Things I Recommend You Buy and Use, Sam Edition

Sam Bowman began a trend in the blogosphere of recommending products, which was followed up by Rob Wiblin, Alexey Guzey and several others. While this concept might sound tacky, I have found these posts to be surprisingly useful. This is for a few reasons. First, when I get recommendations from someone I trust, I know to what extent they have a similar personality and set of preferences to me. I have very niche taste in certain areas. Second, reading reviews of a product only tells you about things you’re considering buying, not those that you haven’t thought to buy.

A recurring theme of these posts is that you should spend more time optimising things you do every day, such as brushing your teeth. You should also lower the barrier to productive and healthy habits, for instance by keeping a set of weights next to your desk. 

I am reminded of a blog post I find myself coming back to: Buy Things, Not Experiences. It argues that the common wisdom that you should spend money on experiences, not physical objects, is exactly backwards. Many people today (particularly young people) are seriously undervaluing having a nice apartment, comfortable furniture, or high-quality kitchen tools, even while splurging on nights out with friends or frequent travel. Due to Baumol’s disease, the cost of physical items in recent decades has fallen precipitously, while the cost of services has risen. Thus, the focus on spending money on experiences rather than things is a new form of conspicuous consumption. (Note: I’m not talking about people who can’t afford nice physical items. I am merely suggesting that, selfishly, some people should consider substituting their consumption away from services and toward objects.)

Without further ado, here are my project recommendations:

Physical objects

Second monitor (£100+)

Having a second monitor is a game-changer if you have a laptop, and they are relatively inexpensive. They are particularly useful for any circumstance in which you want to display your writing on one screen and your research on another. Plus, having a second monitor often nullifies the need to buy a TV. 

Stationary bike (£130)

When something gets easier, I almost always do it more, and when something gets harder, I almost always do it less. Cheap home exercise equipment seems clearly worth it even if you go to the gym instead most of the time.

Adjustable height desk (£200)

An adjustable height desk is preferable for many activities, even if you don’t care about the (alleged) health benefit – for example, I’m often so high-energy that I can’t work sitting down. I also find not being able to fully tuck my chair under my desk to be inordinately annoying. I am seriously tempted to get a treadmill desk, but I have downstairs neighbours and I’m scared of getting a noise complaint. I use this standing desk, which is good, but in retrospect the fact that the height is electrically adjustable is excessive. 

Various floss products (£4)

You almost certainly don’t floss enough, and feel bad about that fact. This is one of the best illustrations of the power of trivial inconveniences. Even if traditional wire floss is the most effective, if you are too lazy to floss, its effectiveness is irrelevant. Floss ‘harps’ are widely available and I have also seen people recommend a water flosser. I recommend experimenting with a few of these until you find one that causes you to floss at the appropriate level.  

Stannous fluoride toothpaste (£3)

I have several times heard the claim that there is a different type of toothpaste which is maybe 50% more effective than regular toothpaste – namely, toothpaste that uses stannous fluoride instead of sodium fluoride. I honestly have no idea how to evaluate these claims but it seems worth trying. Note that, after you brush with this toothpaste, you shouldn’t eat, drink, or wash out your mouth. (H/t Rob Wiblin.)

Nutritional yeast

I’ve been a vegan for over three years now. I don’t think restricting your diet is too difficult (religious people have been doing it for millennia), but it can take time to get used to food not being as flavourful. Spices, MSG, and nutritional yeast help this significantly. Nutritional yeast acts as a decent substitute for ‘flaky’ types of cheese like parmesan.

Universal travel plug (£30)

If you are travelling to a country that has a different type of plug, there is no reason not to have one of these. 

Portable charger (£18)

Portable chargers are now widely available and I have no particular opinion on which type is best. In today’s day and age, it is optional to ever have your phone die. 

Screen cleaner (£7)

It is staggering to me how many people have never cleaned the screens of any of their digital devices. This is especially disgusting considering how many people use their phones in the bathroom. I bought the first result off Amazon and it works fine.

Air filter (£50)

Depending on the air quality of wherever you live, you may not need an air filter, though it is still advisable if you have a chimney. Also, if you have an allergy to any kind of dust, hair, or pollen, you may be making yourself needlessly miserable by breathing in impure air. My main problem with air purifiers has been getting replacement filters; I have two purifiers at my parents’ house whose filters have never been replaced, and finding the right replacement filter is almost impossible on Amazon. I have no idea how to find the right type of air filter or which type works best. 

Dumbbell weights (£55)

I keep two of these weights near my bed and desk to lift when I have a spare moment or can’t be bothered going to the gym. A kettlebell would probably work just as well and maybe be more versatile. Anything near my desk will become a tool for procrastination, no matter how unpleasant. 

Chopsticks (£8)

Many types of food demand to be eaten with chopsticks, they are fun to use, and eating with them at home prevents you from embarrassed yourself in front of your friends at a restaurant. Any type will do but I have these nifty fibreglass ones.

Bluetooth speaker (£24)

There is pretty much no reason not to have a Bluetooth speaker: it is louder and sounds better than your phone or computer and greatly improves the film viewing experience. I use this simple small one from Anker but if I were doing it again I would buy the bigger model.

A physical watch (£20+)

Many of my friends get sucked into their phones after using them to check the time, and this used to happen to me too. I wear a watch from Daniel Wellington which has been serving me well for more than three and a half years.  

Kindle (£85)

Even if have a very strong preference for reading paper books, I would recommend getting a Kindle for travelling or for books you can’t find cheaply in a physical format. The highlighting feature is one of the most useful of the device and looking back on my highlights after I finish a book and writing up what I thought about them has significantly improved my retention.

Electric toothbrush

This is one of the biggest no-brainers for life improvement. I use a cheap £8 electric toothbrush from Boots and it works fine.


Vanguard index fund

This is more important than everything else on this list combined. It is not widely appreciated that passively-managed index funds, which track market averages in stocks and bonds, outperform human-managed funds (net of fees). Putting your money in an index fund and not thinking about it for thirty years is close to an optimal investment strategy for many people. One of my economics professors is fond of saying that he can raise the average person’s post-retirement earnings by 30% in fifteen minutes, by telling them about exactly this. I have no particular attachment to Vanguard as a company, but I have been told they have lower fees than other comparable companies like BlackRock.  

Audible (£8)

While it technically costs £8/month, Audible tries so hard to prevent you from cancelling your subscription that you get hefty discounts. For your money, you get a book a month, and access to a library of audio lectures and shows. If you find listening to books being narrated even remotely pleasant, Audible is a no-brainer. The types of books that work best in the audio format are memoirs and detailed but not highly technical non-fiction. Audible is lightyears ahead of the competition, though you may want to check out LibriVox for free audio versions of public-domain books. 


Brilliant has been one of my best purchases; I use it every day to learn more about statistics, linear algebra, and other topics in maths.

Freedom (£3/month)

Freedom blocks distracting websites and apps, either on a schedule or on an ad hoc basis. You can group the distractions into categories – for example, at various times I have Twitter, email, WhatsApp or YouTube blocked. I bought a lifetime membership for £60. I’m guessing Freedom has increased my total productivity by more than 20%.

UnDistracted (free)

This free extension to Google Chrome can block distracting sites, but, more importantly, removes certain distracting features including the home page, recommended videos (on YouTube), and infinite scrolling. Twitter lost 100% of its appeal for me as soon as I blocked the feed using UnDistracted (you can still search for individual users and view their tweets). 

Waking Up (£100/year, or free)

I have found great value in this meditation app from Sam Harris. It contains lessons on the theory of meditation and on a wide range of practices, which seems to be lacking from the other major competitors. If you email the support team, they will give you a free account, no questions asked. 

Black and white phone (free)

An underrated reason why phones are so addictive is that the colour palette is chosen to be maximally compelling. I heard someone on a podcast say that his baby daughter gravitates toward phones even though she has never used one before – even without the social context, our brain wants to play with and understand such a bright and colourful object. My phone use immediately dropped about 30% after switching to a black-and-white phone, and did not recover. You can see how to turn your phone greyscale here.

Typing lessons (free)

If you cannot comfortably type at 100wpm, I would recommend using a site like 10fastfingers or keybr to improve. My mum sent me to in-person typing lessons when I was a kid, for which I’m sort of grateful, but it was needlessly awkward considering that you can get the same benefit from websites.   

Video speed controller (free)

This free extension lets you change the speed of any video in small increments. It works with an impressive variety of video formats – for example, I use it to speed up my college lectures faster than the system will allow the videos to be played. Note that if you are bothered by the speed annoyingly being displayed in the top left of the viewing window, you can turn it off in the settings.

OneTab (free)

When you press this extension, all of your tabs will snooze and collapse into a master tab list. Owing to this, I have around 300 tabs open at any time, which can be easily searched and navigated. It is also helpful for speeding up your computer; having many open tabs has been a big drain on memory for me.  

Pocket (free)

After you save articles to Pocket, you can read them in a viewer which is pared down only to text and images without ads. It also bypasses some paywalls. The pocket viewer has sufficiently many issues that I just use it to track what articles I’ve read. But even in this role, it is extremely useful; if you want to start a blog or send musings to your friends, it is helpful to have a reminder of what you have read.  

AdBlock (free)

Nowadays, most major newspaper websites are smart enough to know you have an adblocker and make you disable it before proceeding. And web design now has so much unpleasantness which has nothing to do with advertising. Given this, I don’t get much value from the adblocks I’ve tried, though I do find great value in Adblock for YouTube.


There may be a way to set shortcuts on a Mac without the use of a third-party app, but I don’t know it. The latest versions of MacOS have a clumsy split-screen feature, but it is vastly inferior to having shortcuts which are assigned to fill the left side of your screen with a window, the right side, and to full-screen it. 

Bitwarden (free)

Bitwarden is an open-source password manager. A major source of needless misery is people setting weak passwords, or setting the same passwords across multiple websites. You should check Have I Been Pwned to see if your email or password has appeared in any data breaches (answer: probably yes). Wiblin strongly recommends buying a universal two-factor authentication key, but that is getting into the territory of security measures that actually inconvenience you. Password managers make your life easier. iOS and Google Chrome also now have built-in password managers in which strong passwords that you never have to remember or even see are suggested.

Data backup (£1/month)

I have my files backed up to iCloud drive. My Google Drive desktop app was retired in January, and I haven’t been bothered to switch to their newer app. I also use Google Photos to back up my photos.

Anki (free)

Anki is probably the most famous example of a spaced repetition system. This is based on the idea, which goes back to psychologist Ebbinghaus, that memory decays exponentially, and that, every time you are reminded of something, the exponential restarts and decays more slowly. This, and related ideas, implies that the optimal studying strategy is to study information progressively less frequently after you learn it: for example, revising something after a day, a week, a month, then a year. Anki does this for you and adapts how long the cards are spaced out based on how difficult you found the cards to recall. Spaced repetition is one of the few educational interventions we can be sure actually works. For more on this topic, I recommend the work of Andy Matuschak


You should note that the benefits of VPNs have been greatly overstated. However, there are still many reasons to use one, and you should certainly get one if you are doing anything sketchy on the internet, e.g. pirating films. VPNs also allow you to view websites as if you are viewing them from a different country, which increases streaming options a lot. I’ve been using NordVPN and it’s working exceedingly smoothly so far.

[A side note: All my links are to, which donates 0.5% of the value of your order to charity, at zero cost for you. As far as I can tell there is no catch, and they do this for marketing purposes. I recommend setting your supporting charity to the Against Malaria Foundation.] 

Why Northern Ireland Has No Flag

I love flags. The power of a piece of cloth to motivate people to fight, revere, or weep is inherently interesting. Flag design is also a constrained optimisation problem: how do you trade off symbolism and simplicity in a rectangle (or weird double triangle thing) that needs to be viewed at a distance?  

Northern Ireland has a unique flag situation: it doesn’t have one. Whether Northern Ireland is a country is of course a complicated question. In any case, Wales, England, and Scotland all have official flags – so why doesn’t Northern Ireland?

I know what you’re going to say. Northern Ireland does have a flag: the Ulster Banner! While the Ulster Banner is the de facto Northern Irish flag in some contexts, it is not an official flag.

The Ulster Banner

This is not an obscure legal curiosity, like finding out that maybe Condoleezza Rice was technically President of the United States for one minute. The failure of Northern Ireland to have an official flag is a deliberate choice that relates in a complex way to the region’s history. Even in unstable states, having an official flag is a priority (e.g., no one disputes the official flag of Yemen). NI might be the most state-like entity in modern history to not have a flag.

In a way, the Ulster Banner is officially the unofficial flag – a circumstance that may be unique in flag history! The Ulster Banner is not to be confused with the flag of Ulster. Northern Ireland is a subset of Ulster, a province of Ireland, which has a similar flag. 

The Ulster flag: separate though obviously intimately related to the Ulster Banner 

The Ulster Banner was designed around 1923. It first flew above the Parliament of Northern Ireland in an official capacity in 1953, though it had a lesser status than the Union Jack. The Ulster Banner continued to enjoy its status as the semi-official lesser flag of Northern Ireland until 1973, when Parliament was abolished because of the Troubles. Hence, the government which was represented by the Ulster Banner doesn’t actually exist anymore. The Northern Irish Parliament has since been replaced with the Northern Irish Assembly.

(Before the pedants object, the UK’s Flag Institute, an authority on vexillology, clarifies on their website that ‘Union Jack’ and ‘Union Flag’ can be used interchangeably. The idea that the term Union Jack should only be used at sea is a relatively recent one.)

No one knows the origin of Ulster’s ‘Red Hand’. One theory is that the mythical hero Conall Cernach put his bloodied hand on a banner as he avenged the death of Cú Chulainn, and it has belonged to the descendants of Conall since then (there’s some disagreement over which clan the Red Hand “belongs” to). Another folk story is that the first to touch the land of Ulster would own it, and so one chap cut off his own hand and threw it at Ulster to get there ahead of the competition. Who these people were and whether they arrived by boat or land differs based on which grandmother is telling the story. 

The ratio between the sides of the Ulster Banner appears to be 3:2, but it’s hard to get confirmation of this (it does not appear in the Flag Institute registry). The aspect ratio of the Ulster flag is 5:3, which is the same ratio as in the flags of Scotland, Wales, and England. This is interesting, because the aspect ratio of the Union Jack is 2:1, which is the same as for most of its former colonies, including Ireland. The most common aspect ratio for a flag is 3:2, and the United States has an unusual 19:10 ratio. Nepal and Togo have irrational aspect ratios; the aspect ratio of the flag of Togo is the golden ratio! Someone involved in Togolese independence definitely wanted to insert this maths reference for posterity. And I’m glad they did. 

If you’ve ever looked at flags in an atlas, it almost certainly distorted the true side lengths. Even the United Nations headquarters mandates that all flags flown outside it must be in the 3:2 ratio. The flag of NATO is in a 4:3 ratio. I’m not sure whether anyone has noticed this before, but this means that Northern Ireland is a country within a province (mostly) within a union of countries, within a military alliance, all of which have differently shaped flags. Might this be the only example of four tiers of nested political entities which all have different flag shapes?  

Flags are a contentious issue in Northern Ireland. I said that the Ulster Banner was the de facto flag in “some” contexts: it has a crown on it, and is much less likely to be used by the Republican population. In his book about flags, Tim Marshall describes how in 2015, the Irish Tricolour was flown above the Northern Irish Assembly’s building at Stormont for ten minutes. Unionist politicians described themselves as “deeply offended” and there was a four-month police investigation involving seven detectives about how this could have happened.

Many countries have flag laws on the books, stating under which circumstances the flag can be flown. Desecrating the national flag in Germany has a maximum sentence of three years. In the UK, these are guidelines, not laws, though I can’t find such guidelines for the Ulster Banner specifically.

The question of whether people identify with a flag is of course a different one. And the lack of identification with the Ulster Banner is related to the ethnic conflict: If there are two sides to a conflict, each represented by their own flag, then under what circumstance would you need a separate national flag? Still, many countries lack a strong sense of national identity above and beyond the constituent ethnic identities. And yet all of these countries have undisputed national flags. 

Northern Ireland’s flagless status is not trivial. The region’s relationship with flags probably would have been unremarkable were it not for the Troubles. One of that conflict’s more unusual consequences was to make Northern Ireland a no flag country. 

What I’m trying to say is, formal flaglessness following fighting fascinates flag fans. 

Inspired by: CGP Grey

The Parable of the Rocketship and other tidbits

I send lots of emails to my friends about what I’ve been reading and reflections I’ve had. Some of these grow into blog posts, but usually, they are not developed or well-researched enough for that. Here is a sample of emails I’ve sent recently, edited for clarity.

The Parable of the Rocketship

Hi all,

Let me illustrate our recent discussions of the Bible with a parable:

And then Jesus crossed the Jordan into Galilea. And there, Peter asked him “How shall we convince people that the Kingdom of God is coming?”

And Jesus responded: “Amen It is like three wise men who were engaged in discussion: Fergos, Gytos, and Samson. And they were trying to decide which was better, capitalism or socialism. But they were unworthy fools and did not understand these things. And so they turned to discuss whether NASA or SpaceX was better. But they were unworthy fools and did not understand these things. For in Isaiah it is written: 

In one lifetime no man shall understand even a single aeronautical organisation. 

And so they turned to discuss whether the Merlin or the Rocketdyne F-1 was better. But they were unworthy fools and did not understand these things. And so they turned to discuss whether the gas generator in the Merlin or Rocketdyne F-1 was more fuel-efficient. And after 40 days and 40 nights, Gytos discovered that the Merlin gas generator was more efficient. This is how ye shall convince the people that the Kingdom of God is coming.”

Asked Jacob: “Oh Anointed One, what has this to do with capitalism vs. socialism?”

And he responded: “What is the diameter of the SpaceX Merlin engine at sea level?”

And Jacob said “Less than three cubits, of course.”

“And yet you still do not understand. Amen How much longer will I have to tolerate this unworthy generation? 

Moral of the parable (in rot13)

Guvf erpbhagf na rkcrevrapr V unq jvgu zl sevraq Srethf, n qribhg Puevfgvna. V sbhaq gung bhe pbairefngvbaf jbhyq rvgure or fb oebnq nf gb or haurycshy, be fb fcrpvsvp nf gb or cbvagyrff. Gb vyyhfgengr V hfrq na rknzcyr sebz Fpbgg Nyrknaqre’f oybt nobhg gjb crbcyr jub jrer nethvat nobhg pncvgnyvfz if fbpvnyvfz, ohg jrera’g trggvat naljurer, fb gurl nethrq nobhg FcnprK if ANFN, ohg gurl jrera’g trggvat naljurer, fb gurl nethrq nobhg gur fcrpvsvp ratvarf hfrq ol ANFN naq FcnprK.



Patrick Collison on Irish-American cultural differences

Hello friends,

I enjoyed Shane Parish’s interview with Patrick Collison

Q: You have the unique background of having dropped out of high school and dropped out of university. Can you explain what went through your mind dropping out of high school? 

A: Well, I didn’t technically speaking, drop out, although I sort of practically speaking did. But given my lack of education credentials elsewhere, I should, for the sake of my parents, insist that I did, in fact, formally speaking, graduate from high school. But I guess what happened is that I became very interested in programming, and I wanted to spend as much time on it as possible. Ireland actually has this interesting thing called “transition year,” this year between two major exams of high school or at least Ireland’s high school equivalent. Transition year is a formally designated year that’s optional, where you can go and pursue things that you might not otherwise naturally tend to pursue, and the school tends to be much more permissive of going and spending three months abroad or going and doing some work experience in this area or whatever the case may be. And so, in that year, I basically decided to spend as much of it as possible programming, and so I did that.  And then I returned to school for the latter half of Ireland’s high school system, and it felt so much slower and less fun. As part of the programming, I had visited the U.S. for the first time. I had gone to Stanford for the 2005 International LISP conference, and it was a fairly small conference, but it was very eye-opening for me. I remember walking around Stanford and thinking, “Man, American colleges seem great.” Back in high school in Ireland, I decided to see if there was some way that I could just go to college in the U.S. the subsequent year. It was a long story, but I eventually figured out that I could not do it if I … followed the standard Irish education path, but that I could do it if I did the British terminal examination. And so, I resumed my self-education, except instead of programming, I was now studying for these British exams, and did that for the subsequent year and ended up starting at MIT the next fall.

My general impression from this interview was that Patrick would have been spectacularly successful even if he had faced a number of disadvantages. His success has been overdetermined. 

Q: I want to explore a little more about the cultural differences between Ireland and the U.S. and how [they affect] you as the CEO of Stripe. 

A: I think that there are maybe a couple of things. Ireland is very outward looking—necessarily so, in that Ireland’s improbable rise from poverty over the latter half of the 20th century was very significantly enabled, maybe almost wholly enabled, by exports, by importing American multinational companies, having them set up factories and bases and hubs of different sorts in Ireland. One of the world’s first special economic zones was created in Shannon, which was very close to … 10, 15 miles from where I was born. Deng Xiaoping visited us and found this quite inspiring, and so decided to set up special economic zones in China. And so Shenzhen and the Pearl River Delta—that special economic zone was in some ways directly inspired by what he saw in western Ireland. I think the fact that there’s such a very visceral link between betterment and progress and economic development and this kind of outward-looking sense that the possibilities of the rest of the world are much greater than those internally—that’s very pervasive in Ireland. And I think that’s certainly influenced Stripe in the sense that we really are all trying to emphasize the imperative and the potential of globalization. And while maybe in the mid-’90s, that was something that was uniformly accepted, at least in elite circles, now we see that’s something that perhaps is being questioned somewhat more, but I guess the Irish experience is very much one of seeing it as an almost wholly unalloyed good. And again, I think that greatly influenced us here, certainly me. It’s interesting, too, from a cultural standpoint, where Ireland has had very high rates of immigration, particularly post the expansion of the EU in 2004; a very large number of Eastern European immigrants moved to Ireland when those countries acceded to the EU. That was really not accompanied by any material social strife or conflict or a lot of the challenges that we’ve seen in other parts of the world. And so again, I think that an appreciation for borders that are more open, or more openness to immigrants, more facilitation of opportunity, things like that, again, I think that really is the Irish experience. And of course there’s the reverse version, where so many Irish people themselves have benefited enormously from being able to go and pursue lives in the UK and Australia and the U.S. and Canada and so on, and that’s again, just really been a part of the national ethos. And then maybe more softly, I guess, Irish culture places a lot of importance on just a kind of warmth and… There’s a particular tenor to interpersonal dynamics and trying to have other people enjoy themselves and be at ease and have a good conversation and whatever else. I think maybe that’s something that’s influenced us somewhat at Stripe, where we want Stripe to be a warm place. We play music at reception and in the kitchen to just try to put people at ease and to create enough soft noise around them where they feel comfortable having just a good conversation. Maybe that’s because of entirely unrelated reasons, or maybe again, in some way we were influenced by the kind of environment we grew up in in Ireland. 

Q: You’re a huge reader. Where did this love of books get started? 

A: Well, we had crappy internet when I was growing up because our house was sort of alone. There was so much noise on the phone line, and we didn’t have “It’s very striking to me how Warren and Charlie at Berkshire and how the folks at Koch industries are so into a kind of epistemology and structuring of doubt and accounting for biases and mechanisms for a clarity of thinking to a very striking degree.” internet for years, and then we got it; it was trickle slow and so on. I was fortunate; my parents were very willing to pursue all these hare-brained schemes, and so we eventually got an ISDN line, which was ferociously expensive, but that was the fiber of its day. At least as far as I was concerned, 7.6K a second was majestic. I could barely keep up with the speed. And then we eventually got a satellite internet connection, which was really a game changer, but effectively meant that for the first 14-ish, 15 years in my life, there was no internet. We lived in a very rural part of Ireland. I was quite distant from even my friends at school. And so all there really was for us to do was play in the garden, which we did a lot of, and to read. It’s funny; I often wonder about this in the context of “If I had kids or when I have kids, what’s the optimal upbringing for them?” And, of course, you think, well, you kind of want them to grow up in a stimulating environment and have all these experiences and extracurriculars and everything else, but to me, that was not my upbringing. My upbringing was a kind of…

My understanding is that Koch Industries have been the architects of a large amount of climate change scepticism; I’m interested in how they square this with having a culture of “epistemology”! 

Q: Get out of the house; go play? 

