelling, Aumann, etc. in economics, and John Maynard Smith, Price, Hamilton, etc. in evolutionary game theory. Bhattacharya is good at making all these technical subjects accessible without dumbing them down too much. The one failing point is that JvN's personality, personal life, and professional relationships don't get much attention.

From 1944, meetings instigated by Norbert Wiener helped to focus von Neumann’s thinking about brains and computers. In gatherings of the short-lived ‘Teleological Society’, and later in the ‘Conferences on Cybernetics’, von Neumann was at the heart of discussions on how the brain or computing machines generate ‘purposive behaviour’. Busy with so many other things, he would whizz in, lecture for an hour or two on the links between information and entropy or circuits for logical reasoning, then whizz off again – leaving the bewildered attendees to discuss the implications of whatever he had said for the rest of the afternoon. Listening to von Neumann talk about the logic of neuro-anatomy, one scientist declared, was like ‘hanging on to the tail of a kite’. Wiener, for his part, had the discomfiting habit of falling asleep during discussions and snoring loudly, only to wake with some pertinent comment demonstrating he had somehow been listening after all.


Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects

History by way of biography—Vasari tells a tale of rebirth and artistic progress as Europe emerges from the dark ages, rediscovers the ancients, and then strives to surpass them. Tons of interesting observations on competition, collaboration, the spread of technology, and the psychology of (artistic) greatness. More than 180 lives in over 2000 pages, starting with Cimabue in the 13thC and reaching a climax with Michelangelo in the 16th. Somewhat gossipy and often inaccurate, it nonetheless remains our best source of information on the art and artists of Renaissance Italy. Vasari was a fairly successful painter himself, and his personal aquaintance with both the technique and the business of painting gives us an inside view of the craft. Full review.

It is clear that Leonardo, through his comprehension of art, began many things and never finished one of them, since it seemed to him that the hand was not able to attain to the perfection of art in carrying out the things which he imagined; for the reason that he conceived in idea difficulties so subtle and so marvellous, that they could never be expressed by the hands, be they ever so excellent. And so many were his caprices, that, philosophizing of natural things, he set himself to seek out the properties of herbs, going on even to observe the motions of the heavens, the path of the moon, and the courses of the sun.


Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

Excerpts from Parerga und Paralipomena. Unexpectedly hilarious; Arthur would've been one hell of a poaster. Surprisingly similar to the pragmatists in many respects. Spans a huge number of topics: ethics, the will, intelligence, animal welfare, religion, suicide, writing, and much more.

Thus we see, for example, the Catholic clergy totally convinced of the truth of all the doctrines of its Church, and the Protestant clergy likewise convinced of the truth of all the doctrines of its Church, and both defending the doctrines of their confession with equal zeal. Yet this conviction depends entirely on the country in which each was born: to the South German priest the truth of the Catholic dogma is perfectly apparent, but to the North German priest it is that of Protestant dogma which is perfectly apparent. If, then, these convictions, and others like them, rest on objective grounds, these grounds must be climatic; such convictions must be like flowers, the one flourishing only here, the other only there.


Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War

I'm a Herodotus man through and through, but I can appreciate the Thycydidean perspective as well. Though I'm not entirely sure what that perspective entails: how much of his work is prescriptive and how much of it is descriptive? He's obviously a skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, and there's very little room for morality in his history; is this an artifact of the lack of morality in the way the Athenian went about their affairs, or is this something Thuc projects onto them? In any case, while reading this, one must always keep in mind that the Athenians lost!

It's interesting to read an ancient historian write about battles with 60 hoplites and 20 archers, and that kind of accounting accuracy perfectly captures Thuc's personality.

"... For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title to rule by merit. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our eulogist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause."


J. A. Baker, The Peregrine

10 years of obsessive, monomaniacal peregrine-watching in the East of England distilled to 200 pure, intense, astonishing pages. An incredibly rich dish that you can only eat so much of before needing to take a break. Reflects and contains nature both in its form and content. Somewhat reminiscent of Urne-Buriall in that it starts out in a dry, scientific tone and then reaches stylistic extremes later on.

Famously recommended by Werner Herzog (along with Virgil and The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber), and it is indeed extremely Herzogian. There's no green idealism here, the endless cycle of killing which sustains the peregrine is presented unapologetically. "Beauty is vapour from the pit of death", Baker writes.


He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending, hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and show filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of his beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed.

The Worst

William Hazlitt, Selected Writings

I despise the style of his political writings. Puffed up, aiming to dazzle rather than illuminate. The cheap rhetoric of the ochlagogue. Actively offensive. The non-political writings are much better: they are merely unreadable and sophomoric. Hazlitt's entire aesthetic philosophy just boils down to "art should imitate nature" repeated over and over again, and I can't stand the way he expresses it.

It is not denied that the people are best acquainted with their own wants, and most attached to their own interests. But then a question is started, as if the persons asking it were at a great loss for the answer,—Where are we to find the intellect of the people? Why, all the intellect that ever was is theirs. The public opinion expresses not only the collective sense of the whole people, but of all ages and nations, of all those minds that have devoted themselves to the love of truth and the good of mankind,—who have bequeathed their instructions, their hopes, and their example to posterity,—who have thought, spoke, written, acted, and suffered in the name and on the behalf of our common nature. All the greatest poets, sages, heroes, are ours originally, and by right.


Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Just a dull airport novel. The coincidences pile on top of eachother as we are treated to interminable exposition dumps from improbable sources that conveniently know everything. Stylistically it tries too hard and achieves nothing.

Destiny is usually just around the corner. Like a thief, a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.


Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning

Love Palmer's blog but this book just wasn't for me. Even though I read plenty of older books, I found the affected faux-18thC style absolutely grating. The plot mostly seems to be based on the Star Wars prequels, with endless scenes of characters talking about the taxation of trade routes or some other similarly boring nonsense. And there's a magical boy thrown in there for good measure, as well.

I could ask any contemporary here, ‘Are you a majority?’ and I know what he or she would answer: Of course not, Mycroft. I have a Hive, a race, a second language, a vocation and an avocation, hobbies of my own; add up my many strats and you will soon reduce me to a minority of one, and hence my happiness. I am unique, and proud of my uniqueness, and prouder still that, by being no majority, I ensure eternal peace. You lie, reader. There is one majority still entrenched in our commingled world, a great ‘us’ against a smaller ‘them.’ You will see it in time. I shall give only one hint—the deadliest majority is not something most of my contemporaries are, reader, it is something they are not.