A: That. Now, there was still plenty of stimulation around us Our parents had lots of books, and so we could burrow our way sequentially through the shelves, It was pretty unfettered. And I think our parents had a… they followed our interests and supported them, but they didn’t choose them. It felt like they pushed from behind rather than pulling in front. I think that’s where the reading thing came from. I don’t know. I run quite a bit, and I don’t even run because I enjoy it that much. I enjoy it, but it’s nothing kind of in the immediate moment; it’s not like it’s euphoric or anything close to that… it’s pretty painful. There’s the Greg LeMond quote about how—it’s very dispiriting when you think about it, and it is very deeply true—how “it never gets easier; you just go faster”. And that’s true of running. Like if I stay running for the rest of my life, it will never get easier; I will just—maybe—go faster. But it feels like something I ought to do, I vastly rather [prefer] having run than not having run. And so I continue to do it. With reading, I don’t feel like I’m weird; I feel like everyone else is weird, in that there’s just … so much stuff to know, and I guess I just feel stressed out by… like, it feels important, it’s obviously important, and I don’t know it. And so, shit, I better get to work. When I’m reading, I’m not in this … especially blissful place. I enjoy it perfectly fine, but I think there are extremely important things that I really should know and I don’t, and that feels problematic. 



Whoever comes up with the most complicated argument gets a gold star

Hi all,

In Avoiding Your Belief’s Real Weak Points, Eliezer Yudkowsky (who grew up Orthodox Jewish) writes: 

Modern Orthodox Judaism is like no other religion I have ever heard of, and I don’t know how to describe it to anyone who hasn’t been forced to study Mishna and Gemara. There is a tradition of questioning, but the kind of questioning . . . It would not be at all surprising to hear a rabbi, in his weekly sermon, point out the conflict between the seven days of creation and the 13.7 billion years since the Big Bang—because he thought he had a really clever explanation for it, involving three other Biblical references, a Midrash, and a half-understood article in Scientific American. In Orthodox Judaism you’re allowed to notice inconsistencies and contradictions, but only for purposes of explaining them away, and whoever comes up with the most complicated explanation gets a prize.

Judaism has the strongest tradition of dialectic of the major faiths. Fergus might say that some forms of Protestantism are better, and that might be true, but I got in enough trouble as a kid for being “cheeky” by asking questions to know that Catholicism isn’t, and therefore that Christianity is worse on average

The meta-lesson here is that there are superficially sceptical communities in which social status is conferred to those who can come up with the most complicated chain of causal reasoning to reach the desired conclusion.

I’ve been thinking recently about how social problems are overdetermined; there are things that the government could do that would solve X, and things it could stop doing that would solve X. Libertarians get a gold star for constructing plausible-sounding complicated causal chains by which X is the government’s fault. 

My question is: Which of these communities are we in? 

A second observation comes from Matt Ygelsias’ new post about misinformation. He writes:

A normal person can tell you lots of factual information about his life, his work, his neighborhood, and his hobbies but very little about the FDA clinical trial process or the moon landing. But do you know who knows a ton about the moon landing? Crazy people who think it’s fake. They don’t have crank opinions because they are misinformed, they have tons and tons of moon-related factual information because they’re cranks. If you can remember the number of the Kennedy administration executive order about reducing troop levels in Vietnam, then you’re probably a crank — that EO plays a big role in Kennedy-related conspiracy theories, so it’s conspiracy theorists who know all the details. 

Where your factual information outpaces your natural curiosity, you’re probably a crank.

For example, I know that geothermal was excluded under section 390 of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which libertarians say is killing progress is geothermal because new developments need to pass environmental review. I have not hitherto demonstrated curiosity about geothermal energy in general (but I hope to in the future!). Therefore, on this issue, I am probably a crank. 

I am not sure where to go from here. Usually, dialectical social norms are a good sign, except when they’re not. Usually knowing detailed factual information is a good sign, except when it’s not. 

Rationality is hard. 

Talk soon


The philosophical significance of the fact that Google is the same for everyone

Hello friends,

Particularly interested in Trevor’s thoughts on this one. 

Scott Sumner on EconLog writes:

You cannot put the burden of a tax on someone unless you cut into his or her consumption. If the Obama tax increases did not cause Gates and Buffett to tighten their belts, then they paid precisely 0% of that tax increase. Someone else paid, even if they wrote the check. If they invested less due to the tax, then workers might have received lower wages. If they gave less to charity then very poor African’s paid the tax. I have no idea who paid, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gates and Buffett.

More generally, the only sensible way to measure inequality is consumption inequality. Taxing income from capital at 90% is insane, because investment produces lots of value. Larry Ellison buying a 500-ft yacht instead of a 400-ft yacht doesn’t. 

Sumner said that the Democrats were considering a progressive consumption tax at one point, but then that fell apart over concern for workers in the yacht industry (seriously). 

The corollary of this is that income and wealth inequality statistics are of very limited value. What’s important is the much harder-to-measure consumption inequality. There is good intuitive reason to think that this is declining, maybe dramatically so. YouTube, Google and Wikipedia are the same for everyone. 

One of the most useful tools for thinking that economics gives you is an obsessive concern with tax incidence, i.e. who bears the actual cost of a tax, rather than who bears it on paper. People hear “corporation tax” and think “yay!” because corporations need to pay more tax, which is a reasonable-sounding inference to make. But they don’t understand the theoretical arguments that this tax is to a large extent actually paid by consumers through lower wages and higher prices. 

My understanding is that the Irish government recently introduced an increased stamp duty on landlords that own more than ten properties. This is a circumstance in which it’s more clear that the tax is not mostly paid by those it’s levied against. 

The more profound point is that these circumstances are mathematically equivalent. A tax on landlords literally is a tax on renters. The causal path is different – in one, landlords make less money per unit and price that in when selling, and in the other, consumers have de facto less money to spend on rent. But they’re isomorphic. 



The Russians and taking ideas seriously


The Russians might be the only nationality that actually takes ideas seriously

On Gwern’s wonderful miscellaneous page, he writes: 

What is it about the Russian intelligentsia? There’s something about Russian intellectuals I’ve never been quite able to put my finger on, but which makes them unmistakable.
For example, I was reading a weirdo typography manifesto, “Monospace Typography” which argues that all proportional fonts should be destroyed and we should use monospace for everything for its purity and simplicity; absurdity of it aside, the page at no point mentions Russia or Russian things or Cyrillic letters or even gives an author name or pseudonym, but within a few paragraphs, I was gripped by the conviction that a Russian had written it, it couldn’t possibly have been written by any other nationality. After a good 5 minutes of searching, I finally found the name & bio of the author, and yep, from St Petersburg. (Not even as old as he sounds.)
Perhaps the paradigmatic example to me is the widely-circulated weird news story about the two Russians who got into a drunken argument over Kant and stabbed [actually, shot] one, back in the 2000s or whenever. Can you imagine Englishmen getting into such an argument, over Wittgenstein? No, of course not (“a nation of shopkeepers”). Frenchmen over Sartre or Descartes? Still very hard. Germans over Hegel? Not really. Russians over Hume? Tosh! Over Kant. Yeah sure, makes total sense.
What is it that unites serfs, communism (long predating the Communists), the Skoptsy⁠/Khlysts⁠, Tolstoy, Cosmism⁠, chess, mathematics (but only some mathematics—Kolmogorov’s probability theory⁠, yes, but not statistics and especially not Bayesian or decision-theoretic types despite their extreme economic & military utility6), stabbing someone over Kant, Ithkuil fanatics⁠, SF about civilizations enforcing socialism by blood-sharing or living in glass houses⁠, absurd diktats about proportional fonts being evil, etc? What is this demonic force? There’s certainly no single specific ideology or belief or claim, there’s some more vague but unmistakable attitude or method flavoring it all. The best description I’ve come up with so far is that “a Russian is a disappointed Platonist who wants to punch the world for disagreeing”.

Last week Tyler [Cowen] wrote that Putin is a man of ideas. He’s not a madman but his behaviour is inscrutable to Westerners because he earnestly believes in ideas (albeit, very bad ones). 

I suppose this is a sort of cautionary tale about taking ideas seriously. The Western European cynicism and reservedness is a bulwark against extermism, or something?  

Interested to hear your thoughts,


“I didn’t get passed the first sentence”


Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, used to say that, when he started teaching philosophy, he would teach all of The Republic in a semester. And he said that, by the end, he never got passed the first sentence. That first line is “We went down to the Piraeus” (depending on your translation). 

And what a sentence it is. 

The Republic has an obsession with ascent and descent. This is weird for a dialogue, a form that usually has almost no concern with the characters’ physical environment. In particular, the ascents and descents are probably referencing Homer’s Odyssey. The first line, in particular, may be in reference to Odysseus’ journey to Hades. Homer is mentioned many times in The Republic. So right there, you can see themes about the oral tradition (Socrates doesn’t want anyone to write down what he’s saying). It also might be a glorification of Socrates, as if he’s a Greek hero. 

The other interesting feature of the sentence is the word Piraeus. The Piraeus is the harbour area within Athens, and it was (is?) highly disreputable. Socrates is walking with Glaucon, Plato’s brother, who is an aristocrat. What are they doing in the Piraeus? Immediately you have the implication that Socrates doesn’t care about material comforts, and he associates with disreputable people. He’ll talk to anyone. 

More on Plato to follow,


My fascination with speedrunning

Hello friends,

Gavin likes to say that he’s always finding out about new obsessions I used to have. Well, here’s one I don’t think I’ve mentioned: speedrunning. 

Speedrunning is absolutely fascinating. It’s typically divided into any% (where you can use glitches), glitchless, TAS (tool-assisted) and 100% runs. 

One of my favourite videos of all time is the 2014 world record in Ocarina of Time. Somehow, the community figured out that if you empty a bottle in exactly the right frame, the game’s code gets confused and transports you from the first dungeon to the final dungeon, skipping basically the entire game. Speedrunners typically use the Japanese versions of games, because the text is slightly more compact on the screen. 

This morning I was absolutely riveted by this history of the attempt to get all 32/32 world records in Mario Kart 64. I was genuinely on the edge of my seat. I also loved this video about the history of the ultra shortcut in Mario Kart Wii, a game I probably spent >300 hours playing. 

My second favourite speedrunning YouTube channel is this guy, and his best video is about how cheaters are caught in speedrunning. Very sophisticated techniques have been developed to tell when videos have been spliced together. I posted on my blog before about how a recent claim to the Minecraft world record had a literal mathematical paper written about it analysing whether the luck in it was plausible (mostly rates of ender pearls dropping from endermen). Stuart Ritchie opined in the Atlantic about how much better off we would be if scientists were as good at detecting fraud as gamers are…


Go woke, go broke (maybe)


Spotted in The Diff

It’s a grim coincidence that low-emissions power companies’ stock prices are sensitive to interest rates, because it means that recent headlines look especially bad for ESG investors: NextEra Energy, a renewables-focused utility with an enviable long-term record (23.4% compounded over the ten years through 2021, an incredible record for a utility that wasn’t in financial distress at the start of that period) has dropped 17.7% so far this year. Meanwhile, Peabody Energy’s quarterly earnings are at their highest levels since at least 1999 ($, FT). Both stories are short-term deviations from a bigger trend: coal companies are profitable in part because so many companies are withdrawing from the coal business, and they happen to be leaving coal production faster than coal consumption. Given the variance in demand for hydrocarbons, it’s hard to manage a transition well without stories like this. And despite the recent deviations, overall market values still point to the same trend: Peabody trades at under 3x next year’s earnings, while NextEra, despite the recent drawdown, is trading at 27x—a multiple exactly ten times higher.It’s a grim coincidence that low-emissions power companies’ stock prices are sensitive to interest rates, because it means that recent headlines look especially bad for ESG investors: NextEra Energy, a renewables-focused utility with an enviable long-term record (23.4% compounded over the ten years through 2021, an incredible record for a utility that wasn’t in financial distress at the start of that period) has dropped 17.7% so far this year. Meanwhile, Peabody Energy’s quarterly earnings are at their highest levels since at least 1999 ($, FT). Both stories are short-term deviations from a bigger trend: coal companies are profitable in part because so many companies are withdrawing from the coal business, and they happen to be leaving coal production faster than coal consumption. Given the variance in demand for hydrocarbons, it’s hard to manage a transition well without stories like this. And despite the recent deviations, overall market values still point to the same trend: Peabody trades at under 3x next year’s earnings, while NextEra, despite the recent drawdown, is trading at 27x—a multiple exactly ten times higher.

This fits with my picture in which unethical businesses are unusually profitable. 

Maybe this creates an opportunity for human-managed funds insofar as you need to predict the moral fashions of tomorrow. Fossil fuel companies are straightforward, but companies who haven’t signed the requisite number of “diversity pledges” or something may be underpriced. The CEO of Mozilla resigned over not supporting gay marriage, if you recall. 


A dialogue about whether you should be allowed to sell your vote

Hello friends,

I will reproduce a conversation I had at lunch today with my friend Dave, along with what I wish I had said:

Dave: You should be allowed to sell your vote. 

Sam: I don’t think that’s a good idea. 

Dave: People ought to be compensated for their votes.

Sam: What are they being compensated for? Their cognitive labour in figuring out who to vote for? If the problem is low voter turnout, you could fix this by paying people a fixed amount to vote (e.g. everyone who votes gets £50). But it’s not obvious to me that low voter turnout is a problem. 

Dave: I hadn’t thought about that proposal before. But consider: people are already trading their votes for in-kind benefits. Poor people vote for expanded welfare programs that help them. Rich people vote for tax cuts. In essence, there is already a shadow price of votes – why not make it a real price?

Sam: Are you aware of the substantial literature in political science showing that self-interest is an incredibly weak predictor of voting? 

Dave: Yes. But all that it implies is that most people won’t participate in the market, because they are voting for non-pecuniary reasons. As long as at least some people are being compensated by politicians for their vote, then you should be able to sell your vote. 

Sam: Wouldn’t this lead to special interest groups dominating politics?

Dave: It balances out. In the US, Democrats and Republicans get approximately equal amounts of contributions. But Republicans’ money mostly comes from businesses, and Democrats’ from unions. So buying-and-selling votes wouldn’t have a net effect.

Sam: That’s endogenous. Democrats and Republicans are approximately equally matched because of something like the median voter theorem. If the Democrats were supplied with much less money, they would modify their policy platform up to the point that they appealed to enough special interest groups to have approximately as much money as Republicans. This seems to distort politics in lots of ways. 

Dave: Sure it’s endogenous, but it balances out. There are special interest groups on both sides. 

Sam: Really? It seems to me that there are many asymmetric issues with respect to interest group support. For example welfare. I’m not aware of any special interest group that campaigns for more welfare. Labour market restrictions, yes, but welfare, no. But there are many special interest groups that want less welfare. So under the vote-trading system, the pro-welfare side gets hammered. 

Dave: If people really cared about welfare, they would be willing to put their money where their mouth is. I think vote-trading is a natural extension of Kenneth Arrow’s choice theory.

Sam: I don’t see how. My understanding of its relevance was just that no voting system is perfect. Clearly, some voting systems are better than others. Perhaps you meant Coasean bargaining, but that requires no transaction costs, and there’s hardly “no transaction costs” in enacting policies!

Dave: Do you know about Jason Brennan’s argument that, if you are able to do something for free, you should be able to do it for money?

Sam: Yes, I’ve read ‘Markets without symbolic limits’. He didn’t mention voting. Plus, it’s not clear to me that it’s permissible to vote-trade for free!

Food arrives. 

Sam: Here’s something else. When people vote in their self-interest – which, as I’ve mentioned, is the exception, not the rule – the politician is by no means paying for their vote with the benefits they will bestow on the voter. If I gave you a present for your birthday, and you gave me a present for my birthday (August 14th by the way!), I clearly didn’t buy myself a gift with the money I paid for your gift. Gift-giving involves reciprocity, but it’s not a transaction, metaphysically speaking. 

Dave: But that’s the thing. Reciprocity is the crucial feature. Where there’s reciprocity, we should have real prices. 

Sam: So you want to abolish gift-giving?

Dave: Gift-giving purchases an intangible good! Something like birthday/Christmas/Valentine’s cheer. This is not taken into account by Waldfogel in his tirade against gifts. 

Sam: I think it’s reasonable for the government to attach terms to the services it provides. For example, it’s reasonable for public healthcare to cover certain procedures but not others. The government has a moral preference to disallow vote-trading. And elections are in a way a service they provide. So why can’t they ban it? 

Dave: They can’t attach just any terms. The government can’t decide that you can only vote for one party, for example. 

Sam: Of course. But it seems like there’s a range in democratic societies where the government can express certain moral preferences through its services. Look, I’m a pragmatist. Abstract philosophical justifications for the right to sell your vote are unlikely to convince me. We should look at election systems around the world and see whether a greater influence of money leads to better or worse outcomes. And comparing Ireland and America, Ireland does better, on the relevant metric (namely interference by special interest groups). You might prefer the American system in lots of other ways, but that’s irrelevant. 

Dave: More broadly we could look at the effects of markets on morals. 

Sam: You must read the Alex Tabarrock post about this! Anyway, Dave, I must go now, we will speak soon. 


Walden Two, the Great Stagnation, and disability rights

Hi friends,

Some of you may have heard of the science fiction novel Walden Two, written by behaviourist BF Skinner. It depicts a utopian society designed on applied behavioural science principles. What you may not have heard of is the attempts to engineer Walden Two in real life. Wikipedia lists 13 examples of separate Walden Two communities: 11 in the US, one in Spain, and one in Mexico (the most successful one). 

This is bonkers: Could you imagine someone writing a science-fiction novel today and convincing even a single group to move and start a new community? We are in the Great Stagnation of intentional communities, as well as of cults. Blueprint by Nicolas Christakis documents intentional communities very well, and features a comprehensive dataset on all known shipwrecks (shipwrecks are a similar case of rebuilding society within a small group). Recommended. 

One of the founders of these Walden Two groups was Matthew Israel, who also founded the Judge Rotenberg Education Centre, which Tyler [Cowen] has written about before. I gather that he is a full-time founder of quasi-torturous experimental organisations and communities based on behaviourist principles. From the page: 

The center has been condemned for torture by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. The JRC is known for its use of the graduated electronic decelerator (GED), a device that administers electric shocks to residents through a remote control. The device was designed by Matthew Israel, the institute’s founder.

In a video that surfaced in 2011, JRC staff tied an autistic boy face-down to a four-point board and shocked him 31 times at the highest amperage setting. The first shock was given for failing to take off his coat when asked, and the remaining 30 shocks were given for screaming and tensing up while being shocked. The boy was later hospitalized with third degree burns and acute stress disorder, but no action was taken against any of the staff as neither the law nor JRC policy had been broken. In a separate incident, two residents were awoken from their beds at night, restrained, and shocked 29 and 77 times on the allegation that they had misbehaved. The center’s founder, Matthew Israel, was indicted on criminal charges for ordering a video of the incident destroyed and was forced to resign his position at the JRC as part of a plea deal to avoid prosecution.

Of course, there were not dissimilar behaviours in the Magdalene laundries


Reflections on the Superbowl

Hello friends,

I watched the first hour of the Superbowl last night before falling asleep. 

I was talking with Fergus about how the Superbowl has only 12 minutes of actual play (in 3.5 hours) and he didn’t believe me. But after having watched it, it actually makes total sense to me how there could be so little action. The timer keeps ticking down when no one is playing, so long as the ball is not out of bounds (I think?). 

Almost all the plays have something interesting and consequential happening, like a team being pushed forward, back, or scoring. In contrast, I cannot fathom why anyone likes football (i.e. soccer), because so little happens. 

The BBC broadcast had no adverts, which disappointed [my American girlfriend], because “the ads are the best part”.  

There are a few elements that are digitally superimposed onto the pitch in real-time to aid the viewer’s understanding. 

Sports cameraman/broadcaster would be an excellent “take your son to work day” experience. I wonder about the logistics of how you decide which shots to switch between in real-time. When the production is large, how do you distribute this responsibility across multiple individuals? How does it flow so smoothly? 

There was rather a juxtaposition between 20,000 maskless fans in California, and the three presenters in the BBC studio that had to be socially distanced. 


Why does Marginal Revolution cover the news?

Hello all,

Tyler [Cowen], a question for you: Why does Marginal Revolution cover the news? 

First, an auxiliary question: Why does anyone read the news? If they are to be believed that they “want to know what is going on in the world”, then they would wait and batch their reading, a year or more after the event occurred. A more likely explanation is that the news is a Schelling point: we have socially coordinated around discussing current events because that is the most natural time to coordinate around. Knowing about these events makes us feel included and gives us things to talk about even among those with whom we don’t have shared interests. I believe Robin Hanson also has a signalling model in which people who can acquire information quickly are desirable. Possibly this is evolutionary. 

Before you answer, my hypotheses: 

  1. You can actually update your world model in response to even a single day’s news due to voracious consumption. Many people think they can do this but they are mistaken. For example, if we asked news-reader questions like “How long do political crises tend to last, in general” or “How many people died from mass shootings in the US this year?”, they would not even have considered questions like that. And yet they maintain that the news is important to “understand the world”. 
  2. News is mostly covered on the links of the day, because these are the articles that people are sending to you on email and WhatsApp. 
  3. Current events drive more pageviews to MR. 
  4. Current events are the only ones where readers have enough context for you to apply economics to them without so much exposition. 

What does everyone think? 


PS Tyler’s answer was that all my explanations were correct, and that most of all the news is what he is thinking about. This is fine because he reads lots of classic texts but most people are too current on the margin.

It’s Time for Beany

Hello friends, 

From the Wikipedia page for the children’s puppet show Time for Beany:

Albert Einstein was a fan of the show. On one occasion, the physicist interrupted a high-level conference by announcing, “You will have to excuse me, gentlemen. It’s Time for Beany.”


The Three Little Piggies of Rationality

There are three related logical fallacies, which I call the Three Little Piggies of rationality. A strawman is when you argue against a simplified view that your opponent doesn’t have. A steelman is when you argue against a more sophisticated view than the one your opponent has. And a weakman is when you argue against your opponent’s actual position, but your opponent is unrepresentatively stupid of people who hold that belief in general. 

Strawmanning is obviously bad. It’s less obvious that steelmanning is good. Why argue against a view that your opponent doesn’t have? I can think of a few reasons:

1. The actual view is a logical subset of the more sophisticated view, such that, if you defeat the stronger argument, you defeat the weaker one too.

2. An interlocutor will be insulted if you think they’re dumber than they are, but not if you think they’re smarter than they are. The steelman is the most sophisticated position that they could reasonably have. A steelman is a hedge against being mistaken about what their actual position is.

3. Arguing against unsophisticated positions doesn’t bring you any closer to the truth. Steelman your opponent because that way the belief you’re dealing with has some chance of being true.

Of these, I’m most uncertain of (1). Why would a worse argument be a subset of a better one? You might say that this is just the definition of a steelman: it has the property that, if it’s false, then the view that’s being steelmanned is false. But in this case, a steelman is quite complicated to construct, as you have to ensure it has a precise logical property.

There is a related problem with steelmanning in practice, which is that it is all too often an attempt to shoehorn someone’s argument into your worldview. Imagine a conversation in which a deontologist expresses a belief that is “steelmanned” by a consequentialist:

Deontologist’s belief: Universal healthcare is bad because I shouldn’t have to pay for someone’s bad choices, like being fat or a smoker.

Consequentialist’s steelman: Universal healthcare creates moral hazard, because people do not bear the cost of their irresponsible actions, like eating junk food and smoking.

Notice the bait-and-switch. The initial belief is about moral obligation, and the steelman is only about consequences. A believer in personal responsibility may still favour a market healthcare system even if it increases rates of irresponsible behaviour. 

Ozy Brennan gives another example:

Marxist’s belief: In our society, employers exploit workers.

Non-Marxist’s steelman: We do not generally say that people are being “exploited” when they enter into a completely voluntary agreement. The most reasonable understanding of exploitation in this context is that employees are not being paid the value of their labour because they have insufficient bargaining power.

Non-Marxist’s refutation of steelman: This can be solved with some regulations strengthening unions, or a universal basic income.

The mistake in this steelman is the part where the non-Marxist assumed that there metaphysically exist autonomous individuals that can consent to contracts in a capitalist society. I don’t know how you argue against this Marxist’s belief, or how to steelman it; looking at the reasons why they accepted Marxism to begin with is a start.  

The weakman is the most enigmatic of the Little Piggies. Notice that the problem with weakmanning is not the act itself but the conclusion you draw from it. It’s fine to argue against someone’s actual belief, but if that person is unrepresentatively stupid, you shouldn’t have this prejudice your future interactions with people who hold this belief. But it’s tricky to say what counts as ‘unrepresentative’. Most people have poorly thought-out views about most things. I am one of them. A “weakman” will likely be of someone who is representatively stupid of people who hold that belief.

Excessively avoiding weakmanning leads to the smartest pro-X academics arguing against the smartest anti-X academics for complicated reasons that are entirely unrelated to why any normal people believe these things.

The net effect of the Three Piggies – straw, steel and weak – is that it’s difficult and maybe incoherent to approvingly cite a thinker who is on a higher rung than you in sophistication. Suppose I am having a conversation with someone who opposes foreign aid, and they point me to a highly sophisticated anti-aid thinker. That thinker is arguing for an anti-aid view more sophisticated than my interlocutor believes, and against a pro-aid view more sophisticated than the one I believe. So, the relevance is unclear.

The only way I’ve found to escape a kind of epistemic nihilism is to posit that most frequently-discussed social and philosophical views have only a few rounds of refinement available to them before they bottom out in the best possible version of that view. It’s relatively straightforward to state what determinist philosophers believe, for example.

There is a rationalist fable that goes as follows: 

When the Big Bad Rationality Wolf reached the strawman, he huffed, and he puffed, and he blew the man down. 

When the Big Bad Rationality Wolf reached the weakman, he huffed, and he puffed, and he blew the man down. However, he was careful not to make undue generalisations from this experience. 

When the Big Bad Rationality Wolf reached the steelman, he huffed, and he puffed, but he couldn’t blow the man down. The man cried out “You will not blow me down – not by the hair on my chinny chin chin!” The Wolf charitably interpreted him as saying that it was very unlikely that he would be able to blow him down, and moved on. 

Bryan Caplan meets Socrates

Socrates and Glaucon are walking down from the Acropolis, when they encounter a stranger from a distant land.

Caplan: Greetings, Socrates.

Socrates: Greetings, stranger. From whence do you come?

Caplan: I am from a faraway land.

Socrates: Sparta? Thrace?

Caplan: Much further out than that.

Socrates: Where, then?

Caplan: It is not important right now. I have heard that you are the wisest man in Athens, and I have sought your expertise. Socrates, what is the purpose of education?

Socrates: To refine virtue, of course.

Caplan: And so those with an education are more virtuous than those without?

Socrates: Yes.

Caplan: Is it not true, then, that those with an education will be entrusted with greater responsibilities? That they will be made rulers, put in charge of important military expeditions, and will be respected craftsmen?

Socrates: Of course.

Caplan: After a time, will men not seek out an education just for these good consequences?

Socrates: They surely will. It would be better if they sought education for its own sake. Some men will seek it for its good consequences, but at least some will refine their virtues in doing so.

Caplan: What if sophists took over the academies, and no longer taught virtue at all? Men would learn nothing of import, and only become educated to enter the skilled professions.

Socrates: No one would trust such academies.

Caplan: Perhaps. But what if the academies taught both virtue and sophistry? Would the self-interested man not take lessons so as to give the appearance of virtue, while exerting himself to the minimum extent? And imagine, Socrates, that you are employing a skilled professional. Would you not employ that man with the greatest education?

Socrates: I surely would.

Caplan: Is it not the case, then, that to the professionals looking for workers, it does not matter whether they had a valuable education? It only matters that their education signals them to be good workers, who will show up on time and work to their greatest extent?

Socrates: It appears so.

Glaucon: Your words are indeed convincing, traveller. However, I do not see their import. Athens is the most learned city of them all, and even here boys are educated only for a few years. Boys will not sit around learning sophistry if there are wars to fight, or if there is food to grow.

Caplan: That is no doubt true, Glaucon. However, consider this: a ruler will be popular if he supports education. The people are not trained in philosophy, and they cannot follow the argument I have given you. And if they can, they do not wish to.

Socrates: The purpose of a ruler is not to be popul-

Caplan: Yes, yes! But it is only natural for a ruler to desire to be liked by his citizens.

Socrates: The education of a ruler should rid him of such desires, as I discussed before with Glaucon.

Caplan: Have we not already said that the academies can be infiltrated by sophists?

Socrates: I know of no such academy that philosophers respect.

Caplan: But men in the military and the skilled professions are not philosophers. They must rely on crude appearances, to save time. But let us put this aside for the moment. Rulers will be popular if they support education. They will also have been told from a young age that education instils virtue, even if it does not. Teachers themselves stand to gain a great deal from maintaining the prestige and wealth that rulers grant them. Rulers therefore will give much more wealth and esteem to education than it deserves.

Glaucon: Rubbish!

Socrates: Glaucon, restrain yourself! Our traveller has proved himself to be philosophically learned. But it is getting dark, and Glaucon must return home. I will think this over and we will discuss it in the morning.

The next evening.

Caplan: Socrates, I have been looking for you. I have visited the priestess at Delphi, and she has told me of her premonition about education.

Glaucon: Impossible! How have you returned to Athens so quickly?

Caplan: Never mind that for now.

Socrates: What did she say?

Caplan: She said that, in the land from which I come, boys (and girls too!) will eventually be educated for as many as seventeen years. Those entering advanced professions may study for more than twenty. They will not exert themselves in the course of their studies, but instead, drink wine and play games. The academies will be luxurious, with man-made rivers flowing through them. They will be treated like royalty, paid for by a tithe on working men. Things will not be much better in Athens.

Socrates: This is one of the most absurd prophecies I have ever been told, but the Delphic Oracle does hold much wisdom… Will your land contain bountiful riches, such that every man lives like a king?

Caplan: Somewhat. However, the gains will particularly go to those that study at the academies. They will gain almost twice as much silver after their studies.

Glaucon: And so, what fool would not study there?!

Caplan: Indeed, most men of wisdom do. But others leave the academy because they find it so boring.

Glaucon: Boring?! Socrates, this is a strange traveller indeed…

Caplan: Let me explain! Socrates, the priestess told me that your method of instruction spreads far and wide for a time, but then dies out when the use of writing becomes common. It is replaced with a form of instruction that induces sleepiness and, at worst, contempt for the subject being studied.

Socrates: Plato, I told you so!

Plato [scribbling furiously]: Hey!

Glaucon: Never mind all that. Will the craftsman and workers not realise that this situation is absurd, and rebel? You said yourself that popularity is important to a ruler, even if his education is supposed to get rid of such concerns.

Caplan: Alas, the system is popular even among them! There will be one handsome fellow, a philosopher of sorts, who points out the absurdity, but his ideas will receive little attention among rulers.

Glaucon: How odd.

Socrates: While you were speaking, I was thinking over this prophecy, and I have a few explanations. First, the professions of the future may be more complicated, and therefore require many more years of study. For example, ships will be able to travel farther, but only because shipbuilders spend many more years as apprentices. As a philosopher, I have had to read only the works of Thales and a few others, but philosophers of the future will have to read much more widely. Second, a certain level of material comfort is required to learn. We Athenians need only the basic comforts, but perhaps men from other lands need more. We know that Phoenicians need more silver than us to live without strife.

Caplan: These are excellent points. However, I have been told that the growth in education is mostly within the professions and not between them. To build even the same ships requires more years of shipbuilding experience.

Socrates: Be that as it may, there must be some quicker way of giving the appearance of skill, without spending many years in the academy. A contest, perhaps.

Caplan: I thought this also. Rulers from my part of the world restrict how and when you can run such contests, but I do not think this is so important. More important is that the academy gives the appearance of many skills. Intelligence, but also timeliness, politeness, and ability to deal with men from other parts of the world. A willingness to do tasks asked of you without questioning them. All of these are important to the professionals, and they are not easily displayed in a contest. And regarding material comforts, I agree that some of them are necessary to think well. However, the material comforts of which the priestess spoke far exceed this. And worse yet, most educated men believe that the academies should receive more of their wealth, and not less. Especially philosophers!

Socrates [chuckling]: Excuse me, traveller, but you have tickled me, for I misheard and thought you said philosophers believed the sophistry you have spoken of, and wanted more wealth for the academies.

Caplan: You have not misheard! The philosophers love the academies, because they are showered with praise and esteem for their intelligence and hard work. The bulk who dislike the academies often are not skilled in such areas, and so cannot articulate good objections to the philosophers.

Glaucon: Speaking of material comforts, we are leaving now for dinner and wine with the others. Do you wish to join us, and tell them of the premonition?

Caplan: Sounds great!

The next morning.

Caplan: Good morning, Socrates. I have one more topic on which I seek your counsel. It is true, is it not, that most men have no interest in philosophy, and in such fine arts as poetry?

Socrates: Unfortunately so.

Caplan: And therefore education, insofar as it is given to everyone, should not include these elements?

Socrates: This does not follow. The lack of interest in philosophy and the fine arts only shows that people have not received sufficient instruction to awaken their love for it.

Caplan: And what makes you so confident that we all have such a love, waiting to be awakened?

Socrates: As I explained last night at dinner, it is because of the tripartite nature of the soul. Our soul separately houses intellectual, emotive and appetitive pleasures. This is the only way we can account for the paradox of opposites. Love of wisdom, therefore, is part of the soul.

Caplan: People from my country have very different views on this subject, but let us put that aside. Do you think this love of wisdom can be awakened in all people, even women and slaves?

Socrates: Huh, I had not previously considered women and slaves…

Caplan: While you think, I shall tell you more about the premonition I was told at Delphi. In the future, every girl and boy will be instructed in fine arts and disciplines like philosophy, literature, and poetry. Whether or not their interest can be awakened, it is not in almost all cases. Teachers with love for their subjects flee into other professions, and this leads to a chicken-and-egg problem. If the students are uninspired because of bad teachers, and good teachers will not teach uninspired students, how do you fix that?

Socrates: Chicken-and-egg… That’s a humorous comparison… I may use that.

Enter Thrasymachus.

Socrates: Thrasymachus, our friend here is talking about awakening the love of knowledge in students. If students are uninspired, then only uninspiring teachers will choose to teach them.

Thrasymachus: This is perhaps true. But consider this: students may show promise in other ways. The skills gained in philosophy and poetry sharpen the mind, and teach you how to think, even if you do not love them for their own sake. These skills may be applied to other areas. And educators teach those who show promise in any area. For example, I mentored a boy as a favour to a friend. I was reluctant at first, but the boy was a prodigious mason. I saw promise and applied myself to him. At the end of our time, I saw in him the beginnings of a love of philosophy and the arts.

Caplan: My contention is only that such cases are rare. Socrates, can a youth not go to the Acropolis and hear all manner of ideas about philosophy?

Socrates: Yes, he can.

Caplan: And yet youths do not go, as a rule. Why is that?

Socrates: Because they have no interest.

Caplan: And consider also this. Thrasymachus, does training as a stonemason make you a better shipbuilder?

Thrasymachus: Surely not, except in the broadest ways of using some tools.

Caplan: Precisely. The transfer is there, but it is limited. So: why does learning poetry make you a better stonemason? Shipbuilding is surely more similar to masonry than to poetry, is it not?

Thrasymachus: Poetry and philosophy refine the mind, and the mind can be applied to anything. While shipbuilding only refines the hands, and the body, which can only be applied to certain tasks.

Caplan: Excellent, Thrasymachus. I just have one question: what makes you confident that the mind is a single entity, where training one part of it trains the entire thing? If you train your hands through pottery, that does not train your legs for running, merely because they are both parts of the body. Perhaps poetry only refines the poetry part of the mind.

Thrasymachus: The mind is unified because we can exert a will. When you exert yourself toward a goal, you will use every skill that your mind is capable of. But the body cannot exert a will. When the body moves in a coordinated fashion, it is only because our mind is controlling it. An unconscious man cannot move in a coordinated way.

Caplan [aside]: Wow, Athens really doesn’t have sleepwalkers?

Caplan: Very well, Thrasymachus. This issue is complex, and I must return home soon. Socrates, I have one last thing to ask of you. I worry that knowledge from philosophy and the arts is only learned in theory, and not in practice, thus not justifying the large public expense of which the Oracle spoke. For example, when visiting the temple, philosophers do not pay a tribute at any greater rate than men of similar social standing. I love the realm of ideas, Socrates, and this is why I have travelled so far to speak with you. However, most men don’t. And I fear that learned rulers enforce their interests on the rest of the populace, and that this is an incalculable waste of time and wealth.

Socrates: If what you speak of is true, I admit it is troubling. Perhaps philosophy is what allows men to live ethically, but on average does not change their behaviour. I always pay a tribute upon visiting the temple.

Thrasymachus: You already know my views on justice, but it is commonly said that Socrates is the most just man in all of Athens.

Caplan begins packing up his bags to leave.

Socrates: You have certainly given us much to think about, traveller. And I see now that you must return home. I don’t wish for you to carry those heavy bags by yourself, so I will send a slave with you.

Socrates calls out for a slave.

Caplan: No, it is fine! Thank you, Socrates, this has been a most informative visit. Send my best to Xanthippe.

Caplan leaves.

Thrasymachus: What a strange fellow.

Socrates: Indeed, Thrasymachus, indeed.

People Used to Dream in Black and White

On an episode of Julia Galef’s podcast, the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel said the following: 

“For [dreams], there was actually a literature that’s very interesting where people in the ’50 in the United States and the ’40s thought that dreams just generally were black and white. I don’t think that they thought it was just dreams in the United States, as influenced by media. I think they just thought dreams are a black and white kind of thing. Most people thought that in the 1950s. It’s related to the presence of media in the culture, so if you look pre-20th century, very few people will say that dreams are black and white. If you look 21st century, very few people will say that dreams are black and white. You look at the arc of it and it relates to the dominance of black and white film media in the culture. 

And we got some cross-cultural evidence for this. This guy emailed me and said, “We should try this in China,” because this was about the year 2000. He said, “Well, in rural China, most people are exposed to black and white media, their TVs are black and white, whereas in urban China, most people — especially the wealthier people — are exposed to mostly colour media.” So we asked about their dreams and we found rural people in China in the early 2000s tended to say that their dreams were black and white, and urban people tended to say their dreams were coloured.”

That became the paper Schwitzgebel, Huang and Zhou 2006. If true, this is one of the most bonkers things I have ever learned. 

The thing is, it’s extremely unlikely that black and white TV actually changed the contents of people’s dreams. There’s no plausible way that the small proportion of time people spent watching visual media could radically change dreams about things we see in colour every day. Rather, people don’t know whether they dream in colour. Dreams may not even have associated colours one way or the other! Indeed, when I asked a few friends and family whether they dreamed in colour, a surprising number of them answered “I don’t know”. When the dominant culture has a reference of visual media in black and white, you think you dream in black and white. And when your culture has a reference of visual media in colour, you think you dream in colour. 

This relates to a generally underappreciated aspect of consciousness: vagueness. Your conscious experience of the world is vague. You don’t typically know what you’re feeling, or dreaming, and look to cultural cues to figure it out. This explains the stylised fact that anxiety and excitement are almost neurologically indistinguishable; the difference is in the surrounding interpretation. More speculatively, it also may explain the cross-cultural differences in mental illnesses. The associated brain states of mental illnesses may well be the same everywhere, caused by a few failure modes. But different cultures prime people to think of mental illnesses in different ways.

You may be sceptical if you are aware of how the psychological research on priming has not replicated well. But my colloquial usage of the term ‘prime’ is different from its technical meaning in psychology. It is not quite the placebo effect either: since all experiences are influenced by beliefs and expectations, that would commit us to say that everything is a placebo, which doesn’t seem right. It’s more similar to the Popperian case against empiricism that I outlined in my review of The Beginning of Infinity

I was thinking out loud with a friend recently about how the purpose of meditation may be to eliminate this mental vagueness. To better understand sensation, unmediated by concepts. I heard Sam Harris say that experienced meditators even practice mindfulness in their sleep. It would be interesting to gather together people who claim to be enlightened and see if they dream in colour. Then again, monks probably don’t watch a lot of TV. 

Disambiguating the ‘Observable Universe’

I’ve seen a lot of confusion over what precisely the term ‘observable universe’ refers to. This post is an attempt to remedy that.

In 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered that the universe is expanding. He observed that light emitted from distant celestial objects was redder than expected, due to the downward shift in frequency as their light receded from Earth. And the further away the objects were, the proportionately greater their redshift. Since objects were getting further apart from each other, figures like Lemaître and Friedmann reasoned that there must have been some point in the past at which the whole universe was compressed into a single point.

Embarrassingly, linear extrapolation implied an age of the universe of 1-2 billion years, shorter than the known age of the oldest rocks on Earth. One of the difficulties is that expansion flipped from slowing down to speeding up after several billion years, and this requires complex observations of supernovae to account for. In any case, astronomers eventually measured the age of the universe at about 13.8 billion years. This implies three tempting definitions for the observable universe — that part of the whole universe which we can theoretically see — only one of which is correct.

Universe age in light-years: You would be forgiven for thinking that the observable universe is a sphere with a radius of 13.8 billion light-years centred on the Earth, since that’s how long light has had to reach us. However, this assumes the universe isn’t expanding or contracting.

The Hubble radius: Hubble found that the distance to a given galaxy was proportional to its recessional velocity, with a constant of proportionality now called the Hubble constant H. This implies there is a sphere past which everything is travelling away from us faster than the speed of light. This is known as the Hubble sphere, and it has a radius of around 14.4 billion light-years.

You may worry that this faster-than-light travel violates Einstein’s theory of relativity, which says that nothing can travel faster than light. However, what relativity says is that matter within space can’t travel faster than light, but nothing about how fast space itself can travel.

The Hubble sphere isn’t the observable universe either. The radius of the Hubble sphere will be given by c/H, where c is the speed of light. And the Hubble constant is decreasing: the relative velocities of celestial objects are (on average) growing more slowly than the distances between them. Therefore the Hubble sphere is expanding. If the Hubble sphere expands fast enough, light leaving an extremely distant object can get ‘caught’ and drop from the faster-than-light region outside the sphere to the slower-than-light region inside. Once this light is within the Hubble sphere, it can make its way to Earth (this is explained well in this video). If you work out their present distance from us, it turns out that all of the photons we receive from the first five billion years of the universe’s existence were all caught by the Hubble sphere. These objects were, are, and always will be travelling away from us faster than the speed of light!

The particle horizon: The full extent of the observable universe is bounded by the particle horizon, which is the region from which light has had time to reach us since the beginning of the universe, taking into account its expansion. The particle horizon has a radius of 46.5 billion light-years, so the observable universe is 93 billion light-years across.

The famous cosmic microwave background is at the particle horizon, and its light has taken 13.8 billion years to reach us (the fact that it consists of microwaves is an extreme version of redshifting). In the jargon, the proper distance (the actual distance not taking into account the expansion of the universe) is 46.5 billion light-years but the comoving distance (taking account of expansion) is 13.8 billion years.

The particle horizon limits how far in distance we can observe, while the Hubble sphere limits how far back in time we can observe. We could never see objects outside the Hubble sphere as they are now, no matter how long we waited. Moreover, just as light can get caught in the Hubble sphere, the expansion of space can push light out of it. Every second, 20,000 stars become newly unobservable from Earth. In a few billion years, the observable universe will consist of only our Local Group of a few dozen galaxies. Future astronomers would gaze upon a barren universe.

Thanks to Gytis Daujotas for reading a draft of this post.

For and Against Lotteries in Elite University Admissions

People sometimes suggest replacing the admissions systems of highly selective universities with lotteries (their names often rhyme with Palcolm Sadwell). The proposal is that universities would mark a pool of students as ‘good enough’ and then students from that pool would be accepted at random. Here are some arguments for and against this idea, inspired by Julia Galef’s unpopular ideas series. I don’t agree with all these arguments (or even fully endorse any); the point here is just to categorise the arguments worth considering on both sides.


  • Competitive university admissions generate enormous amounts of waste (through Goodhart’s law) with time and money being spent on extracurriculars and private tutoring for what is essentially a zero-sum game. It may also be incentivising unethical behaviour: the proportion of students who admitted to cheating in high school went from 34% in 1969 to 74% in 2002.
  • Current admissions are racist and classist, especially when they rely on interviews, because admissions officers are unconsciously biased.
  • Noise is systematically much higher than people suspect so the system is already, to a moderate extent, random.  
  • With a lottery, admitted students would be from more racially and socioeconomically diverse backgrounds. Different countries and universities have differing levels of remedial discrimination policies, so a lottery would make some colleges less diverse, but the net effect would be to make them more diverse.
  • The current system penalises students who spend their teen years doing things they actually enjoy. There’s adverse selection for people who are unoriginal, uncreative, and place little value on their time.  
  • Students applying to top universities are very stressed out, e.g. 46% of Cambridge students either have depression or suspect they might. Easing the competition would help with mental health problems and lead them to put less pressure on themselves.
  • If getting into top universities is more arbitrary, it will cease to be a reliable signal of competence to employers. Therefore, the labour market will rely more on non-credential signals of competence, bursting the higher education bubble.
  • Lotteries will make universities more intellectually diverse. Conservatives are highly underrepresented in top universities, and (at least in America) this is in part because of ideological admissions officers that discriminate against people they disagree with. More generally people are biased in favour of their in-group. Lotteries give a boost to the academic careers of heterodox thinkers, who can push back against echo chambers that produce low-quality research.
  • Grades and chances at admission do not signal how much people will contribute to society. For example, a study at Michigan Law found that black students admitted through affirmative action had worse grades but contributed equally (measured by satisfaction, income, and ‘service contributions’) in their later careers.


  • Thinking students get into top universities because of privilege confuses correlation with causation. Private schools do not particularly benefit children academically, and standardised tests are very hard to game. Thus, what looks like bias in who gets admitted is actually a statistical illusion.
  • If the problem is Goodhart’s law leading to gaming of the wrong metrics, you can solve this with an admissions system that is opaque from the outside, or with tests that are difficult to predict in advance (Oxbridge interviews are famously difficult to prepare for).
  • Many university admissions systems (like Ireland’s) already work well and don’t waste students’ time without recourse to a lottery. Even Oxford and Cambridge accept a relatively high proportion of acceptable candidates. The problem of zero-sum competition over irrelevant metrics for university spots is exclusively faced by a small number of (mostly privileged) Americans. The people who say this is a niche problem are correct. It appears to be a much larger problem than it is because the people who went through this gruelling process are disproportionately represented in academia and the media.
  • A few elite intellectuals make almost all the contributions to academia, attending a prestigious university is important to their success, and yet they would have the same chance as anyone else ‘good enough’ under a lottery system. Since these people are so socially valuable, it may even be worth some social injustice in higher education in general to make sure we catch every genius with a high chance to make a large contribution.
  • A lottery isn’t fair. Someone who worked extremely hard on their application would have the same chance as someone who applied as an afterthought and was barely good enough.
  • A lottery undercuts the mythology of education. We live in a society which values individual achievement and treats people as solely (or mostly) responsible for their own success. This may not be the best way to organise society, but it is currently the case. Changing to a lottery would lead to the winners feeling undeserving, and the losers feeling cheated.  
  • Admissions are not actually very biased. The research on unconscious bias is plagued with problems, and most of the studies referenced in books like Blink have failed to replicate. People in charge of admissions are competent professionals who make their decisions on basically sensible grounds. 
  • Less privileged and wealthy students mean that the university will get fewer donations. While it is perhaps sad that universities need to rely on alumni donations, they also do a large amount of social good, funding important research and scholarships.
  • Applying to university is the first stressful interaction many secondary school students have with the real world, and it teaches them many valuable skills: how to prepare for interviews, how to write good cover letters, and how to deal with rejection. This is only effective if students are trying their hardest and the admissions procedure isn’t random.

Thanks to Gytis Daujotas, Cian Mullarkey and Luise Wöhlke for reading drafts of this post.

Questions about YIMBY

I’ve been trying to convince my girlfriend that we should live in a renovated shipping container, but I haven’t been successful

If you want to change the world, start by giving people free books. Or at least, this is the approach of the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank in the UK. At an event of theirs, they gave me a copy of John Myers’ little book (or long paper) YIMBY: How to end the housing crisis, boost the economy and win more votes. Weirdly, the book starts with specific solutions to the housing crisis, and then only in the middle talks about why this is a problem you should care about.

You probably already know this story: NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard) want to preserve the value of their homes, so they lobby the government to restrict supply through zoning laws, historic preservation rules, and widely distributed veto power. Hence, when demand goes up, prices increase. YIMBYism (Yes in My Back Yard) is a recent movement of people who want to allow more building to solve this (the author is a cofounder of London YIMBY).

I feel that whether you view NIMBYism as a problem of excessive government intervention or civil society is dependent on your pre-existing biases. I take a central claim of libertarianism to be that the government is overrated, and civil society is underrated. But if we had been trying to show the opposite, we could use the fact that civil society obstructs building so much to argue that the government needs to socialise more housing.

This gets at my general confusion about decentralisation arguments. There is a well-known thesis that decentralisation is good because it allows for the synthesis of information from many different sources, in a way that couldn’t plausibly be done by central authorities. The problem of NIMBYism is a problem of decentralised town councils, part of the centralised government, being lobbied by decentralised homeowners, to obstruct the ability of decentralised individuals to pay centralised developers to build new buildings. For whom is this a win – the centralisers or the decentralisers?

There’s a paper from Hsieh and Moretti that finds that US GDP growth between 1964 and 2009 was 50% lower as a result of restrictions on building. If we take this at face value, it’s pretty staggering. A standard result in the economics literature is that restrictions on the supply of housing cause a doubling in house prices. For London, they seem to correspond to a quadrupling in rents (these figures come from the book). Apparently, we’re not in flying cars colonising the galaxy because we wasted all our money on rent…

…or because we’re living in the wrong places. There are two problems with supply constraints on housing: waste and inefficiency. The average UK renter pays 30% of their income on rent, so a crude guess is that society is paying a 15% tax on economic activity to pay for restrictions on building. But this effect is plausibly smaller than the problem of people not living where their labour is most valuable. This is why you get software engineers in the Bay Area doing their own plumbing: few plumbers can afford to live in San Francisco. Then you get an oversupply of service workers in economically stagnant areas, driving down wages… you get the idea. 

I’m not sure whether anyone actually believes that there were more restrictions on building in the past. Britain’s modern planning system didn’t exist until 1947, with the passing of the Town and Country Planning Act. Britain now has possibly the most dysfunctional planning system of any rich country (except maybe Ireland?). Is this because the Town and Country Planning Act is just really bad? Or does it work as poorly as systems from other countries, but the nicer pre-existing supply of houses in the UK inspires more NIMBYs?  

Houston famously has no zoning laws (it does however have other planning regulations including parking minimums that make the city less walkable). Houston represents one equilibrium, in which the city has enough renting tenants (44% of the population) to form a permanent bloc to vote for more housing. The South of England represents the opposite equilibrium, in which there are enough homeowners to consistently block new developments. 

This book focuses mostly on the UK and London in particular, where expansion is strictly limited by the green belt. It’s safe to assume that the primary reason for the popular support of the green belt is that it contains the word ‘green’. Most of London’s green belt is occupied by farmland, which uses pesticides and is generally bad for the environment. The green belt doesn’t exist because it’s an area that is particularly beautiful (people who think this are probably confusing it with an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). Nor does it exist for specific scientific or environmental reasons. Its function is primarily to restrict the supply of housing and ensure that Londoners in the suburbs have access to nice outdoor areas. Having access to nice outdoor areas is important, but this is a spectacularly inefficient way to do it. 

An angle I’m surprised the book didn’t push harder is that zoning laws are almost certainly harmful to the environment, because they limit densification, and higher-density buildings are better for the environment. For example, carbon emissions per capita in London are almost 40% below the UK average. When you think about it, this is entirely unsurprising: cities have lots of people living close together using public transport who don’t need goods transported to remote locations.

Another notable omission is the effects that high house prices have on fertility. One of the most important things I learned from reading Matt Yglesias’ book One Billion Americans is that women in Western countries’ ideal number of children is not, in general, going down. If anything, the number of children the average American woman wants is slightly up since the 1980s. What’s changed is the economic circumstances: women make more money, so the opportunity cost of having a child is higher. There is also a Baumol’s disease driving up the price of education and childcare: some sectors (like software) have increased in productivity so much that compensation has had to rise in low-growth sectors to keep people from jumping ship. Childcare may even be experiencing negative productivity growth, because of various laws restricting the number of children that can be taken care of by one carer (in my native Ireland, depending on the circumstance, the child:adult ratio can be no larger than 3:1). But plausibly more important than these effects is that couples have to wait longer until they can afford a house, and they don’t want to have children in a cramped expensive apartment. The evidence for this looks pretty solid to me, although the book doesn’t discuss it. I assume the reason that YIMBYs don’t make this argument more often is that more children are not an unalloyed good; some people even say that having children is a bad thing because of climate change. The argument that people really do want more children, but that we price them out of being able to do so through a screwed-up planning system, is a pretty good one. 

The ASI and London YIMBY propose ‘street votes’ as a practical solution to increasing the supply of housing, in which each street can vote to ‘up-zone’ and allow for denser development, thereby greatly increasing the value of their property. This would be done through a double majority: it would be approved by two-thirds of residents and two-thirds of residents that have lived on the street for at least three years. The hope is that this would replace the current vetocracy, in which small numbers of cranky residents can oppose new developments while not clearly violating any ‘will of the people’.

The author doesn’t consider the other proposed solutions to this problem, but that is mostly because the other proposed solutions are silly. Rent control, for example, is almost universally condemned by economists as being a terrible idea. Even the Freakonomics guys once released a plea for people to stop supporting rent control. Obligatory reference to the time Assar Lindbeck said that “Short of bombing, I know of no way to destroy a city that was more effective than rent control”, et cetera et cetera. 

I’ve also heard people suggest that second homeownership be heavily taxed or banned altogether. But second homeownership is already pretty rare; vanishingly so in expensive cities. Insofar as there are unoccupied units in desirable cities, it is usually because someone lives there during the week for their job and elsewhere at the weekend. The reason they do this is that rent is very high and the rental market sucks because of (you guessed it) insufficient supply. Advocating a policy with mostly symbolic value against the elites is not usually a good way to solve problems. 

You might be wondering about whether the dilemmas caused by NIMBYism can’t be solved with Coasean bargaining. Coase’s theorem says that, in the absence of transaction costs, rational actors will bargain to efficient outcomes. If my flatmate likes listening to loud music that I don’t like, theoretically she will compensate me exactly to the extent that I am harmed by listening to her music. Similarly, you could imagine developers compensating nearby residents to the extent that they are harmed by living near an ugly building and/or an irksome construction site. I’m assuming that the reason this doesn’t happen in practice is that it’s very hard to say what counts as ‘nearby’, it’s hard to make this compensation in a legal way, and that lots of NIMBYs oppose developments nowhere near where they live. 

I don’t generally recommend making people feel bad for supporting something because the initial motivation for that thing was racist. But still, it’s worth mentioning that single-family zoning (the primary form of zoning in the US) was designed to exclude black people from white neighbourhoods. Something similar is true of the American college admission system, by the way: it started out as an elaborate scheme to keep Jews out of universities.

In a competitive market, the cost of a good falls closer and closer to the cost of replacing it. And indeed, for centuries, house prices outside city centres generally hovered above replacement levels. Now, houses cost at least double their replacement cost, and many multiples more in cities. The ONS says that the market value of houses exceeds replacement costs by £3 trillion, which is 150% of the UK’s GDP. The book says £3 trillion is “more than double” UK GDP, but this is in violation of what Google tells me. 

I’m not sure how distinct a problem high house prices are from homelessness. The rent in San Francisco is very high, and there are lots of homeless people there. But presumably, most of them still wouldn’t be able to afford to live in an apartment even if the rent were half as much. Is the reason that NIMBY contributes to homelessness that it blocks the development of ultracheap tenements for homeless people? If so, this seems like an odd point to neglect in a book about housing regulations. A few years ago a man in LA built tiny $1,200 houses for the homeless, before the government shut him down, presumably to free the homeless people from oppression or something, and then they went back to sleeping on the streets. Maybe someone needs to make a tear-jerking documentary about this, Blackfish style. If only people were as cute as killer whales…

Thanks to Sydney and Gytis Daujotas for reviewing drafts of this post. 

P.S. I wasn’t aware of John Myers, Ben Southwood and Sam Bowman’s new piece in Works in Progress when I wrote this, but it covers very similar ground. 

Some Ramblings on ‘In Cold Blood’

My favourite of the alternate coves, with Dick and Perry on the front

I feel bad about not reading more fiction. I have this weird obsession with obtaining new information in everything that I do for pleasure, even if the information is trivial, or just generally less interesting than the insights gained from fiction. I’ve compromised by reading a lot of non-fiction that’s written like novels. So, it’s fitting that I just finished In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which birthed the genre of the non-fiction novel.

First, some context: In Cold Blood is a novel from 1966 that documents the murders of Herb Clutter and his family of four in a small village in Kansas by Dick Hickock and Perry Smith. They carried out the murders in November 1959, then fled to Mexico, changed their minds and went back to Kansas City, and then were eventually caught over a month later in Las Vegas. The murders received extensive media coverage at the time, and the two murderers were eventually hanged. The book was adapted into a 2005 film called Capote, which is more about Capote himself and his research and writing for the book. The film is, I gather, much more historically accurate. Indeed, one of Truman Capote’s signature moves was flagrantly making stuff up. Here are some of my initial thoughts about the book:

  1. I was surprised by how little Capote inserted himself into the story. There’s only one sentence in which he appears to refer to himself, simply as ‘the journalist’. This is a little bit surprising because I had a picture of Truman Capote as a larger-than-life slightly narcissistic figure. But, come to think of it, him inserting himself would be too on-the-nose. The real reason this is surprising is that, in real life, he played a very important causal role in the events that occurred. He is, at least according to the film, the reason why the murderers got a re-trial. Perry thought they could use his book as evidence in their defence, and Capote ends up becoming Perry’s first real friend, of a sort. The fact that this is omitted from the book is dishonest, but I suppose he was trying to avoid blowback. If your actions strengthened the defence of two obviously guilty killers, you probably wouldn’t want to put it in a bestselling book either. In Cold Blood is in this really interesting position of being an impossible book to finish, because Truman Capote ended up so intimately intertwined with the events. And yet no-one else could have written the book, because he’s the only one that did the extensive research needed to write it.
  2. Capote was gay and spent most of his adult life in a relationship with fellow writer Jack Dunphy. He had a high-pitched voice and very distinctive vocal mannerisms which, one would assume, meant that he was faced with a harder job gaining the trust of the Kansans. It’s also easy to speculate that his sexuality may have left him with more of an interest in outsiders, whether they be murderers or not.  
  3. Capote’s interviews were conducted with Harper Lee, who just so happened to be a childhood friend. Given that he was writing this book when To Kill a Mockingbird came out, and given his upbringing in Alabama, it makes sense that he has an interest in the racial components of the story. Perry was half-Native American, and this is brought up constantly, but I didn’t feel like I understood its significance. Is it that he never really came to terms with his identity? Is it just another generic hurdle to him having a successful life? Is he generalising from one example (his alcoholic mother) to think that all Native Americans are bad, and does this make his childhood neglect sting even more? If there is no symbolic significance, then why bring it up so much?
  4. I recommended this book to a friend and said that a large part of it was a deep psychological analysis of the killers. This friend has been reading too much about sketchy psychology studies, and reflexively put what I was talking about in the same category. I suppose the cardinal sin of psychological theorising is that it is not sufficiently grounded in behaviour. Good novelists do a good job giving genuine psychological insight because they talk about what characters say and do, and humans are good at extrapolating from this. Psychological studies involve coming up with a hypothesis about the mind and testing it in a contrived experiment. Why can’t we do the thing novelists do, but scientifically? Because as soon as effects become large and obvious enough that we can notice them without formal study, then our observations cease to be psychology and start becoming journalism.  
  5. The selective revelation of information in this book is really clever. Every time you think you have Dick and Perry’s relationship figured out, there’s something new that makes you realise you haven’t. At first, Dick seems like the puppeteer, and Perry is the real psychopath who’s going to do the killings for him. Then you realise both men think they’re mentors of the other. This would normally result in one-upmanship, but they don’t have the rapport for that. Perry is grasping at a higher social class, and Dick is class static. Then there’s this sexual element going on, where Dick is paedophilic, and Perry thinks people being unable to contain their sexual impulses is uncouth (his problem is less so about Dick’s cravings being for children!). So, again, you have the dynamic where Dick just accepts his terrible preferences and way of life, and Perry tries to do better, but puts in so little effort that he ends up even worse out of disaffection.
  6. The end of the book drags. Some of this appears to be a result of Capote not wanting the book to end, and so stretching it out by doing things like giving backstory to the killers’ fellow inmates on death row. But most of it is just that, legislatively, executing someone in the US drags on for a very long time. There’s a trial, then a re-trial, then a lot of questioning of the re-trial because the initial person in charge of the re-trial retired. All in all, arrest to execution took six years. This is the kind of thing that could have been interesting – there’s a constant tension between justice right now and the more abstract ideals of due process – but, for me at least, wasn’t.

Thanks to Sydney for reviewing a draft of this post, and for getting me to read the book!

A Layman’s Guide to Recreational Mathematics Videos

I have watched a lot of maths videos on the internet. The medium of YouTube is quite well suited to maths; maths books are frequently either boring or are really about maths history/psychology/sociology. People sometimes ask me for recommendations of maths channels and videos to watch, so I thought I would write this guide to have something to point them to. There are a number of channels that are good for formal education, like Khan Academy or Organic Chemistry Tutor. There are also other channels that upload high-quality lectures, like the Royal Institution and the channels of various universities. But I don’t even study maths at university, so here I’m only going to discuss channels I watch for fun.  

Explainer channels


3Blue1Brown (real name Grant Sanderson) is my favourite maths YouTuber. He animates his videos with a software he created called Manim, which is now also used by VcubingX and Reducible. Even if you didn’t understand anything he was talking about, 3B1B’s videos are still worth watching for the pure art and enthusiasm. My favourite videos of his are the ones about error-correcting codes, Dirichlet’s theorem and his interactive quaternion explainer. He has recurring series on deep learning, differential equations, linear algebra and calculus, all of which are excellent high-level overviews of the respective topics.


This is the most well-known maths channel. It’s possible that 3B1B’s new releases get more attention, but Numberphile has been going for longer and has a much larger archive. I enjoyed their recent series of videos featuring Neil Sloane, the founder of the Online Encyclopaedia of Integer Sequences. Some classics include the video on the Josephus problem, the interview with Terence Tao, and the videos with Ron Graham. It’s worth mentioning that James Grime, Katie Steckles, and Henry Segerman, frequent contributors to Numberphile, also have their own channels.

Stand-up Maths

Matt Parker describes himself as a stand-up mathematician: part comedian and part mathematician. He first received wide recognition from his Numberphile appearances and now he does live shows with his group Festival of the Spoken Nerd. His best videos are: his stand-up routine about spreadsheets, his videos about the hilarious superpermutation saga, and his investigation into whether “land area” assumes a country is perfectly flat. He also has a second channel, the highlight of which is the time he ran untested viewer-submitted code on his Christmas tree.


Another excellent channel. This one is of intermediate production value between the guy-with-whiteboard channels and the 3B1B cinematic masterpieces. He has a great video addressing the infamous Numberphile claim that the sum of all natural numbers is -1/12. Mathologer is strongest in animating proofs. I am especially pleased by his Simpsons-themed videos.

PBS Infinite Series (discontinued)

This is (or rather was) an underrated channel. I particularly enjoyed their exploration of voting systems and the Condorcet paradox (which I wrote about in my Beginning of Infinity review). Their video on the assassin puzzle is also good and it’s what introduced me to the idea of representing shapes as lattices. Finally, here is this post’s obligatory link to a quantum computing video.


The first video I saw from this channel was his mathematical analysis of whether the YouTuber Dream was cheating in his now-infamous Minecraft speedrun (Matt Parker also made a video on the same subject!). Mathmaniac also has a series about group theory, inspired by 3B1B’s series about calculus and linear algebra.

Eddie Woo

This is probably the channel here with the fewest prerequisites, since Eddie is a maths secondary school teacher and his videos are just recordings of his lessons. But if you need to brush up on something needed for one of the other channels, I recommend him. He also covers some topics you may not know about, like how the RSA encryption algorithm works. He suitably has teaching awards and nominations for being really good.

Welch Labs (discontinued?)

This guy hasn’t made a video in over two years, but he comes recommended by 3B1B himself, and I recommend his series on self-driving cars, how science works, and a visual introduction to complex numbers.

Problem-solving channels


Blackpenredpen is probably the channel I’ve watched the second most after 3B1B. While the production value is significantly lower, he makes up for it with sheer quantity. He’s particularly strong in algebra and calculus. Highlights of the channel include the time he livestreamed solving integrals for six hours straight, his videos about Oxbridge interview questions (which include a collaboration with Tom Rocks maths), and his recent conversation with Po Shen Loh.

Michael Penn

Another channel with a simple style. I enjoy his videos about geometry. Like many of these channels, Penn has videos where he works through Olympiad problems and problems from other famous exams like the Putnam.

Flammable Maths

Flammable Maths is one of the most active members of the YouTube maths community. The level of assumed knowledge varies massively between videos and even within them. He also has a meme-y aesthetic and sense of humour that can become a bit much at times. His Christmas specials are good: these two videos featured many other well-known maths personalities, and he goes through problems every day during ‘Papa Flammy’s advent calendar’.


Presh Talwalkar, or MindYourDecisions, is the clickbait of maths on YouTube. Did you know that only 6% of Korean 11-year-olds could solve this problem?! All of his videos have the same basic format of working through some problem, animated with Powerpoint. Some random ones I liked: the 25 horses problem and some deceptively simple geometry problems.

Other channels that sometimes talk about maths

Jan Misali

This guy really only has one video about maths, but it’s shockingly good.


Watching Veritasium videos was a not insignificant part of what first got 13-year-old me into science. Here are his videos about the logistic map, the Collatz conjecture and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem.


Vsauce is perhaps the most popular educational YouTuber, and he has touched on maths a number of times. I recommend his videos on the Banach-Tarski paradox, the napkin ring problem, and the brachistochrone. I have to say, I respect how much detail he goes into, especially in the Banach-Tarski video. It has so many views that it’s plausible that, of all people in the world who know what the Banach-Tarski paradox is, more than 50% of them learned it from Vsauce.

Andrew Dotson

Andrew Dotson is a bit like the physics equivalent of Flammable Maths. A lot of his videos are vlogs, for people who want to see what life is like as a physics graduate student (hint: it’s shit). The videos of his where he does actual maths include finding the eigenvalues of a Möbius strip, integrating with Feynman’s technique and the “you laugh you differentiate” challenge.


Tibees became popular through her ‘exam unboxing’ series (see for example professors reacting to India’s JEE Advanced exam). Now she makes videos about what famous mathematicians and physicists were reading or writing, and occasionally she’ll make a video of her solving a problem herself.

Simon Clark

Simon Clark studied physics at Oxford and is the messiah for physics A-level students applying to Oxbridge. He’s made a number of videos about admissions (playlist here) and if you’re thinking about applying then definitely watch his videos. The most explicitly maths-related videos he has include a brief history of pi and a video about the etymology of sin and cos. The videos of his I like the most are the ones where he talks about his favourite books (click here for the playlist).


TED-Ed has a puzzle series which includes videos on the prisoner hat riddle, the Mondrian squares riddle, and a variation upon the blue-eyed islander problem. They also have videos about Hilbert’s hotel and where maths symbols come from.

Music and fun

You probably know Tom Lehrer’s periodic table song, and you may have even seen Daniel Radcliffe sing it on The Graham Norton Show. What you may not know, however, is that Tom Lehrer had an entire career as a mathematical musician! My favourites are ‘New Math’, ‘That’s Mathematics’, and my girlfriend and I are obsessed with ‘Lobachevsky’.  

TheGermanFox has only uploaded three videos, but his musical proof of why e is irrational is actually really good and I can’t get it out of my head.

Vihart makes fun, usually short, videos, some highlights being this one about music theory and the Pi Day rants. Pi Day (March 14th) used to inspire a lot more enthusiasm, but I guess it’s sufficiently mainstream now that it’s no longer cool?

Bonus: podcasts about maths

The Joy of X

This is a podcast hosted by the wonderful Steven Strogatz, an author and professor of applied mathematics at Cornell. I recommend his conversations with Janna Levin, John Urschel, Frank Wilczek, and Moon Duchin.

The 3B1B Podcast

This podcast, hosted by Grant Sanderson, has just started recently, but I can already recommend the conversations with Steven Strogatz and Sal Khan (of Khan Academy fame).

Numberphile Podcast

Since it’s very difficult to communicate mathematics purely orally, maths podcasts are really more about the characters involved and their personal stories. This is no exception. The best episode is certainly the one featuring Roger Penrose, but I also enjoyed the conversations with Marcus Du Sautoy, Matt Parker and Grant Sanderson.

Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.

Book Review: The Beginning of Infinity

Inspired by: Naval, If Sapiens Were a Blogpost and Brett Hall’s podcast.

Many people have recommended the book The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World by David Deutsch to me. I don’t know how, because I can’t imagine any of them actually finished it. Previously on my blog I’ve reviewed books and been critical of aspects of them. But this post is more of a summary of The Beginning of Infinity. I decided to write it this way because this book is very complicated, reasonably long and frequently misunderstood. Deutsch is a physicist at Oxford and a pioneer of quantum computing, but his interests are wide-ranging.

All progress comes from good explanations

“In this book I argue that all progress, both theoretical and practical, has resulted from a single human activity: the quest for what I call good explanations.”

One of the key pieces of terminology in this book is the idea of a good explanation. In Deutsch’s formulation, a good explanation is one that accounts for observations while being hard to vary. If a theory can explain anything, it can explain nothing. Some people think that what makes a good explanation is testability. But this isn’t enough: some theories are perfectly testable but do not constitute good explanations. For example, consider the hypothesis “If you eat 1kg of grass, it will cure the common cold.” The problem with this statement isn’t that it’s not testable, it’s that no one should bother testing it. And the reason why no one should bother testing it is that it’s easy to vary: why 1kg, and not 2kg? What is the explanatory account of how eating grass could cure a cold? Bad explanations have more moving parts than there needs to be, and each of these parts could have been different.

This book has many different threads to it, but one of the most important is a kind of philosophical treatise about how good explanations come to be. One classical idea, which Deutsch rejects, is that we do so by induction, a doctrine known as inductivism. This is based on the idea that ‘the unseen resembles the seen’ or ‘the future resembles the past.’ We observe the sun rising day after day, and inductively reason that the sun will rise tomorrow. There are a few problems with this. One of them is that we do not, in fact, use induction to reason about most observations in the world. Consider someone who was born in the 20th century and saw the digits 19 at the start of the year number hundreds of times. On December 31st, 1999, she would not extrapolate the rule and predict that tomorrow, the year will begin with a 19. You might object that what she was actually extrapolating was the rule “The year will start with the digits 19 until the day after December 31st, 1999, when it will start to begin with a 20”, and that this rule was repeatedly confirmed by observation. But this is question-begging. Why this rule and not some other rule? In philosophy, this is known as the problem of induction.  

Induction also struggles with answering a question like “What is the probability that the sun will rise tomorrow?” If something has never happened, and it fails to happen once more, how do you update your probability judgement? This is sometimes known as the problem of zero-failure data:

“On each occasion when that prediction comes true, and provided that it never fails, the probability that it will always come true is supposed to increase. Thus one supposedly obtains ever more reliable knowledge of the future from the past, and of the general from the particular. That alleged process was called ‘inductive inference’ or ‘induction’, and the doctrine that scientific theories are obtained in that way is called inductivism . . . First, inductivism purports to explain how science obtains predictions about experiences. But most of our theoretical knowledge simply does not take that form. Scientific explanations are about reality, most of which does not consist of anyone’s experiences.”

This is a subtle point. Are scientific theories about reality, or are they about how experiments move the dials on measuring instruments? The latter view is called instrumentalism, which Deutsch roundly rejects: “prediction is not, and cannot be, the purpose of science.” Moreover, he views instrumentalism as a philosophical absurdity: “Instrumentalism, even aside from the philosophical enormity of reducing science to a collection of statements about human experiences, does not make sense in its own terms. For there is no such thing as a purely predictive, explanationless theory.” Deutsch’s view is that knowledge is not only not justified by induction, as the inductivists believed, but that it is not justified at all:

“The misconception that knowledge needs authority to be genuine or reliable dates back to antiquity, and it still prevails. To this day, most courses in the philosophy of knowledge teach that knowledge is some form of justified, true belief, where ‘justified’ means designated as true (or at least ‘probable’) by reference to some authoritative source or touchstone of knowledge. Thus ‘how do we know . . . ?’ is transformed into ‘by what authority do we claim . . . ?’ The latter question is a chimera that may well have wasted more philosophers’ time and effort than any other idea. It converts the quest for truth into a quest for certainty (a feeling) or for endorsement (a social status). This misconception is called justificationism. The opposing position – namely the recognition that there are no authoritative sources of knowledge, nor any reliable means of justifying ideas as being true or probable – is called fallibilism.”

An argument in favour of instrumentalism is that, while predictions get successively more accurate as science progresses, the underlying conceptual model oscillates wildly. For example, general relativity was only a small amount more accurate than Newton’s laws in most situations, but the explanations it gave for observations were completely different. Because each theory’s explanation swept away the previous one, the previous explanation must have been false, and so we can’t regard these successive explanations as growth in knowledge at all. The reason why this is wrong is that it takes too narrow a view of what constitutes scientific progress. The fact that relativity explained things rather differently to Newton is beside the point; what matters is that our explanatory power grew.

This belief that what constitutes scientific progress is growth in explanatory power is why Deutsch rejects Bayesian philosophy of science. This is the view that we have ‘credences’ (probabilities) attached to our level of belief in theories, and that science progresses by moving our credences in the correct theories closer and closer to one. But there is no consistent movement of theories in the direction of having a higher probability. For instance, there might be a 0.00001% chance that Greek mythology is true, but we know there is a zero chance that our current theories of physics are true, because general relativity and quantum mechanics are incompatible with one another. What are current theories of physics are is plausible: refined many times by criticism. This is also why our explanations can progress in philosophy and art, despite the fact that you can’t ever “prove” a proposition wrong. That doesn’t stop the overwhelming majority of explanations in those fields from being bad.

The real way that we generate explanations about the world, according to Deutsch, is that we conjecture. Our minds are constantly generating conjectures about the world, and we use observation to either refute them or to criticise them. A person, in this formulation, is an entity that produces explanatory knowledge. Arguments should proceed as follows: person A conjectures something, and this conjecture has problems. Person B offers a rival conjecture that fixes those problems. And so on, indefinitely. In science, we never want to propose something and say “This is the ultimate truth.” That is the sin of justificationism.

We do not derive knowledge from the senses

Empiricism is the philosophical idea that we derive knowledge from our senses. There are a number of problems with this. One is that sense-data by themselves are meaningless. If you had no pre-existing ideas or expectations, you wouldn’t know how to interpret your senses. We do not read from the book of nature. The other major problem with empiricism is how to deal with false perceptions, like optical illusions. He writes: 

“The deceptiveness of the senses was always a problem for empiricism – and thereby, it seemed, for science. The empiricists’ best defence was that the senses cannot be deceptive in themselves. What misleads us are only the false interpretations that we place on appearances.”

As Karl Popper put it, “All observation is theory-laden”, and hence fallible, like all our theories. In other words: you have to know what you’re looking for. We bring expectations, and explanations, to the act of measuring and observing itself. There is no such thing as The Facts, in a vacuum. There are only people, pursuing explanations that are better or worse at responding to criticism. Another of Deutsch’s enduring frustrations with empiricism is the idea that interpretation and prediction are two separate processes. There is only one process: explanation.

“One legacy of empiricism that continues to cause confusion, and has opened the door to a great deal of bad philosophy, is the idea that it is possible to split a scientific theory into its predictive rules of thumb on the one hand and its assertions about reality (sometimes known as its ‘interpretation’) on the other.”

A common argument goes like this: you can have all the facts in the world, but this does not allow you to make the logical jump to making normative statements about what ought to be. Maybe you can’t get moral judgements from factual claims, but you can’t get scientific theories from factual claims either! Deutsch is essentially saying that the epistemic jump that empiricism is ignoring (from observations to theories) is the dual of the much-discussed epistemic jump in moral philosophy (from facts to values). So, there may be a metaphysical sense in which you can’t get an ought from an is. But the project never was to get an ought from an is:

“In the case of moral philosophy, the empiricist and justificationist misconceptions are often expressed in the maxim that ‘you can’t derive an ought from an is’ (a paraphrase of a remark by the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume). It means that moral theories cannot be deduced from factual knowledge. This has become conventional wisdom, and has resulted in a kind of dogmatic despair about morality: ‘you can’t derive an ought from an is, therefore morality cannot be justified by reason’. That leaves only two options: either to embrace unreason or to try living without ever making a moral judgement. Both are liable to lead to morally wrong choices, just as embracing unreason or never attempting to explain the physical world leads to factually false theories (and not just ignorance). Certainly you can’t derive an ought from an is, but you can’t derive a factual theory from an is either. That is not what science does. The growth of knowledge does not consist of finding ways to justify one’s beliefs. It consists of finding good explanations . . . Moral philosophy is basically about the problem of what to do next – and, more generally, what sort of life to lead, and what sort of world to want . . . There are objective truths in ethics. One of them is this: Thou shalt not close off the paths for error-correction.”

Progress is unbounded

Deutsch argues that there are two possibilities: either something is forbidden by the laws of physics, or it is possible, given the right knowledge. Therefore, all evils are due to insufficient knowledge. Deutsch calls this ‘The Principle of Optimism’. The following is one of the most important paragraphs in the book:

“Every putative physical transformation, to be performed in a given time with given resources or under any other conditions, is either – impossible because it is forbidden by the laws of nature; or – achievable, given the right knowledge. That momentous dichotomy exists because if there were transformations that technology could never achieve regardless of what knowledge was brought to bear, then this fact would itself be a testable regularity in nature. But all regularities in nature have explanations, so the explanation of that regularity would itself be a law of nature, or a consequence of one. And so, again, everything that is not forbidden by laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge.”

This implies that, contrary to popular belief, humans are highly cosmically significant. Consider the champagne bottle stored in the fridge at the offices of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). The cork will come off that champagne bottle if and only if humans succeed in detecting an alien civilisation. To explain why the cork came off the bottle, you would need to explain facts about which extraterrestrial civilisations are transmitting signals, and how those signals could have been intelligible to humans. In other words: to explain humans, you have to explain the universe first.

“Similar champagne bottles are stored in other laboratories. The popping of each such cork signals a discovery about something significant in the cosmic scheme of things. Thus the study of the behaviour of champagne corks and other proxies for what people do is logically equivalent to the study of everything significant. It follows that humans, people and knowledge are not only objectively significant: they are by far the most significant phenomena in nature – the only ones whose behaviour cannot be understood without understanding everything of fundamental importance . . . Some people become depressed at the scale of the universe, because it makes them feel insignificant. Other people are relieved to feel insignificant, which is even worse. But, in any case, those are mistakes. Feeling insignificant because the universe is large has exactly the same logic as feeling inadequate for not being a cow. Or a herd of cows. The universe is not there to overwhelm us; it is our home, and our resource. The bigger the better.”

You probably know that the effects of gravity drop off as the square of the distance. The same is true of the intensity of light. Indeed, there is only one known phenomenon whose effects do not necessarily drop off with distance: knowledge. A piece of knowledge could travel without any consequence for a thousand light-years, then completely transform the civilisation that it reached. This is another reason for the cosmic significance of humans, and one interpretation of the book’s title. Animals or pre-Enlightenment humans may have had a big impact, but that would necessarily diminish with time and distance. Only knowledge-creation can transform the world limitlessly.

The dichotomy I just discussed seems like a tautology, but Deutsch is making a stronger claim: that no knowledge is off limits to humans. Think of it this way: a chimp will never understand trigonometry. A central claim of this book – perhaps the most central – is that there is nothing to humans what trigonometry is to a chimp. Humans are universal constructors. A bird is an egg’s way of making more eggs. An elephant is elephant sperm’s way of making more elephants. But humans are nature’s way of making anything into anything.

Deutsch introduces this notion of universality by talking about number systems. The ancient Greek number system wasn’t universal, in the sense that there was a bound after which you couldn’t represent larger numbers. Simple tallies, and the Roman numeral system, could express indefinitely large numbers, but as the numbers grew in size, so too did the difficulty in representing them. Hindu-Arabic numerals (the type we use) are so significant because they are not just universal (they can represent any number) but digital. Technically speaking, digitality is the attribute of a system that it ‘corrects to the norm’ from the particularities of the physical substrate in which it is embodied. For instance, if my friend who has a thick accent tells me something, I can subsequently convey the same message without making any of the same noises. I wouldn’t even have to use any of the same words. In this sense, human language is digital. This is relevant because this error-correction is necessary for something to be universal. If you couldn’t correct your mistakes, even slight errors would add up until you couldn’t generate useful explanations at all. Hence, digitality is a pre-condition to the jump to universality. This is the reason, by the way, that all spoken languages build words out of a finite set of elementary sounds. There are no languages that limitlessly generate new sounds to represent new concepts: with errors in transmission and differences in accents, this would quickly become unintelligible. The reason we use the same word for this property as we do for fingers and numbers is that a digital signal can be encoded in digits. Your computer can record an analogue noise, but this is only because it can make a digital representation of it. Now, of course, ‘digital’ is simply used to mean ‘associated with computers’.

To return to an earlier point: are we really so sure that chimps could never understand trigonometry? Given indefinite time, could a chimp ever figure out mathematics? Or a collection of chimps, able to argue and debate with each other? Nobody knows the answer to this, but there is suggestive evidence that the answer is no:

“Such activities [like creating and using tools] may seem to depend on explanation – on understanding how and why each action within the complex behaviour has to fit in with the other actions in order to achieve the overall purpose. But recent discoveries have revealed how apes are able to imitate such behaviours without ever creating any explanatory knowledge. In a remarkable series of observational and theoretical studies, the evolutionary psychologist and animal-behaviour researcher Richard Byrne has shown how they achieve this by a process that he calls behaviour parsing (which is analogous to the grammatical analysis or ‘parsing’ of human speech or computer programs).”

We might make future discoveries that show that chimpanzees really do create explanatory knowledge. But, if this line of research is correct, animals have no explanations. This is the fundamental justification for why Deutsch thinks that knowledge – and therefore progress – is unbounded. There are certain things that a cat can never understand. So why aren’t there other facts that are simply too complicated for humans to understand? Because humans, unlike cats, create explanations, and explaining things is a general procedure. The point is not that any particular human will ever understand a specific concept. We can understand things better; we can never understand things fully.

One corollary of universality, Deutsch says, is that worries about artificial intelligence are misplaced. Deutsch has a chapter on AI, but it is significantly outdated so I decided to cut my commentary on it:

“This [computers getting more efficient] can indeed be expected to continue. For instance, there will be ever-more-efficient human–computer interfaces, no doubt culminating in add-ons for the brain. But tasks like internet searching will never be carried out by super-fast AIs scanning billions of documents creatively for meaning, because they will not want to perform such tasks any more than humans do. Nor will artificial scientists, mathematicians and philosophers ever wield concepts or arguments that humans are inherently incapable of understanding. Universality implies that, in every important sense, humans and AIs will never be other than equal.”

Another consequence of universality is that there is only one form of intelligence: the ability to create explanatory knowledge. I don’t think he ever actually says this in the book; I think I got this from Steven Pinker. People are enamoured with the idea of multiple intelligences, and frequently say things like that intelligence can’t be measured or that IQ isn’t very meaningful. But, perversely, this is about the only psychological trait for which this is not true. Sure, our approximations of this objective intelligence will always be flawed, and we may speak about multiple intelligences for the sake of convenience. But, if Deutsch is right, all intelligence is unified.

Problems are soluble and problems are inevitable

Get two stone tablets. On one of them inscribe: problems are soluble. On the other one inscribe: problems are inevitable. Deutsch views this discovery as the key idea of the Enlightenment, and therefore the source of our civilisational progress:

“That progress is both possible and desirable is perhaps the quintessential idea of the Enlightenment. It motivates all traditions of criticism, as well as the principle of seeking good explanations . . . Perhaps a more practical way of stressing the same truth would be to frame the growth of knowledge (all knowledge, not only scientific) as a continual transition from problems to better problems, rather than from problems to solutions or from theories to better theories.”

Deutsch says that the Continental Enlightenment recognised that problems are soluble but not that problems are inevitable, whereas the British Enlightenment recognised both. These geographical boundaries are approximate, and there were Continental figures (e.g. Condorcet) who were quite British in their thinking, and vice versa. The most important consequence of the Enlightenment is that it created a tradition of criticism – one in which ideas could be tried out and rejected. A lack of a tradition of criticism is the reason why the year 1AD looked much the same as 1000AD. And a tradition of criticism is the reason why 2000AD looked completely different to 1000AD.

The inevitability of problems has two meanings. One is that everything in society is a trade-off, and there is no such thing as a free lunch. And the other is that we cannot ever be perfectly secure in our foundations of knowledge. Even if we appeared to be reaching the limits of fundamental physical laws, the concept of a ‘law’ is not set in stone; it has changed many times in the past and may change again. And in mathematics, we can never be sure that the axioms we have chosen are the correct ones. There is a famous debate over whether mathematics is created or discovered. But the Deutschian philosophy of science puts a spin on this by saying that mathematics is discovered by being created, along with everything else. Deutsch believes in moral and aesthetic truths, but he doesn’t believe in foundational truths. Everything is conjecture.

You may know about Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which says that some mathematical problems are ‘undecidable’. Deutsch doesn’t think that this contradicts his dictum that ‘problems are soluble’ because we can always imagine devising an algorithm that would solve a given undecidable problem if there were no physical constraints (for example, if we could get a person to represent each natural number and have them move infinitely fast). All facts about unprovable statements are therefore actually facts about physics, and fit quite nicely into his dichotomy.   

This book contains many critiques of academic philosophy. Deutsch thinks philosophy took a bad turn in the 20th century, with the rise of ideas like positivism and inductivism. But one of philosophy’s worst attributes is that much of it ignores progress:

“Bad philosophy is philosophy that denies the possibility, desirability or existence of progress. And progress is the only effective way of opposing bad philosophy. If progress cannot continue indefinitely, bad philosophy will inevitably come again into the ascendancy – for it will be true.”

I worry sometimes about how people deny progress so much. Yes, we have just replaced the problems of simple agricultural lives with the problems of advanced civilisation, but those are better problems to have. The problem of obesity is the problem of there being too much delicious food! The problem of teenagers being addicted to their phones is the problem of there being too much compelling entertainment! It’s better to be unequal with some rich people than have nobody be rich at all, as was the case for the vast majority of human history. I’m not downplaying these problems: I want people to solve them! But after we solve them, we’ll be left with more problems; such is the nature of progress.

People have predicted many times before that progress was about to end, or that some ecological catastrophe was imminent. Predictions like this have a spectacularly poor track record. Deutsch divides forecasts into two categories: prophecies are forecasts that do not take into account the growth of knowledge, while predictions do take into account the growth of knowledge – and thus, have some chance of actually being correct. One of the most infamous examples of a prophecy was The Population Bomb, a 1968 book by Paul Ehrlich which predicted that mass famines would occur within a decade. Another is biogeographical accounts of human history, like the one given by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel. The motivation of this book was to come up with an account of why Europe and America became so dominant without resorting to racist stereotypes, but Deutsch still finds the approach distasteful:

“Presumably Diamond can look at ancient Athens, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment – all of them the quintessence of causation through the power of abstract ideas – and see no way of attributing those events to ideas and to people; he just takes it for granted that the only alternative to one reductionist, dehumanizing reinterpretation of events is another.”

Here, we see that two strands of Deutsch’s thesis are actually one and the same – his optimism and his belief in the causal power of abstraction. The parochial answer to why the dinosaurs went extinct is that they were hit by an asteroid. But, at a deeper level, the real answer is that dinosaurs didn’t have a space program.

Abstractions are real

Why is there a particular atom of copper in one specific spot in Parliament Square? One way to answer this question is to track the evolution of the physical system, or perhaps use computer modelling to get successively better approximations of the movement of atoms. But there is a better explanation: the atom of copper is there because it is in a statue of Winston Churchill, and humans like to honour their influential leaders with statues. It’s not just that this is a simplified way of talking about the movement of atoms. It’s that abstractions like ‘statue’ and ‘Winston Churchill’ exert real causal force. Causation goes up, as well as down, the ladder of abstraction:

“The behaviour of high-level physical quantities consists of nothing but the behaviour of their low-level constituents with most of the details ignored. This has given rise to a widespread misconception about emergence and explanation, known as reductionism: the doctrine that science always explains and predicts things reductively, i.e. by analysing them into components. Often it does, as when we use the fact that inter-atomic forces obey the law of conservation of energy to make and explain a high-level prediction that the kettle cannot boil water without a power supply. But reductionism requires the relationship between different levels of explanation always to be like that, and often it is not.”

The view that abstractions are real is called weak emergence, and the idea that they are as real as anything else and exert causal power is called strong emergence. These terms are often used loosely, and Deutsch here is defending a controversial variety of strong emergence.  

Anthropic reasoning is flawed

Anthropic reasoning is reasoning from the fact that we are observers. For example, if we find that some process is required to make stars burn, then we know a priori that this process must have occurred because we exist and are orbiting around a star (indeed, this is exactly what Fred Hoyle did). Anthropic reasoning is often employed to deal with the fine-tuning argument. Deutsch’s first problem with anthropic reasoning is that, if there are an appreciable number of variables (like the speed of light, the masses of the various elementary particles, and so on) that determine the likelihood of astrophysicists arising, it will always look as if our universe is very finely tuned. The argument runs like this: suppose we say that a variable is ‘close to the edge’ when it is within 10% of its possible extreme values on either side. If there were only one variable that determined our universe, 20% of its possible values would be close to the edge. If we observed such a variable as being very close to the edge, we might suspect that something fishy was going on or that our universe was designed. But for two variables, 1 – 0.8^2 = 32% of values will be close to the edge. And in general, for n variables, 1 – 0.8^n of the values will be close to the edge. We do not know what value n is, but as long as it is not very small, the vast majority of possible configurations of variables will be close to the edge. More concretely, if we take ‘edge’ to be the edge of values for which it is possible for life to arise, then the vast majority of universes with life will appear as though they almost didn’t have life. The vast majority of universes with astrophysicists almost didn’t have any astrophysicists! There is a geometric analogy here: think of variables as dimensions and take an arbitrarily small band around the extreme possible values of the variables. The proportion of the volume, or area, close to these extreme values will start very small, but in higher and higher dimensions it will approach 100%! If you had a physical object surrounded by a single layer of atoms, as you increased the number of dimensions, almost the entire volume of the shape would be just the atoms. Here’s a graphic Deutsch shows to explain this:

Failure to understand this point, and other limitations of anthropic reasoning, have led to some confused arguments. For instance, Deutsch dismisses the argument, expounded by philosopher Nick Bostrom, that we are living in a simulation. Briefly, the argument is that future humans will likely produce ‘ancestor simulations’ for commercial and scientific reasons. Pretty quickly after this technology is invented, simulated humans will vastly outnumber real ones. Hence, if you find yourself as a human observer, you are overwhelmingly likely to be simulated. The simulation argument, Deutsch says, can be rejected out of hand because it would create a barrier to knowledge. We might as well say Zeus did it. He’s not rejecting an empirical theory for philosophical reasons, he’s actually saying it’s not even an empirical theory. Theories that propose barriers to knowledge are not even wrong.

One of the difficulties of anthropic reasoning is that it’s very hard to meaningfully define what counts as a proportion of an infinite set. For example, if there are infinitely many parallel universes, it is unclear what it means to say that a certain proportion of them contain astrophysicists. You might intuitively say that there are half as many even numbers as there are natural numbers – but this only appears to be the case because of the arrangement rule that we have chosen to apply to the natural numbers. If we grouped them in a different way, (e.g. 1, 3, 2, 5, 7, 4…) you would conclude that there are one third as many even numbers as there are natural numbers. The branch of mathematics that deals with problems like this is called measure theory. Other dubious applications of anthropic reasoning are the quantum suicide argument, the doomsday argument, and Boltzmann brains. There are a host of other paradoxes that arise when you start thinking about ethics in the multiverse, or indeed in an infinite universe. These are studied in the recently developed field of infinite ethics.

“Almost all logically possible universes that contain astrophysicists are governed by laws of physics that are bad explanations. So should we predict that our universe, too, is inexplicable? Or has some high but unknowable probability to be? Thus, again, anthropic arguments based on ‘all possible laws’ are ruled out for being bad explanations . . . Scientific explanations cannot possibly depend on how we choose to label the entities referred to in the theory. So anthropic reasoning, by itself, cannot make predictions. Which is why I said . . . that it cannot explain the fine-tuning of the constants of physics . . . Fine tuning is an unsolved problem in physics. An unsolved problem is no more evidence for the supernatural than an unsolved crime is evidence that a ghost did it.”

Almost all members of an infinite set can be unrepresentative of that set, and there is no paradox here. If the argument above is correct, then the overwhelming probability is that our explanations about fine-tuning will be bad. Generalising this argument, almost all our explanations about everything will be bad. Does this put us in an epistemological crisis in which we can’t know anything? I don’t exactly understand the argument here, but I think Deutsch is saying that we can dismiss these worries because any explanation that posits the creation of bad explanations is itself a bad explanation. Just try to hypothesise that the universe is fundamentally unknowable. The steps in your reasoning may well appear sound, but, if your argument is actually correct, you have a paradox: if the universe is fundamentally unknowable, how could you know that it was unknowable?

Focus on ejecting bad leaders, not selecting good ones

In reading this part of the book, it would be helpful to have some background knowledge about voting theory – here’ a primer. One of the most important results is the Condorcet paradox: even given a complete, and consistent, list of people’s preferences, you can still get cyclical preferences, e.g. a group that prefers Alice to Bob to Carol to Alice. This means that, mathematically speaking, there is no such thing as the will of the people. Some voting systems are certainly fairer than others, but none are perfectly fair.

In this book, Deutsch defends something that I had never before read someone actually defend: First-Past-the-Post (FPTP) voting, i.e. everyone gets a single vote, and the person with the most votes wins. In brief, he thinks that the point of elections is not to select the “correct” leaders, but to be able to eject bad ones. Elections are not like a distributed version of a hiring process, where we’re trying to find the best person for the job. They’re the mechanism that societies use to put someone in charge without violence. On this criterion, which was a central part of Popper’s political philosophy, proportional representation systems do worse than FPTP. In an FPTP system like that in Britain, a marginal change in the preferences of the population will almost certainly lead to a substantial change in the outcome – for instance, a leftward shift in the population will lead to a leftward shift in the government. On the other hand, the coalition governments that characterise most of continental Europe can simply change which parties are in the coalition, such that a leftward shift in the population might well lead to a rightward shift in the government. Moreover, proportional representation systems, while lauded for their fairness, give hugely disproportionate power to the third-largest party, since they can use their necessity in forming a coalition as a bargaining chip to have their policies passed. Instead of focusing on theoretical notions of fairness, we should favour political systems that embody traditions of peaceful, constructive criticism. While continental European voting systems have more theoretical considerations in their favour, Britain has a virtually unmatched history of political stability. (Keep in mind that this book was written ten years ago. With the hyper-partisanship in the US and the recent trend in British elections, (namely: the Tories win every time) the error-correcting attributes of these systems are not looking so well.)

“Proportional representation is often defended on the grounds that it leads to coalition governments and compromise policies. But compromises – amalgams of the policies of the contributors – have an undeservedly high reputation. Though they are certainly better than immediate violence, they are generally, as I have explained, bad policies. If a policy is no one’s idea of what will work, then why should it work? But that is not the worst of it. The key defect of compromise policies is that when one of them is implemented and fails, no one learns anything because no one ever agreed with it. Thus compromise policies shield the underlying explanations which do at least seem good to some faction from being criticized and abandoned . . . Ideas have consequences, and the ‘who should rule?’ approach to political philosophy is not just a mistake of academic analysis: it has been part of practically every bad political doctrine in history. If the political process is seen as an engine for putting the right rulers in power, then it justifies violence, for until that right system is in place, no ruler is legitimate; and once it is in place, and its designated rulers are ruling, opposition to them is opposition to rightness.”

This view that we should be able to identify specific views with specific individuals and parties is borne out in the way the book is written. There’s not very much hedging language. Maybe Deutsch fully believes everything he says in this book, and maybe sometimes he’s playing devil’s advocate. In any case, he wants us to think: “There’s this view X, which we can identify with David Deutsch. If he’s right, we can praise him and if he’s wrong, we can blame him.” That brings me to why there is a chapter about voting systems in this book. There are two reasons: one, to emphasise the importance of a tradition of criticism, and two, to show that error-correction is not just epistemologically necessary but politically necessary also. It’s error-correction all the way down.

This reasoning about voting systems is related to Zeno’s famous paradox. If there are infinitely many points between the corner of my room and me, how am I ever able to move? Deutsch says that voting theory effectively commits Zeno’s mistake. It mistakes an abstract process of decision-making with the real-life thing of the same name. The map is not the territory:

“A quantity is definitely neither infinite nor infinitesimal if it could, in principle, register on some measuring instrument. However, by that definition a quantity can be finite even if the underlying explanation refers to an infinite set in the mathematical sense. To display the result of a measurement the needle on a meter might move by one centimetre, which is a finite distance, but it consists of an uncountable infinity of points. This can happen because, although points appear in lowest-level explanations of what is happening, the number of points never appears in predictions. Physics deals in distances, not numbers of points. Similarly, Newton and Leibniz were able to use infinitesimal distances to explain physical quantities like instantaneous velocity, yet there is nothing physically infinitesimal or infinite in, say, the continuous motion of a projectile.”

Beauty is objective

Why are flowers beautiful? Is it just a coincidence that they look so pretty to human eyes? You might say this is because we share an evolutionary history with insects. And indeed, sometimes shared evolutionary lineage is the explanation for our aesthetic tastes: the sweetness of honey is an example. Or, you might say that flowers signalled a food-rich environment to our ancestors, but we don’t find leaves beautiful (except by chance) and we certainly don’t find roots beautiful. Other things in nature look beautiful by coincidence, like a peacock’s tail. Yet flowers are reliably beautiful, even though many of them evolved to attract different species in very different environments. There are various general traits that humans tend to find attractive, like symmetry, and yet these are lacking in many types of flowers that we find beautiful. Deutsch’s hypothesis is this: flowers are objectively beautiful. They create a hard-to-forge signal between species that lack shared knowledge. The vast majority of beautiful things are beautiful for parochial reasons, like species or culture, and are hence only subjectively beautiful. But, if Deutsch is right, even aliens would find flowers beautiful. Talk of objective beauty might sound strange, but you probably already think beauty is objective to a certain extent. Whether Mozart or Beethoven is better might strike you as completely subjective, but clearly, there is some objective sense in which we can say that Mozart is better than my three-year-old cousin randomly banging keys on a piano.

The first time I read this book, I thought this was a tangent. But it really isn’t. This is relevant to the broader thesis because signalling between humans is much like signalling across species. Every person is a species unto themselves:

“Signalling across the gap between two humans is analogous to signalling across the gap between two entire species. A human being, in terms of knowledge content and creative individuality, is like a species . . . And therefore my guess is that the easiest way to signal across such a gap with hard-to-forge patterns designed to be recognized by hard-to-emulate pattern-matching algorithms is to use objective standards of beauty. So flowers have to create objective beauty, and insects have to recognize objective beauty. Consequently the only species that are attracted by flowers are the insect species that co-evolved to do so – and humans.”

This is a very optimistic account of beauty. If beauty is objective, then the creation of artistic beauty is unbounded in the way other forms of knowledge-creation are. That would mean that there is literally no limit on how much we can refine human aesthetic experiences. Also, explanations about beauty would be unpredictable. If you knew what new law of physics was going to be discovered tomorrow, it would have been discovered today. Similarly, art can’t be predicted, despite the fact that it is determined by the laws of physics:

“New art is unpredictable, like new scientific discoveries. Is that the unpredictability of randomness, or the deeper unknowability of knowledge-creation? In other words, is art truly creative, like science and mathematics? That question is usually asked the other way round, because the idea of creativity is still rather confused by various misconceptions. Empiricism miscasts science as an automatic, non-creative process. And art, though acknowledged as ‘creative’, has often been seen as the antithesis of science, and hence irrational, random, inexplicable – and hence unjudgeable, and non-objective. But if beauty is objective, then a new work of art, like a newly discovered law of nature or mathematical theorem, adds something irreducibly new to the world.”

Determinism says that the universe is completely determined by the laws of physics and could not have occurred otherwise (excluding truly random effects like those seen in quantum mechanics). Compatibilists argue that this is compatible with the notion of free will. Deutsch appears to be proposing a kind of meta-compatibilism, wherein the ability of persons to create knowledge means that, in a sense, explanations have free will too. The question isn’t whether science is creative in the way art is. The question is whether art is creative in the way science is:

“One amusing corollary of this theory is, I think, that it is quite possible that human appearance, as influenced by human sexual selection, satisfies standards of objective beauty as well as species-specific ones. We may not be very far along that path yet, because we diverged from apes only a few hundred thousand years ago, so our appearance isn’t yet all that different from that of apes. But I guess that when beauty is better understood it will turn out that most of the differences have been in the direction of making humans objectively more beautiful than apes.”

Imitation is a creative act

A ‘meme’ is a term coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins, by analogy with gene, which refers to units of cultural transmission, like a tune or the idea of bagels. Memes, and imitation, have a philosophical complexity to them. A student might acquire a meme at a lecture without being able to repeat a single sentence spoken by the lecturer. There’s no such thing as “just imitating the behaviour”. Human memes transmit themselves not by being observed, but by being internally generated within each person. Hence, every act of imitation is an act of creativity.

What sort of a thing is a meme? Consider a tune, the prototypical example of a meme. You might say that a tune is a sequence of noises at certain frequencies, but that’s not right – it’s still the same tune if you play it on a different instrument or in a different key. Is it the pattern in the brains of the people who know the tune? This also seems problematic – the same tune will be encoded completely differently in different people’s brains, and it’s not like the brain has easily identifiable discrete pieces of information. Rather, a meme is an abstraction (recall, abstractions are real) that is the superset of all of these things.

The idea that memes are simply there to be replicated is the same fallacy at work in empiricism, where people think that there is simply knowledge in the senses that is there to be ‘derived’. There is a problem here, and it is why creativity ever arose to begin with. Why be creative when you live in a society with no innovation? Why speak a language when no one else can understand you? Deutsch says that the problem of the replication of memes and the evolution of creativity are two sides of the same coin:

“I have presented two puzzles. The first is why human creativity was evolutionarily advantageous at a time when there was almost no innovation. The second is how human memes can possibly be replicated, given that they have content that the recipient never observes. I think that both those puzzles have the same solution: what replicates human memes is creativity; and creativity was used, while it was evolving, to replicate memes. In other words, it was used to acquire existing knowledge, not to create new knowledge. But the mechanism to do both things is identical, and so in acquiring the ability to do the former, we automatically became able to do the latter.”

Next, Deutsch introduces the dichotomy between ‘rational memes’ and ‘anti-rational memes’. Rational memes are those that rely on the critical faculties of their host to survive. Anti-rational memes are those that rely on selectively disabling the critical faculties of their host. A tradition of criticism has many rational memes. In a tradition of criticism, it is hard for anti-rational memes to survive, except within subcultures that suppress criticism: “Bigotry exists not because it benefits the bigots, but despite the harm they do to themselves.” Creativity and rational memes tie in with a topic from earlier: universality. When there is a jump to universality, the system often looks the same from the outside:

“From the perspective of hypothetical extraterrestrials observing our ancestors, a community of advanced apes with memes before the evolution of creativity began would have looked superficially similar to their descendants after the jump to universality. The latter would merely have had many more memes. But the mechanism keeping those memes replicating faithfully would have changed profoundly. The animals of the earlier community would have been relying on their lack of creativity to replicate their memes; the people, despite living in a static society, would be relying entirely on their creativity.”

Let me introduce a taxonomy courtesy of Daniel Dennett. At first, evolution created Darwinian creatures – ones who had a certain behaviour they pursued through their whole lives; for example, single-celled organisms programmed to do nothing other than divide. Then, we got Skinnerian creatures – ones who could be conditioned to react to different stimuli with different strategies. Next, Popperian creatures evolved, which could internally test strategies before trying them out in the real world. As Popper put it, “We can let our theories die in our place.” The final stage is one that perhaps only humans have achieved: Gregorian creatures. These form a collective intelligence in which ideas can be tested by many individuals and implemented by any of them – in other words, a culture. Notice how these aren’t just alternate niches that creatures can fill to survive. They’re genuine advancements in evolution. Darwinian creatures, by definition, are no better than chance at surviving. Skinnerian creatures at least have their odds improved by experience. But humans can direct their evolution in a deliberate purposeful direction, through culture. Evolution itself evolves.

I mentioned earlier that anti-rational memes do not disable the critical faculties of their host in general, but rather disable certain parts:

“The overarching selection pressure on memes is towards being faithfully replicated. But, within that, there is also pressure to do as little damage to the holder’s mind as possible, because that mind is what the human uses to be long-lived enough to be able to enact the meme’s behaviours as much as possible. This pushes memes in the direction of causing a finely tuned compulsion in the holder’s mind: ideally, this would be just the inability to refrain from enacting that particular meme (or memeplex). Thus, for example, long-lived religions typically cause fear of specific supernatural entities, but they do not cause general fearfulness or gullibility, because that would both harm the holders in general and make them more susceptible to rival memes.”

Another dichotomy that Deutsch introduces is between dynamic societies and static societies. Dynamic societies progress by reinventing themselves and encouraging the criticism of rational memes. Static societies continue by suppressing criticism and innovation. The vast majority of societies throughout history have been static. With the exception of the current explosion of dynamism originating in the Enlightenment, there were really only a few examples of dynamic societies, including Athens. Athens could have been a beginning of infinity, but for one reason or another, its dynamism was stamped out.

Sustainability is overrated

There is a common idea, sometimes called Spaceship Earth, which says that the Earth is uniquely habitable to humans, and that it is fragile and must be sustained by us. But, when you think about it, Earth is barely habitable to humans. Without clothing and other technologies, humans would freeze to death in the winter in most places on Earth. As for the sustainability point, one of the confusions in this discussion is that the word ‘sustain’ has two meanings which are often in tension with one another. To sustain something means to keep it alive or flourishing. It also means to keep something the same, which sometimes means the exact opposite. Most of the things that have improved human life, like curing diseases, have been unsustainable. Keeping things the same would be tyranny, because of all of the suffering caused by soluble problems.

In the pessimistic conception, the distinctive ability of people to solve problems is a disease for which sustainability is the cure. In the optimistic conception, sustainability is the disease and people are the cure. ‘Sustainability’ has evolved into a meaningless catch-all term which sometimes just refers to ‘avoiding terrible outcomes’. Sustainability, in the sense of wanting to keep things the same, is frequently motivated by an obsession with naturalness. Many people have a view that natural things are intrinsically good, and unnatural things intrinsically bad. When considering climate change, this obsession with naturalness and with maintaining the status quo becomes especially absurd:

“Unfortunately, this has led to the political debate being dominated by the side issue of how ‘anthropogenic’ (human-caused) the increase in temperature to date has been. It is as if people were arguing about how best to prepare for the next hurricane while all agreeing that the only hurricanes one should prepare for are human-induced ones.”

Sustaining something requires that one actively resist change. Very often, this means rampant violence and oppression:

“Static societies do tend to settle issues by violence, and they do tend to sacrifice the welfare of individuals for the ‘good’ of (that is to say, for the prevention of changes in) society. I mentioned that people who rely on such analogies end up either advocating a static society or condoning violence and oppression. We now see that those two responses are essentially the same: oppression is what it takes to keep a society static; oppression of a given kind will not last long unless the society is static.”

This is relevant to the interminable debates over whether life is actually better in primitive societies (I don’t mean this word as a pejorative; ‘primitive’ literally means ‘resembling an earlier time’). One of the key arguments used to argue in favour of primitive societies is that people who live in them have very free lives: they don’t have to work in a MegaCorp to pay the rent, and it doesn’t take them very long to hunt and gather so they can spend the rest of their time telling stories and making art. But actually, this argument about the staticity of societies indicates that traditional lifestyles are incredibly unfree, often in ways that are opaque to outsiders. If these societies were not actively suppressing the growth of knowledge, they wouldn’t have stayed the same for so long, and constraining people’s ability to think and invent necessarily involves heavy-handed interference with their lives.

“Since the sustained, exponential growth of knowledge has unmistakable effects, we can deduce without historical research that every society on Earth before the current Western civilization has either been static or has been destroyed within a few generations. The golden ages of Athens and Florence are examples of the latter, but there may have been many others.”

My view is that this book would have been very controversial if anyone actually understood it:

“Nations beyond the West today are also changing rapidly, sometimes through the exigencies of warfare with their neighbours, but more often and even more powerfully by the peaceful transmission of Western memes. Their cultures, too, cannot become static again. They must either become ‘Western’ in their mode of operation or lose all their knowledge and thus cease to exist – a dilemma which is becoming increasingly significant in world politics . . . Western civilization is in an unstable transitional period between stable, static societies consisting of anti-rational memes and a stable dynamic society consisting of rational memes. Contrary to conventional wisdom, primitive societies are unimaginably unpleasant to live in.”

 We will always be at the beginning of infinity

“It might be well for all of us to remember that, while differing a lot in the little bits we do know, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal.”

As discussed in the section on anthropic bias, our intuitions break down at infinity. One of the most common thought experiments used to explain infinity is Hilbert’s Hotel. This is a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which are always full. Despite this, Hilbert’s Hotel is always able to make room for more guests, by announcing over the loudspeaker that every guest in room n should move to room 2n. For our present purposes, what’s relevant is that every guest in Hilbert’s Hotel is unusually close to the beginning. Pick any guest, and they will have a finite number of people staying in rooms with numbers smaller than theirs, but an infinite number in rooms larger than theirs. Similarly, any person living during a period of unbounded knowledge-creation will be unusually close to the beginning. This is yet another interpretation of the book’s title:

“Meme evolution [is] enormously faster than gene evolution, which partly explains how memes can contain so much knowledge. Hence the frequently cited metaphor of the history of life on Earth, in which human civilization occupies only the final ‘second’ of the ‘day’ during which life has so far existed, is misleading. In reality, a substantial proportion of all evolution on our planet to date has occurred in human brains. And it has barely begun. The whole of biological evolution was but a preface to the main story of evolution, the evolution of memes.”

Gene evolution was simply a precursor to meme evolution. If we do not mess things up, the first few billion years of life will be but a footnote to the next few hundred years of humans. We will always be scratching the surface, never anything else:  

“Many people have an aversion to infinity of various kinds. But there are some things that we do not have a choice about. There is only one way of thinking that is capable of making progress, or of surviving in the long run, and that is the way of seeking good explanations through creativity and criticism. What lies ahead of us is in any case infinity. All we can choose is whether it is an infinity of ignorance or of knowledge, wrong or right, death or life.”

Thanks to Gytis Daujotas and Sydney Marcy for reviewing drafts of this post.

Update 10/8/21: Thanks to Brett Hall for pointing out that I misunderstood important points in the ‘Imitation is a creative act’ section. I was saying that imitation is an ambiguous term, and therefore that creativity is required to imitate. But Deutsch is actually saying, I think, that while imitation is possible without creativity, it is not the basis of human meme-replication: “The truth is that imitating people’s actions and remembering their utterances could not possibly be the basis of human meme replication. In reality these play only a small – and for the most part inessential – role.” The actual basis of human meme-replication is creativity. Hence what I wrote is misleading and you should mentally replace most instances of the word ‘imitation’ with ‘human meme-replication’.

A List of Projects and Microgrants You Should Apply For

If you are looking for an idea rather than something to apply for, you may want to check out my ideas page.

In secondary school, I did a lot of extracurriculars and projects. I generally found them to be significantly more beneficial than my actual education. They tend to fall into three categories: a) paid programs dominated by Americans that people do to look impressive, b) foundations or companies with too much money sponsoring something bizarrely specific, (“The best Benjamin Franklin essay wins £500!”) and c) things that are actually good. I’ve been circulating this doc within my friend group for a while now, so I decided to update it and post it publicly. If there’s something particularly great that I missed, please contact me.

Projects and programs

  • The Undergraduate Awards accept any college submissions (essays, dissertations, etc.) that got the highest possible grade. Best entries get published, winners get invited to a conference and receive various alumni benefits. There’s also an Ireland specific category.
  • Pioneer is an online global tournament for projects and startups. Benefits include funding, mentorship and a network.
  • Various think tanks run summer courses for international undergraduates. For example, there are ones by the American Enterprise Institute and George Mason University. Your mileage may vary putting something political down on your CV.
  • The Wolfram Summer School runs around June in the US. There are no age restrictions and they say they’ve had a few high-schoolers but that most are recent college graduates.
  • The Summer Programme for Applied Rationality and Cognition (SPARC) runs out of California State University every year and accepts 30 people, with the only exception being that you can’t have finished your first year of university while applying. Topics include decision theory, causal modelling and cognitive biases. Housing and food are provided. The European version is called ESPR.
  • Cern OpenLab is a summer program for any undergrads in maths, physics, computer science, or closely related subjects. Also, CERN runs a competition for secondary school students to design particle physics experiments.
  • If you like the mathematics of voting systems as much as I do, the Metric Geometry and Gerrymandering Group at Tufts runs programs in the summer for maths university students.
  • Interact is a fellowship/community of technologists. Accepts ~50 new people aged 18-23 globally each year and they have retreats in California. Members are founders, researchers, investors, scientists and more. I think the idea is that you get together and have interesting conversations and potentially launch companies or other projects.
  • INSPYRE is a week-long course for secondary school students to go to Italy and learn about particle physics. It’s in English, but I would recommend befriending an Italian-speaker as quickly as possible as no-one in the surrounding town seemed to speak English. My friend and I took a week off school to do this and it was one of the most fun weeks I had in any year in school.


  • Patch is a summer accelerator in Dublin. I did it in its first year and some of the people I met from it are now my closest friends. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
  • The Washington-Ireland Programme is a leadership summit for Irish college students to spend 8 weeks in the US. It’s highly subsidised and scholarships are available but they still look for a student contribution. Might be decent.
  • Team Maths is a very fun maths contest.
  • As you probably know if you’re Irish, CTYI is the foremost academic summer program. The best one I did by far was the Early University Entrance program in maths.


  • Emergent Ventures funds any project with a general mission to “meaningfully improve society”, including businesses, research projects, and travel. The only criterion is that the guy who runs it, Tyler Cowen, thinks it’s cool. This blog is funded by Emergent Ventures!
  • Y Combinator If you are reading this blog you almost certainly know what this is, but putting this here just in case.
  • Innocentive is a website where, if you have some business or research problem that you want to outsource, you can post it along with some incentive for completion to the internet. Conversely you can make money helping people with their projects.
  • The Thiel Fellowship will pay you $100,000 to drop out of/delay university to work on a project/business. Well-known for being insanely competitive.
  • The 1517 fund is a similar idea.
  • Z Fellows is a one-week program to fast-track you into Silicon Valley with $10,000 initial funding. Seems like it would be useful if you want to start something but you’re not sure whether you want to drop out or quit your job.
  • Other lists of microgrants: here and here.

My Five Favourite Episodes of ‘Conversations with Tyler’

Inspired by: Fergus McCullough.

Podcast feed: Website, Apple podcasts, Spotify, RSS

Conversations with Tyler is one of my favourite podcasts. In it, the economist Tyler Cowen asks detailed (and often rapid-fire) questions of guests, which often include authors, philosophers, scientists and economists.

Conversations with Tyler is very information dense, and has a lot of replay value compared to most podcasts. It can also be difficult to get into, because Tyler does extremely deep research and you won’t understand every detail on the first listening. Some of the best episodes are with guests who have been interviewed many times: the questions asked are very different from what you get on other podcasts.

Despite our many shared interests, my girlfriend has never listened to Conversations with Tyler, and so this is really one extended exercise in trying to get her to listen to it. Some people may say that writing a whole blog post just to get someone to listen to a podcast is excessive, but those people would be wrong.

5. Emily Wilson


This conversation is with Emily Wilson, a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English. What I love about podcasts like this one is how object-level they are: there are no shortage of podcasts about how people are reacting to X, or how outrageous X is, or how X fits in with some social trend or celebrity drama, but it’s remarkable how little anyone actually talks about X! This really is a conversation about translation and the Greek myths. Wilson and Cowen discuss the history of translations of The Odyssey: why did Thomas Hobbes translate it? How did that fit in with his general political philosophy? They also discuss the Homeric question, aka who Homer was, if he/she/they even were a single person. Odysseus returns home halfway through the poem – is the rest of it just Homer showing off? Can something from 2,500 years ago still be funny today? Lots to digest in this conversation.

4. Nathan Nunn & Melissa Dell

Link for Nunn and Dell

I’m giving this joint spot to the episodes with Nathan Nunn and Melissa Dell, because of their similar subject matter. These episodes were a large part of my inspiration in writing my post about the persistence literature. Nunn and Dell are both economists at Harvard, who have both hugely contributed to the research on cultural persistence – effects that persist for hundreds of years, e.g. countries in Africa that had more slaves taken from them are more mistrustful today. Most of this research is very narrow and esoteric, but Cowen asks a lot of big picture questions, about things like why exactly it is that places far away from the equator are so much richer (in the Dell conversation). He also discusses with Nunn the differences between US and Canadian academia, and the clustering of the academy into a few elite institutions. Other topics include: why there aren’t more well-known Canadian companies, the effects of the Vietnam war, why Ethiopia has seen successes in nation-building, how Cape Verdean democracy works, how plough-based agriculture lowers female labour-force participation, why there’s so much grain storage in Enid, Oklahoma, and more.

3. Karl Ove Knausgård


Karl Ove Knausgård is the Norwegian author of My Struggle, a six-volume novelised memoir which made a significant splash in the literary world. The books are brutally honest and either use his family members’ real names or gives so much detail that their identities are easy to figure out, which was one of the reasons for the press surrounding the book (the books sold 500,000 copies just in Norway, a country of 5 million people). I’m currently reading vol. 2, and the first volume was one of the best books I’ve ever read. Once I finish the second volume of the series (entitled A Man in Love) I’ll probably post something about it on this blog. If you have any interest in reading these books, I highly recommend this episode.

At the start of this podcast, Cowen draws parallels between Knausgård and Edvard Munch, the Norwegian painter whom Knausgård wrote a book about (So Much Longing in So Little Space). There is an obvious comparison in being leading artistic figures in Norway, but Munch and Knausgård are also very confessional in their orientation. They also share a craving to get at that which is artistically interesting – Knausgård is no perfectionist and simply moves on if something does not work. This is mirrored in Munch, who (along with his masterpieces) has a trove of abandoned works that aren’t even good. Other topics include: the influence of Proust, Norwegian artistic and intellectual culture, Norway’s co-operation with the Nazis, the intellectual depth of the Cain and Abel story, and the philosophy of literary freedom.

Another thing that is so fascinating about Knausgård is his sheer productivity. He wrote a 3,000 (!) page memoir in only two years while taking care of three kids. He said that he didn’t edit the books much, and yet the prose is still beautiful. Tyler usually calls this his guests’ ‘production function’, and Knausgård has a particularly impressive one.

2. Kwame Anthony Appiah


Kwame Anthony Appiah is a fascinating man. He’s a philosopher at NYU, he basically invented the field of African studies, his grandfather was Chancellor of the Exchequer, his great-grandfather was leader of the House of Lords, and his great-uncle and uncle were both King of Ghana!

The topics in this discussion include: religion and culture in Ghana, why West Africa isn’t secularising, why former British colonies are more successful than French ones, what you can learn by owning a sheep farm in New Jersey, whether Nigeria or Ghana has better jollof rice, what it’s like to be related to royalty, and what it’s like to chair the Man Booker Prize. This is one of the most compelling discussions about Africa that I’ve heard and Appiah has a marvellous voice.

P.S. Appiah is also the ethicist for The New York Times, and in this episode he discusses what that’s like and – obliquely – touches upon the role of public philosophy in general.

1. David Deutsch


David Deutsch is a physicist at Oxford, a pioneer of quantum computing, and author of the book The Beginning of Infinity. This podcast really made parts of The Beginning of Infinity click for me. The book is about, among other things, universality: the claim that there are no limits on what humans can understand. A dog will never understand trigonometry. So why is Deutsch sure I could one day understand the theory of everything? Well, he’s not. The point is not that specific individuals will ever fully understand anything, but just that there’s no limit to what we can understand. A key quote: “We can understand things better; We can never understand things fully”.

Tyler views Deutsch as being the ultimate philosopher of freedom; despite being a physicist, Deutsch also writes and talks about epistemology, aesthetics and political philosophy, all with the general theme of progress being unbounded. In this conversation, Deutsch points out that libertarians (usually thought to be the people embracing freedom to the maximum extent) have a revolutionary idea, and even if they want to implement it gradually over 100 years, they still know where they want to get to. By and large, they aren’t realising that knowing how to error correct is more important than where you want to go in the first place. This error-correction is the flip side of universality, because if you can’t adequately correct errors, they will compound until your conjectures and no better than chance. I have a (very long) upcoming post about the philosophy of David Deutsch, and this conversation was one of the best sources I drew from.

Bonus: Rob Wiblin interviews Tyler


As a bonus, Rob Wiblin (host of the excellent 80,000 Hours podcast) interviewed Tyler for the Conversations with Tyler feed. They talk about Tyler’s book Stubborn Attachments, which argues for long-term sustainable economic growth as a moral imperative. Rob Wiblin and Tyler Cowen are two of my favourite interviewers, and they represent two very different styles. Wiblin’s style is a bit more discursive, and he has very long conversations in which he gives many objections to his guest’s view and allows them to fully develop an argument. Tyler jumps around a lot more and doesn’t often bring attention to his disagreements with the guest (this podcast follows more of the Wiblin approach). Topics include: the importance of mitigating existential risk, the ethics of eating meat, the trade-off between redistribution and long-run growth, the argument for low discount rates, what Derek Parfit got most wrong and right, the difficulty of defining culture, why we should start a social norm of not drinking alcohol, pluralist conceptions of ethics, the underrated threat of air pollution, the health of the economics discipline, and much more.

Cowen also talks about his (new at the time) Emergent Ventures. This blog is currently funded by Emergent Ventures, so please check out his thinking and justification behind it!

Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.

Notes on Persistence and Economic Development

How much of economic development is determined by long-run historical forces, and how much of it by contingent leaders, thinkers, and events? I originally took these notes for an entry to an economics contest. They’re not rigorous in any way, but I thought it might be of interest to readers. I posted a lightly edited version of this post on the EA Forum.

Persistence and institutions

  • There are several results mentioned in this post where I have read common conclusions by authors who posit different explanatory mechanisms. Extracting causal relationships is really hard, and as usual, you shouldn’t trust studies whose statistical methods are too complex.
  • One attempt to measure the effect of long-run history found that 78% of the variance of wealth today is explained by a country’s technological sophistication in 1500AD. The regions that were rich in 1000BC even have predictive power for the regions that are rich today, insofar as that can be measured. So, countries that are on a historical path of prosperity tend to stay prosperous, and countries that are on a historical path of poverty tend to stay poor. It is not so much a country’s historical path that is of greatest significance, but its population’s historical path. People descended from those who lived in more advanced civilisations have better economic outcomes today, even if they have migrated. The differential success of various people groups is (presumably) because they bring with them their political institutions, technologies, capital, and culture. High-quality institutions are key to economic development – two examples being the diverging fates of the two Koreas, and the differing fates of African countries after being carved up by colonialism.
  • The importance of historical paths in economic development appears to imply that some cultural values persist for hundreds or thousands of years. However, the fact that much of current prosperity is explained by a history of prosperity is only a proximate, and not an ultimate, explanation. A people group with a history of strong social institutions had those institutions for a reason. What determines which countries have a strong history of state formation to begin with?
  • A major problem with this ancestral account is that it fails on the three most prominent examples. Ancestry would anticipate that India and China would do extremely well, and that America’s development would be so-so. In general, a lot of this research is very dependent on outliers: some of the Africa results disappear, for example, when you take out Nigeria or one or two other countries.
  • Another famous result is that groups that historically adopted plough-based agriculture have less egalitarian gender norms and lower female labour-force participation today. This is because the plough relied on upper-body strength to a greater extent than other methods of farming, creating a larger division between the role of men and women. These attitudes persist even if you look at children of immigrants, raised in Europe and the United States.

Growth and inequality

  • Long-run history is very significant in determining the modern wealth of nations, but what about other economic factors like their growth and inequality? Interestingly, the growth rate of GDP is relatively insensitive to long-run history. The norm since the industrial revolution has been a 1-1.5% growth rate excluding the effects of a growing population (more from Nintil). Deviations from this norm are explained by temporary bubbles, countries recovering from wars and unproductive economic systems like communism, and countries like those in East Asia achieving catch-up growth by adopting Western technologies. One or more of these conditions was true of most countries in the 20th century, but they were all anomalous in some way. 1-1.5% real per capita growth has been the norm at the technological frontier. So, here we will not expect to see the persistent historical effects as strongly, except insofar as they make a country more likely to go to war or have advanced technology.
Does reality drive straight lines on graphs, or do straight lines on graphs drive reality? Source
  • What about inequality? One relevant fact documented in the literature is that the ancestral heterogeneity of a country’s population is strongly correlated with income inequality today. However, income inequality is largely a political issue, being shaped by short-term economic policies, which is difficult to explain with a long-term historical path.
  • In looking at inequality, esoteric points about the calculation of inflation are actually surprisingly important. This may or may not be the cause of the wage decoupling phenomenon: technology means that the efficiency of businesses grows faster than the productivity of its employees, the CPI measures price changes in consumption, and so the inflation calculation potentially masks solid middle-class gains. According to some economists, if you measure income inequality including taxes and transfers, it has not even been rising in the US since the 1970s! Russ Roberts would also point out that some studies measure household income and others measure individual income, and so changes in family structure (e.g. increase in divorce) look like decreases in wealth.
  • This broad question of “Why are some countries rich and others poor?” is the nominal subject of Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. But there was a lot less to explain in his day: the richest countries were only 4-5x richer than the poorest ones, while today the richest countries are 100x richer than the poorest ones.


  • Economic outcomes are positively associated with being coastal, far away from the equator, and being an island. The tropics predict worse outcomes, among other things, because of the prevalence of diseases like malaria, and because worker productivity is lower when the weather is very hot. Guns, Germs and Steel also famously argued for the importance of the distribution of domesticable species (Eurasia has many, Africa has almost none), and the orientation of the continents (Eurasians could spread inventions and cultures east-west to similar climatic zones, while Africans and the indigenous Americans couldn’t).
  • One of the reasons Africans disproportionately settled in geographically unfavourable conditions is slavery: people moved to areas where it was difficult for them to be captured. Nathan Nunn has a paper in which he shows that countries were benefitted by their rugged geography insofar as it allowed their citizens to escape capture.
  • This persistence research has been taken as an argument for scepticism about immigration, for instance by Garrett Jones. But there is another way of looking at the research which makes a pro-immigration case: namely that there are significant benefits from just moving people around. Caplan does the naive calculations of the gains from doing this.


  • Colonialism left lasting economic effects, yet the mere status of having been colonised does not explain very much of modern economic outcomes. Former European colonies vary from low-income (Zimbabwe) to middle-income (Brazil) to high-income (New Zealand). So, what in history explains these differences? One factor is slavery. Colonies which had more slaves taken from them now perform worse economically and have higher levels of mistrust, and the relationship appears to be causal. A famous result is that former colonies saw a “reversal of fortune” – the richer a country colonised by Europe was in 1500, the more likely it is to be poorer now, and vice versa. The proposed reason for this, as I understand it, is that Europeans were more likely to introduce institutions which encouraged investment in poorer regions, and to simply extract labour and resources from the richer ones. An optimistic view is that extractive institutions are there because of mistakes, or bad judgement, but in fact it is probably rational for elites to set up such institutions to enrich themselves at the cost of long-run growth. For instance, North American colonists (e.g. the Virginia Company) tried to set up extractive institutions, but failed, while their South American counterparts were more successful. North American colonists struggled to enslave local people through a combination of low population density, lack of political centralisation, and lots of wide open spaces from which they could be ambushed. My understanding is that they then settled for a system based on individual rights (for those other than the imported slaves, of course).
  • This paper argues that the “reversal of fortunes” result is true for countries but not for ethnicities: being a successful people group in 1500 predicts success today. There are also other ways in which the result is fragile.
  • Melissa Dell has a paper in which she shows that areas in Vietnam with stronger government before colonialism are richer today. North Vietnam appears to be poorer for this reason, despite the benefit of having more ethnic Chinese (the proportion of ethnic Chinese predicts prosperity in southeast Asia relatively well). In the aforementioned regions where local government is historically stronger, you see higher social capital, people default less often on loans, etc.
  • Another key feature in colonies’ historical paths was settler mortality. Europeans who arrived in hot climates with diseases to which they did not have immunity spent minimum time there and established extractive institutions – i.e. those aimed at conferring the profits of resources and labour to a small elite. Where mortality was similar to the levels in Europe, settlers established better quality, more inclusive, institutions. This factor alone has been calculated to explain 25% of the variance in the quality of current institutions. This is a partial explanation as to why temperature and proximity to the equator remain so important in a world with air conditioning: in places that were hot and perilous, colonists set up extractive institutions that remain to this day.


  • This research still leaves room for single individuals, and indeed chance, to play a big part in economic development. Mao and Hitler are two obvious examples of individuals who have shaped economic history in a way that cannot be explained by broad societal trends. We cannot run history over to see how things could have gone differently. Moreover, the last two centuries have seen the floor of poverty rise dramatically, and so even if relative poverty were historically predetermined, good economic policy would still stand to cause huge improvements in the standard of living.
  • Some articles I recommend on this topic: Ben Kuhn’s post on the longtermism view of global poverty, and Bryan Caplan’s reading club. See also the Conversations with Tyler with Nathan Nunn and Melissa Dell. The famous book on this topic is Why Nations Fail, and its authors (Acemoglu and Robinson) are giants in the field who I linked to several times in this post.

Thanks to Leopold Aschenbrenner, Cian Mullarkey and Gytis for comments on drafts of this post.

Notes on the Ken Burns Jazz Series

I recently watched Ken Burns’ 12-part documentary series about the history of jazz. Burns is known for producing epic documentary series like this, including one on the Vietnam War. Here are the notes I took from it, for those of you interested:

  1. This series talks a lot about how jazz could only have happened in America, and frankly leans into the American angle to an excessive degree. The relevant factors it points out are: a large ethnic minority, a cultural history of appreciating freedom, and a general penchant for improvisation and error-correction, embodied in things like the constitution.
  2. Ted Giola writes about the ‘Pythagorean paradigm’ that dominated Western music for centuries. This is the view that “holds that notes should always be played in tune, without bends or deviations of pitch.” The benefit of this is that music can be notated and passed on with high reliability – in the language of James Scott, it can be made legible. The angle this series takes is that jazz was indelibly influenced by African music, because Africa never shared this obsession with systematisation and notation.
  3. This series very much ties in with my interest in cities, urban design and agglomeration effects. The important developments in jazz were remarkably concentrated in Chicago and New York (and, briefly, Kansas City). The heart of jazz in the war years was 52nd street in New York. Jazz was being heard by tens of millions of people, and yet its artistic development was occurring largely on the one street! There were a few different traditions in jazz, including the bebop-y Kansas City tradition and the West Coast tradition, which was mostly white and exemplified by Dave Brubeck. It’s very interesting to me how these artistic and intellectual trends can be so geographically clustered – e.g. West Coast vs. East Coast hip hop, the Chicago school in economics, Continental vs. Anglo-American philosophy, etc. How accurate are these labels? Is the main effect in talented people moving to places where they fit in intellectually, or that people in different locations get influenced differently?
  4. It appears that musical ability does not remotely fit in a Gaussian distribution. This is most evident in the mid-to-late 20s jazz scene, in which you have Louis Armstrong and you have everyone else, and no-one else is even close. In other words, why is there only one Elon Musk? If talent were a normal distribution, you would expect there to be many people who are 90% as accomplished as Elon Musk, but very few, or none, of these people exist. Is this an extreme version of the Matthew effect?
  5. People love a good rivalry, and there are a few of these scattered throughout the history of jazz. During segregation, this “rivalry” was between the dominant white band and the dominant black band. In the late 20s, Fletcher Henderson led the foremost black big band and Paul Whiteman led the foremost white one.
  6. This series should have been shorter. The major figures get introduced multiple times, in large part owing to the fact that most viewers won’t have seen all previous parts, and so they have to catch you up. They could have cut four of the episode without much loss, particularly when covering the early development of jazz in New Orleans.
  7. I’m interested in whether people’s musical attention spans have shortened. Generally, jazz is an interesting case study in the story of whether media in general has gotten more complex. Charlie Chaplain films can be followed by a kid; Friends is simple and easy to follow; Game of Thrones is sprawling and extremely complicated. Similarly, jazz during the ‘jazz age’ was actually pretty simple and consisted often in 3-minute dance tunes. My guess is that the selection effects within genres or media are toward complexity, but the selections effects between genres are away from complexity. Hence why you get a progression from books to TV to TikTok, but a growth in the sophistication of radio, TV, and music over time.
  8. The series briefly alludes to the possibility that jazz should be referred to as a form of classical music. Indeed, the jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan referred to jazz as ‘black classical’. The meaning of classical music seems to be unclear in much the same way the meaning of the word ‘literature’ is, which so far as I can tell, is often used to mean fiction that’s actually good.
  9. I can see why someone would think that the series is dismissive of more popular forms of jazz – for instance, Glenn Miller is brushed over remarkably quickly. There is a certain attitude that if people actually listen to the music you make, you must be doing something wrong.
  10. The episode featuring Coleman Hawkins was the most interesting to me. He really transformed the use of the saxophone. Before him, tenor sax in particular was considered kind of a joke instrument because of its association with vaudeville. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins were another great jazz rivalry. They had an opposite sound: Young was airy and hollow-sounding, while Hawkins’ playing was heavier.
  11. The series relies extensively on interviews with Wynton Marsalis, Gary Giddins, Gerald Early and others. They are subject to the usual hyperbole present in the “guy interviewed for a documentary” genre. I find that people who love a certain topic are apt to overstate the influence of the most influential figures. I see this a lot in philosophy, where people will talk about about how 20 or 30 philosophers from a certain era are “essential” reading, even though, realistically, people with only a casual interest in philosophy only need to know about a few of these.
  12. Something I hadn’t thought about before: in the 30s, the top white jazz musicians were mostly Jewish and the rest of the top musicians were black. This was a pretty powerful symbol to send before and during WW2, and was one of the reasons that jazz was banned by the Nazis. In a totally bizarre episode of history, the Nazis later changed their minds about this and Goebbels ordered the creation of Nazi jazz, (!) which featured popular swing tunes with anti-semitic lyrics.
  13. An under-appreciated figure I learned about: Billy Strayhorn. He was a composer and pianist with the Duke Ellington big band. He even arranged “Take the “A” Train” and named it after the directions Ellington gave to get to his apartment.
  14. Dizzy Gillespie was the famous trumpeter who in collaboration with Charlie Parker launched the bebop revolution (see here for the only surviving footage of them playing together). The series has a number of interesting things to say about Gillespie. For one thing, he revived the association between jazz and the Caribbean, which had existed since the beginning due to the many Caribbean immigrants to New Orleans who influenced the music. He was very public-facing, and kind of silly, which led people to not really realise the extent to which he drove the music forward. You get the sense that he was this under-appreciated mentor figure that orchestrated one of the most significant musical shifts in the 20th century.
  15. Something I neglected to mention in my Miles Davis post: the first Miles Davis band was the Miles Davis nonet. Nine is an usual number of musicians for a band, and it featured a tuba and French horn. They only recorded a few sessions but one of them was released as The Birth of the Cool.
  16. I loved the stuff about how Miles Davis relentlessly wanted spontaneity in his musicians. Apparently none of the musicians he recorded with ever even saw the sheet music before they got to the recording session (!).
  17. I can see why people say that this series is harsh on jazz fusion. It’s not harsh on the Avant Garde, or on modern jazz in general. In a 12-part series they only really have one interviewee talk about jazz fusion (!) and he does so in a very negative light, which makes it seem like the producers endorse this view. While the late Miles Davis period does not make for easy listening, some of it is excellent.

Book Review: Lost Connections

The actual content of Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope by Johann Hari is significantly less self-help-y than the title would suggest. If I were to summarise my main takeaway from this book, it would be this: people are mostly depressed because their lives are bad. Lost Connections is about how antidepressants are wildly overprescribed, and how Big Pharma has marketed them as a panacea using dodgy science while ignoring the complex social and economic roots of depression and anxiety. There are parts of the book that I liked, but I have some problems with it.

What is depression, anyway?

One of the things people say about depression is that it’s a “chemical imbalance” – usually, a lack of serotonin. Needless to say, this is nonsense. It’s unclear what it would even mean for the brain to be in a state of “chemical imbalance”. Also, while serotonin is known to have something to do with depression, it’s not a straightforward relationship: if you give a chemical cocktail to normal people which lowers their serotonin, they don’t get depressed. Also, tianeptine is a common antidepressant in Europe which works by lowering your serotonin. Some claim that psychiatrists used to believe in the “chemical imbalance” theory but have since moved on. This seems like a strawman and I can’t find evidence of it ever being widely believed.

So that’s one confusion about depression. Another is about the extent to which depression is psychological vs. physical. Of course, the brain is physical, and its behaviour is completely determined by the laws of physics. So, in a trivial sense everything is equally physical. What it means to call something ‘psychological’ is actually quite philosophically complex. It means something like this: there are multiple emergent levels of reality. For instance, atoms are real, and presumably chairs are real too. Something can be considered psychological insofar as it’s more parsimonious to consider it with respect to the mind/consciousness level of reality, rather than the cells/biology level of reality.

There are two extreme ways of looking at depression. One is that it is caused purely by one’s thoughts in a way that is entirely divorced from the physical world – this is the naive view Hari attributes to most doctors in the past. Another is that depression is “just” like a physical illness and should be treated as such. I hear this kind of language from people sometimes, and one of the motivations for saying this, I gather, is that if people think of mental illnesses in much the same way they do, say, cancer, then there wouldn’t be such a stigma surrounding it. But Hari points to research showing that things actually become more stigmatised when they are thought to result from unchangeable biological characteristics rather than development. I discussed this research (Mehta 1997) with friends recently, and the best explanation anyone could come up with was that humans are tribal, and people who are genetically or biologically different to us are an out-group, whereas those who had bad things happen to them or fall into a negative cycle may well be in our in-group. The next step would be to check whether congenital conditions get less funding relative to the proportion of the disease burden they represent.

Ethan Watters discusses stigma in his excellent NYT piece The Americanization of Mental Illness. He points out that, while the social acceptance of many forms of mental illness has grown, for others acceptance has actually fallen:

“At the same time that Western mental-health professionals have been convincing the world to think and talk about mental illnesses in biomedical terms, we have been simultaneously losing the war against stigma at home and abroad. Studies of attitudes in the United States from 1950 to 1996 have shown that the perception of dangerousness surrounding people with schizophrenia has steadily increased over this time. Similarly, a study in Germany found that the public’s desire to maintain distance from those with a diagnosis of schizophrenia increased from 1990 to 2001. Researchers hoping to learn what was causing this rise in stigma found the same surprising connection that Mehta discovered in her lab. It turns out that those who adopted biomedical/genetic beliefs about mental disorders were the same people who wanted less contact with the mentally ill and thought of them as more dangerous and unpredictable. This unfortunate relationship has popped up in numerous studies around the world. [A] study, which looked at populations in Germany, Russia and Mongolia, found that “irrespective of place . . . endorsing biological factors as the cause of schizophrenia was associated with a greater desire for social distance.””

On the flip side, there is the worry of concept creep: when people have a term for something, the set of phenomena that it refers to tends to grow over time. So, what appears to be a mental health crisis could just be a broader class of symptoms being regarded as mental illnesses. Concept creep is, in a way, what happens when there isn’t enough stigma – at least, enough stigma surrounding carelessly diagnosing oneself or others with a mental illness.

So, there are downsides to couching depression in biomedical language, but it is of course to a large extent biological. We know from adoptive twin studies, for instance, that depression and anxiety are 30-40% genetically determined. When I mention the “biological” causes of depression, you probably think of sleep, diet and exercise. But there are other more obscure factors: people sometimes get depressed as a side-effect of medications to treat unrelated conditions, or because they’ve been exposed to lead, and their depression sometimes goes away after they start using really bright lightbulbs.

Antidepressants (mostly) don’t work

Anecdotally, for most people who take antidepressants, it’s hard to tell whether or not they’re working. But for some subset, it helps substantially and is sometimes utterly life-changing. Given this, you would expect that, in clinical trials, you would see a moderate effect size from antidepressants. But nope: you see a tiny one that is frequently indistinguishable from placebo. (Side note: effect size is frequently mistakenly thought to mean “the size of the effect”. But effect size in statistics is this number divided by the standard deviation, making it a dimensionless quantity.) How do we square this with these anecdotal reports? Part of the answer lies in the variance of outcomes. The rule of thumb seems to be that one third of people have undeniable positive effects from their first antidepressant and two thirds of people eventually get the same from one of the antidepressants that they try. These studies are averaging across an entire group, hence why we see such a small effect size. There are also more technical points about study design – for instance, if the study is not of first-time takers, then those individuals with particularly intractable depression will be overrepresented among those being studied. Another part of the answer is regression to the mean: people are likely to seek out medical help when they are at a low points of their lives, and so things will likely get better due to pure chance, which patients (and their doctors) may well think is an actual effect of the drug. When people talk about studies containing a placebo group, they really mean two things: some mysterious psychological force whereby the expectation of something causes it to happen, and regression to the mean. There is a fascinating body of evidence showing that, often, this get-better-anyway effect is much larger than the bona fide placebo.

So, the evidence for the efficacy of antidepressants is quite weak, but we also have these reasons to believe that they’re somewhat helpful. Plus, even if it’s mostly a placebo, that’s still worth it as long as people feel better, right? Well, Hari says, this might be correct if it weren’t for the very real side-effects of antidepressants. There are the usual side-effects you might get from any drug, like nausea and fatigue, but notably also sexual dysfunction. Sexual side-effects are particularly common among takers of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which is the most common type of antidepressant and what most people think of when they think of antidepressants. The drug companies who produce these medications have a pretty strong incentive for exaggerating their effect and downplaying the severity of the side-effects. Also, as we’ll see, the side-effects of long-term antidepressant use are not well understood.

The number of people who take drugs for psychiatric problems is pretty shocking: 20% of US adults are taking a psychiatric drug, 25% of middle-aged women are taking an antidepressant, and 10% of boys in high school are using prescribed stimulants to help them focus. These numbers are so high that I don’t believe them. The US government says that antidepressant usage is 10%, although the figure for middle-aged women is, alarmingly, basically accurate.

Hari introduces us to the foremost critic of antidepressants, Irving Kirsch, author of The Emperor’s New Drugs. Hari summarises his research as concluding that the effects of antidepressants are 50% placebo, 25% regression to the mean, and 25% real effect. His arch-nemesis, Peter Kramer, is antidepressants’ foremost defender:

“[Peter Kramer’s] first argument is that Irving is not giving antidepressants enough time. The clinical trials he has analyzed—almost all the ones submitted to the regulators—typically last for four to eight weeks. But that isn’t enough. It takes longer for these drugs to have a real effect. This seemed to me to be an important objection. Irving thought so, too. So he looked to see if there were any drug trials that had lasted longer, to find their results. It turns out there were two—and in the first, the placebo did the same as the drug, and in the second, the placebo did better.”

I think it’s appropriate to be flabbergasted that there are (or at least, were) only two studies that lasted for more than eight weeks of a type of drug that 10% of Americans use. Even Kramer doesn’t agree with the current regimen of keeping people on antidepressants for basically their whole lives (for context, Hari has a history of depression and had been taking antidepressants every day since he was a teenager):  

“Even Peter Kramer had one note of caution to offer about these drugs. He stressed to me that the evidence he has seen only makes the case for prescribing antidepressants for six to twenty weeks.”

Next, Hari talks about 5-HTT, a gene that was thought by the research community to be significant in explaining depression but which, according to this Slate Star Codex piece, turned out to have no effect whatsoever. (This article is about 5-HTTPLR, and I can’t figure out if this is the same thing as 5-HTT. I know very little about biology and I can’t understand the first few links on google.) Hari says that 5-HTT, and other genes that are risk factors for depression, work by multiplying the risk of depression in response to negative life events, raising the probability of a depressive episode following a major negative life event from (say) 15% to 20%. I would be interested to see how people’s genes cause them to shape their environment differently, thus making negative life events more or less common.

I mentioned earlier the extreme view that depression is entirely unrelated to the physical world. He writes:

“Michael [Marmot, the Australian psychiatrist] would walk around the hospital wards and think—all this sickness and distress must tell us something about our society, and what we’re doing wrong. He tried to discuss this with the other doctors, explaining that he believed that with a woman like this patient, we “should be paying attention to the causes of her depression.” The doctors were incredulous. They told him he was talking rubbish. It’s not possible for psychological distress to cause physical illnesses, they explained. This was the belief of most medical practitioners across the world at that time.”

Marmot went on to conduct a study that looked at UK civil servants in Whitehall. Anyone can notice that the poor and those with difficult and unpleasant jobs tend to have worse mental and physical health. But this could be for lots of reasons. All of the civil servants studied had somewhat similar lives, pay on the same order-of-magnitude, but massive differences in status, and the extent to which they had control over their jobs:

“After years of intensive interviewing, Michael and the team added up the results. It turned out the people at the top of the civil service were four times less likely to have a heart attack than the people at the bottom of the Whitehall ladder . . . If you worked in the civil service and you had a higher degree of control over your work, you were a lot less likely to become depressed or develop severe emotional distress than people working at the same pay level, with the same status, in the same office, as people with a lower degree of control over their work.”

There’s no problem so bad overregulation can’t make it worse

Hari never accepts the conclusion that a lot of his evidence appears to be pointing to: that the government, and other regulatory bodies like institutional review boards, have been slowing progress in mental healthcare for decades. The two most exciting recent developments in the fight against depression are the use of ketamine and psychedelics. Psychedelics were schedule 1’d by the US government, which dried up the research funding for decades. Ketamine is also illegal and extremely difficult to get by prescription, despite its miraculous ability to treat (via injection) intractable forms of depression.

The regulatory environment seems to be in a worst-of-all-possible worlds situation, where the fact that drug companies are really desperate to show that their drug works results in byzantine regulation to stop them from exploiting people or defrauding anyone, but the government itself won’t cough up the money to just test what actually works. He writes:

“When [a drug company] wants to conduct trials into antidepressants, they have two headaches. They have to recruit volunteers who will swallow potentially dangerous pills over a sustained period of time, but they are restricted by law to paying only small amounts: between $40 and $75. At the same time, they have to find people who have very specific mental health disorders—for example, if you are doing a trial for depression, they have to have only depression and no other complicating factors.”

Hari points out that there are basically zero large clinical trials which test the major antidepressants against one another, through a weird sort of market failure where no-one has an incentive to do this, and even if the government or a philanthropist wanted to do this, the regulations are such a pain in the ass that they don’t.

If antidepressants were mediocre but there was no alternative, then their frequent usage would be no mystery. The problem is that we know other solutions are more effective. For instance, one of the common scales for depressive symptoms is the Hamilton scale, which runs from 0 (perfect bliss) to 51 (perfect misery). Antidepressants, on average, produce a 1.8-point jump on the Hamilton scale, while having a regular sleep schedule produces a 6-point jump. Hence there needs to be some reason why antidepressants are used in excess of how useful they actually are.

Hari’s answer is corruption combined with people looking for easy answers. Indeed, almost everyone involved has bad incentives: he points out how 40% of regulators’ wages are paid by drug companies in the US, and the figure is 100% in the UK (!). I’m not sure whether he would agree with this, but it seems like he’s hinting that regulatory agencies are too liberal when it comes to approving new drugs. But I’m the kind of person that reads many blog posts arguing that the FDA (and by extension the EMA) is too conservative. Indeed, a priori, it would be surprising if drugs were approved too quickly on average. Regulators face much harsher consequences for pursuing a policy that actively leads to harm rather than by making an omission that leads to people being harmed.

Why are we getting more depressed?

Johann Hari takes it as a given that people these days are more depressed than they used to be. I’m not so sure; suicide is declining almost everywhere, in some places massively so. The past seemed pretty crap. And yes, self-report studies show mixed results, but self-report studies are almost worthless. Nonetheless, insofar as his premise actually is true, he offers multiple possible explanations. The first is that we’re more materialistic:

“[A] social scientist named Jean Twenge . . . tracked the percentage of total U.S. national wealth that’s spent on advertising, from 1976 to 2003—and he discovered that the more money is spent on ads, the more materialistic teenagers become.”

I would hope that there were corrections done in this study to try to show causality. Hari isn’t good at summarising the results of studies, and he frequently uses vague language. Regardless, this seems somewhat plausible. Advertising is, in a way, a business model based on making you feel insufficient. Being materialistic wouldn’t make people unhappy by itself, but the theory would be that it causes people to chase extrinsic goals like wealth and not intrinsic ones like fulfilling relationships, and therefore they don’t get any happier:

“The results, when [the psychologist Tim Kasser] calculated them out, were quite startling. People who achieved their extrinsic goals didn’t experience any increase in day-to-day happiness—none. They spent a huge amount of energy chasing these goals, but when they fulfilled them, they felt the same as they had at the start. Your promotion? Your fancy car? The new iPhone? The expensive necklace? They won’t improve your happiness even one inch. But people who achieved their intrinsic goals did become significantly happier, and less depressed and anxious . . . Twenty-two different studies have, in the years since, found that the more materialistic and extrinsically motivated you become, the more depressed you will be.”

A second explanation is that we’re lonelier:

What [John Cacioppo] wanted to know was—would isolated people get sicker than connected people? It turned out that they were three times more likely to catch the cold than people who had lots of close connections to other people . . . What John’s experiment found was later regarded as a key turning point in the field. The people who had been triggered to feel lonely became radically more depressed, and the people who had been triggered to feel connected became radically less depressed . . . It turned out that—for the initial five years of data that have been studied so far—in most cases, loneliness preceded depressive symptoms.”

The evidence appears to be pretty good that loneliness does in fact cause depression, rather than people getting depressed for some other reason and consequently withdrawing from society and becoming lonelier. The increase in loneliness and decline in social capital, most particularly in America, has been well-documented, most famously in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. The amount of time people spent with their families has also dropped, and these trends are true in most of the developed world. This is not necessarily evidence of increased loneliness, because loneliness is not the same thing as being alone: indeed, Hari says that the correlation between how many people you know and speak with, and how lonely you feel, is actually quite weak.

It’s obvious that Hari is quite left-wing, and he identifies much of this decline in social capital with the excesses of post-1970s neoliberalism. The mechanism for this isn’t made clear – maybe the growth of an individualist mindset that is more focused on individual consumer experience than on social experiences like family and church? He has some obligatory digs at Margaret Thatcher and he approvingly gives an example of people improving their mental health via community organising… to lobby for rent control.

Depression and grief

If your mother dies, we might say it’s “justified” for you to feel depressed for a while, but if your life is going fine but for some reason you feel terrible all the time, that’s “unjustified” and therefore should be treated. So, where do we draw the line between a normal reaction to tragic things happening in your life, and bona fide mental illness?

“After you lose (say) a baby, or a sister, or a mother, you can show these symptoms for a year before you are classed as mentally ill. But if you continued to be profoundly distressed after this deadline, you will still be classified as having a mental disorder. As the years passed and different versions of the DSM were published, the time limit changed: it was slashed to three months, one month, and eventually just two weeks.”

He then goes on to mention how, in the DSM-V, the latest version, this proviso has been eliminated and you can be diagnosed with depression irrespective of your life circumstances. Hari hints that this is because the people who write the DSM are robots who don’t understand that humans sometimes feel negative emotions in response to bad events. But the DSM makes a deliberate (albeit, controversial) decision to prescribe entirely on the basis of symptoms and not on the basis of aetiology. The benefit of this is that we can just list what the symptoms are of certain mental illnesses and what has helped to treat them, rather than allow psychologists to become arbiters of what counts as a “reasonable” or “proportionate” emotional response to different life events. Nevertheless, there’s a good point here, which is that psychologists and psychiatrists have historically not given sufficient attention to how people’s life problems arise from their circumstances, diet, exercise, sleep, and so on. Hari’s own experience of the medical system seems to be particularly bad in this respect:

“As [the researcher Joanne Cacciatore] said this, I told her that in thirteen years of being handed ever higher doses of antidepressants, no doctor ever asked me if there was any reason why I might be feeling so distressed. She told me I’m not unusual—and it’s a disaster.”

The solution to this dilemma – that many depressed patients were having perfectly understandable reactions to negative life events – was to divide depression into “reactive depression” (in response in life events) and “endogenous depression” (that comes on for seemingly no reason). Needless to say, this dichotomy has been quite problematic, mostly because the things someone is reacting to in becoming depressed can be quite subtle:

George [Brown] and Tirril [Harris] explained that they had, all along, been studying women who had been classified by psychiatrists as having “reactive depression” and women classified as having “endogenous depression.” And what they found—when they compared the evidence—is there was no difference between them. Both groups had things going wrong in their lives at the same rate. This distinction, they concluded, was meaningless.”

So, is endogenous depression just fake news? Maybe. To be fair, Hari talked to a number of people about endogenous depression, and they gave a range of answers, ranging from thinking the distinction is meaningless to thinking that endogenous depression is real but makes up a small subset of depressives.  


Hari is great at pointing out the extent to which we do not currently have a pill that you can take that will make you magically happier. But I think he fails to appreciate how amazing it would be if we did, and how this should be a top priority for science. A quote from Joanna Cacciatore sums up his position pretty well:

“Our approach today is, Joanne said, “like putting a Band-Aid on an amputated limb. [When] you have a person with extreme human distress, [we need to] stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Let’s get to the deeper problem.””

I get this at an individual level. People want easy answers. They don’t want to be told that they’ve made many bad life choices that will be difficult to undo, or that they need to lose weight or get better friends. Or worse yet, that their woes are a necessary consequence of free trade and capitalism. Maybe this is just because Hari and I inhabit different worlds, but if anything, at a societal level this seems like the opposite of the attitude that we take. Most people are far too quick to jump to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with society, and vehemently try to avoid the possibility that there is something wrong with them. On my old blog, I wrote a piece that argued that prestigious universities should use a partial lottery to allocate places. I’m not sure whether I particularly endorse this, but nonetheless, the most common response was that this would only be a bandage on the true problem, and that to really fix this, we would have to invest in education and eliminate the discrepancies that led to the rich and privileged being so overrepresented in elite universities. From my perspective, it seems like people are absolutely desperate to go on multi-decade long questionable social engineering projects, and they don’t want to put bandages on problems enough.

The old way of thinking was to blame depression on personal failure. The new way of thinking is to blame it on nature. Hari wants us to blame nature less and society more, and he doesn’t say much about the personal failure part. I’m sceptical of efforts to blame it on any of these, and I think it’s more like we’ve been bequeathed with a tragic mismatch between all three.

Antidepressants are almost certainly overprescribed, and this is almost certainly because doctors have bad incentives. If your doctor were actually incentivised to make you healthy, healthcare would look very different. They’re incentivised to make you relatively healthier while minimising risk of malpractice lawsuits and not offending you or your parents too much. If a parent comes in describing how their teenage son is feeling depressed, the correct response may well be to point out how it would be a miracle to have such an annoying mother and not be depressed. But given the incentives the doctor faces, the correct response is to just shut up and prescribe him Zoloft. Maybe I should get in while the market is young and start selling t-shirts that say “Shut up and prescribe Zoloft”.

Thanks for Gytis for reviewing a draft of this piece.

A Beginner’s Guide to Miles Davis

Inspired by: A beginner’s guide to modern art jazz

Miles Davis (1926-1991) was a jazz trumpeter, bandleader, and composer. He was one of the most influential figures in the history of jazz, and he had a prolific output (just on Spotify, he has over 1,000 songs). Many of these are different recordings of the same song, but jazz is so improvisational that it’s difficult to draw the line of what counts as a distinct song.

My aim with this guide is to write something that would have been very helpful to me when I started listening to Miles Davis. I will list and discuss the albums that I view as essential listening, and bullets beneath will list my favourite songs from that album. This list is far from comprehensive and there are many albums I chose to leave out. This means that the jazz fusion period is underrepresented, because I personally don’t like it as much as his earlier work. Miles was famously difficult, rude, and beat his wives on multiple occasions. So do not take this piece as an endorsement of him as a person. If you feel that I missed something important, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

This post is grouped chronologically within periods, but the different periods overlap so it’s not strictly chronological. Some of the years in this post may be confusing because of the lag between recording and release. The years I mention are from the date of release. This difference is most apparent for Cookin’, Relaxin’, Workin’ and Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, all of which were recorded over a two-day session in 1956 (!) to complete Davis’ contract with Prestige records.

There is a perception that jazz is dead, and Davis himself even famously declared that jazz was dead. This is pretty unfair. For one thing, almost all of jazz is on Spotify now at amazingly high quality. For another, the decline of the cultural centrality to jazz has led to a decline in the price of concert tickets, etc., such that there’s high returns to having expertise. Tyler Cowen writes that “current times are the very best for jazz, ever”.

Jazz is so interesting to me because of its fusion of intricate underlying structure with improvisation and spontaneity. As Ken Burns put it, jazz is “familiar, but brand new every night”. Moreover, I enjoy the intellectual demandingness of jazz as a genre. Jazz musicians seem to be the most thoughtful and intelligent of any genre. Many of the more Avant Garde songs mentioned in this post don’t sound good unless you’re really concentrating. Some of it sounds cacophonous to a newcomer. This is why jazz is considerably more difficult to get into than other genres and has a lack of listenership among the youth.

Disclaimer: I’m a philistine with limited musical knowledge or ability. This guide is by no means meant to be authoritative. But I worked very hard on it. So, after hundreds of hours of listening, I present to you: a beginner’s guide to Miles Davis. You may find this guide significantly more helpful if you follow along with this playlist on Spotify, which compiles all of the featured songs in order.

The Early Years (recorded pre-1955)

Miles Davis’ career spanned the most important eras in jazz. He replaced Dizzy Gillespie as trumpeter for the quintet of the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, which is how he first came to notoriety. There’s a lot of static on the earlier recordings. This doesn’t bother me so much anymore, but in any case, I recommend remastered versions where you can find them. My overall highlights from this era are Boplicity, Four, and Bags’ Groove.

The Musings of Miles (1955)

  • Will You Still Be Mine
  • Green Haze
  • A Night in Tunisia

Blue Haze (1956)

  • Blue Haze
  • Four
  • That Old Devil Moon

Collectors’ Items (1956)

  • In Your Own Sweet Way
  • Compulsion

In general, there are many remastered, extended and reissued versions of all of Davis’ popular songs and albums, and frequently no canonical version. Luke Muehlhauser talked about this on his blog, which I recommend.

Bags’ Groove (1957)

  • Bags’ Groove
  • But Not for Me
  • Doxy

If you listen to this album, it’ll probably be the Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) remaster. Van Gelder was a legendary audio engineer known for editing in such a way that produced a distinctive sound.

Birth of The Cool (1957)

  • Boplicity
  • Move
  • Israel
  • Moon Dreams

As far as I know, this album played an important part in the etymology of the word cool. Davis, with his suits, beautiful women, and suave look, was the definition of cool. He was part of what it meant to be cool. In his later more experimental years his clothing was much more unusual, colourful, and counter-cultural. Another interesting thing about this album is how Davis exemplified a kind of 50s masculinity, but his music was disarming and romantic. It was very common for couples to go to see him in jazz clubs together.

Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (1959)

  • ‘Round Midnight
  • The Man I Love
  • Bemsha Swing

The First Great Quintet (1955-59)

Miles Davis’ band repeatedly shifted in its composition, but it can be roughly grouped into two stable periods: the First Great Quintet and the Second Great Quintet. There is a famous debate among Miles Davis fans over which quintet is better. The First Quintet had Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and John Coltrane on tenor sax. Cannonball Adderley later joined with alto saxophone (making it a sextet). Davis had a reputation for featuring up-and-coming unknown artists on his album, and he launched Coltrane’s career. If you are only vaguely familiar with Davis sound, it’s likely this is the period that you recognise. It includes Kind of Blue, the best-selling jazz album of all it. Bill Evans replaced Red Garland on piano for some of this period, most famously on Kind of Blue. My overall highlights from this era are ‘Round Midnight, Walkin’, Milestones, My Funny Valentine and So What.

‘Round About Midnight (1957)

  • ‘Round Midnight
  • Bye Bye Blackbird
  • Ah-Leu-Cha
  • All of You
  • Dear Old Stockholm

‘Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk is one of the most famous jazz standards. Miles was the origin of many jazz standards, including Milestones and So What.

Walkin’ (1957)

  • Walkin’
  • Solar
  • You Don’t Know What Love Is

In general, title tracks really are better on average.

Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1957)

  • My Funny Valentine
  • Airegin
  • Blues by Five

Milestones (1958)

  • Milestones
  • Straight, No Chaser
  • Two Bass Hit
  • Billy Boy

One interesting feature of jazz is that it’s a fundamentally American genre. American songs dominate popular music, and especially so with jazz. Some of this is because of the specific role played by race relations in jazz history. But one could speculate that there’s a deeper reason. America, at its best, has separation of powers and constitutional protections (or, rather, it has a longer history of this than other developed countries). It’s all about error-correction and human fallibility. Jazz, likewise, is all about revising and improvising. Contrast this with continental Europe, which has spent much of its history falling prey to one utopian ideology or another, with classical as the dominant music of high culture.

Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1958)

  • It Could Happen to You
  • If I Were a Bell
  • I Could Write a Book

It’s worth mentioning that the mid-to-late 50s was the apex of Davis’ cool jazz period. This is much lower tempo than bebop, which is characterised by fast continuous saxophone melodies and is where Davis got his start. Cool jazz is what people might think of as ‘coffee table jazz’. I sometimes work while listening to it, but other sub-genres within jazz are too fast-paced and complex for me to listen to while concentrating on something else. Some jazz purists would disdain the idea of listening to jazz while working at all, as opposed to giving it your full attention. Indeed, before maybe a year ago, I had never intensely listened to music while doing nothing else for any significant period, because I got bored too easily. But now I usually listen to jazz while browsing the album covers, and very often with my eyes closed.

Kind of Blue (1959)

  • So What
  • Freddie Freeloader
  • Blue in Green
  • All Blues
  • Flamenco Sketches
  • On Green Dolphin Street
  • Fran-Dance
  • Stella By Starlight
  • Love for Sale
  • So What – Live at Kurhaus

This was a major force in the introduction of modal jazz, characterised by switching among musical modes. It’s essential to listen to all of it. The last few songs listed here are from the extended edition of the album. I recommend the extended versions of most of these albums, where one exists, and listening to alternate takes of the same song. Sometimes the albums also include banter from the band, in which you can hear Miles’ famously raspy voice, which he acquired because of a throat condition.

Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1960)

  • It Never Entered My Mind
  • In Your Own Sweet Way
  • Trane’s Blues

If you really liked any of the music from before this point, you’ll probably like most or almost all of it. One of the great things about jazz is that there’s a functionally infinite amount of top-tier jazz, supposing you don’t have extremely niche tastes, while with almost everything else I consume I struggle to find content I love that I haven’t already read/watched/listed to.

Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet (1961)

  • When I Fall in Love
  • Salt Peanuts
  • Surrey with the Fringe On Top

Salt Peanuts has been stuck in my head a lot recently. Because jazz usually doesn’t have any vocals, it’s harder at first for songs to get stuck in your head or to tell them apart. With time, I’ve gotten a lot better at this. There are certainly excellent jazz vocalists – Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Chet Baker. But there is something to be said for consciously choosing to not have any lyrics in your music. Asking why jazz doesn’t have any words strikes me as a bit like asking why novels don’t have any pictures. The music speaks for itself.

Someday My Prince Will Come (1961)

  • Someday My Prince Will Come (yes, it’s based on the theme from Snow White)
  • I Thought About You
  • Old Folks
  • Teo

This may be my favourite album cover of all time. In general, the album covers from the golden era of jazz are absolutely gorgeous. This seems like a lost art because album covers are so much less prominent in the digital era. The Sketches of Spain, Miles Ahead, and Birth of the Cool covers are all iconic. I think that one of the first things that drew me to jazz, before I had any appreciation for the music, was the way people looked when they were playing it. They just looked so cool!

Collaboration with Gil Evans (1957-63)

Davis’ collaboration with the pianist and arranger Gil Evans was legendary. My overall highlights are Miles Ahead, The Duke, Summertime, and Solea.

Miles Ahead (1957)

  • Miles Ahead
  • The Duke
  • Blues for Pablo
  • New Rhumba

Another point: this is not dancing music. I believe that some of Davis’ concerts even had signs up to stop people from dancing. This is in stark contrast to earlier years of jazz, which developed around a culture of dancing halls and highly rhythmic music. Take this with a grain of salt, but it seems like one of the motivations for this era of jazz was to prove to white people that black people were capable of inventing a rich and complex art form that was musically on a par with classical. Indeed, Lee Morgan, the jazz trumpeter, famously said that jazz should be called “black classical music”.

Porgy and Bess (1959)

  • Summertime
  • It Ain’t Necessarily So
  • Buzzard Song

Porgy and Bess is a famous opera by George Gershwin. The Gershwin songbook has been covered many times, and the rendition by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald might be the most famous. There have been more arrangements of summertime than anyone can keep track of, but I think Davis’ may well be the best.

Sketches of Spain (1960)

  • Solea
  • Will O’ The Wisp
  • Concierto de Aranjuez: Adiagio
  • The Pan Piper

This album was inspired by his wife, Frances Taylor Davis, and her love of flamenco dancing. Sketches appears to be his first movement toward an acoustic-electric sound. I was surprised to learn that this album is somewhat controversial among Davis fans, so I think it’s thoroughly underrated.

The Second Great Quintet (1964-68)

Miles Davis’ Second Great Quartet had Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter on tenor saxophone. Its sound was more unconventional, and arguably the 60s are passed the ‘golden era’ of jazz. E.S.P. and Seven Steps to Heaven are my favourite albums from this era. My overall highlights are Seven Steps to Heaven, E.S.P. and Agitation.   

Seven Steps to Heaven (1963)

  • Seven Steps to Heaven
  • I Fall in Love Too Easily
  • Basin Street Blues

One of my favourite things about jazz is the extent to which its subject matter is universal. Many (most?) popular songs are about love, which is fine, but it’s narrow. The best jazz is a kind of philosophical meditation about the tension between planning and improvisation. The benefits of bottom-up versus top-down design. The extent to which life is an interrelated mesh of trade-offs and constraints. How beauty – and perfection –balances on a knife-edge between order and chaos.

E.S.P (1965)

  • E.S.P.
  • Agitation
  • Mood

I don’t have the musical talent to predict which way a piece of jazz will go, but there is a very satisfying way in which it feels like the notes makes sense after they’re played. It’s curious: I feel like asking ‘how could it have been otherwise?’, when of course, it could easily have been otherwise.

Miles Smiles (1967)

  • Footprints
  • Circle

Bill Evans, who was a pianist with the Miles Davis Quintet for a time, once said “There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions.” The way the very same note can sound totally different when played accidentally by an amateur compared to consciously played by a virtuoso is fascinating to me.

Nefertiti (1968)

  • Nefertiti
  • Pinocchio

Nefertiti is one of Davis’ last albums of ‘conventional’ jazz before he developed a more experimental style.

The Fusion Period (1968-91)

One of the key things to understand about Miles Davis is the extent to which he was continuously switching up his style and changing genres. Jazz fusion and Avant Garde jazz are acquired tastes. I found Directions to make for the easiest listening. My favourite songs from this section are Love for Sale, Duran and Black Satin.

Filles De Kilimanjaro (1968)

  • Filles de Kilimanjaro
  • Frelon Brun

The trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said that “in jazz, every moment is a crisis.” This was a much more elegant way of putting one of my earlier points about the universality of the themes in jazz.

In a Silent Way (1969)

  • Shhh / Peaceful
  • In a Silent Way

Bitches Brew (1970)

  • Bitches Brew
  • Pharaoh’s Dance
  • Miles Runs the Voodoo Down

Perhaps the most famous jazz fusion album of all time. There are single versions and shorter edits of many of these songs, which you might appreciate if you don’t like listening to long songs. Many of his fusion pieces are 30+ minutes long.

A Tribute to Jack Johnson (1971)

  • Yesternow
  • Right Off

On the Corner (1972)

  • On the Corner
  • Black Satin

Miles took a lot of inspiration from world music, as evidenced in Sketches. This album uses a lot of Indian percussion.

Circle in the Round (1979)

  • Circle in the Round
  • Love for Sale
  • Two Bass Hit

Placing this in the fusion period is somewhat of a mischaracterisation, because this album compiles 15 years’ worth of previously unreleased tracks. Nonetheless, the title track is the first recording where Davis used electric instruments.

Directions (1981)

  • Directions I
  • Directions II
  • Duran
  • Water on the Pond

Tutu (1986)

  • Tutu
  • Time after time – live in Nice (from the Deluxe edition)

Davis continued making music until he died in 1991, but the most recent material is of more mixed quality and never really found an audience. Some of the live recordings from this period are much better, however, as we’ll see in the next section.

Live Recordings and Soundtracks

I actually prefer listening to live recordings. They often last much longer than the originals and they give interesting re-imaginings and re-interpretations of familiar tracks. My favourite songs in this section are So What, Walkin’, Générique, Sur l’autoroute and Autumn Leaves.

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958)

  • Générique
  • Sur l’autoroute
  • Florence sur les Champs-Élysées
  • Dîner au motel

This album was an improvised soundtrack for a French film. After spending some time in France in the 50s, Davis was frustrated when he returned to America’s more backward racial attitudes. It’s possible that this anger influenced his music, but I really don’t know.

The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel (1965)

  • If I Were a Bell
  • Stella by Starlight
  • Yesterdays
  • My Funny Valentine
  • I Thought About You

One of the themes I find most interesting in jazz is the constant tension between improvisation and planning. The different takes sound really different to one another. You would naively think that, however good your music is when you’re composing on the spot, it must be better when you can plan it out in advance. But something is lost when you write the music down. In the very early days of jazz, even the introduction of recording technology was controversial, because when you can record music there is a sense in which it becomes set in stone, and unchanging. But jazz, it was argued, was all about change and revisions. There’s an obvious parallel here with Socrates’ dislike of writing. I say “on the spot” but this is unfair: jazz improvisation requires tremendous practice and intellectual effort. People sometimes conflate “genius” with “very talented”, but so far as I’m concerned, Miles Davis was legitimately a genius in this regard.

“Four” & More (1966)

  • Four
  • So What (this is my favourite take on the song)
  • Joshua
  • Walkin’
  • There is No Greater Love

Stockholm 1960 Complete (1992)

  • Stardust
  • Lover Man
  • Makin’ Whopee
  • Autumn Leaves

Side note: It’s striking how many errors are made in the transcription of lesser-known albums onto Spotify. A lot of the songs on this album have inconsistent capitalisation, i’s that aren’t capitalised, and others have spelling errors.

Miles and Quincy Live at Montreux (1993)

  • Solea
  • Boplicity
  • The Duke
  • Summertime
  • Springsville

This was recorded the year that Davis died, with Quincy Jones. You can tell that he had lost some of his technical proficiency with the trumpet by this point. While Davis was at a time extremely fit and enjoyed boxing, decades of frequent alcohol, cocaine, and heroin use took its toll. With Davis, though, you’re generally not listening for technical proficiency: he certainly couldn’t play faster or higher than some other trumpeters. It’s more that his style is incredibly distinctive. Even today, I’m not aware of any trumpeter that can make their instrument sound the same way Miles could, which is an impressive feat for any musician.  

Bonus: Books, documentaries and films about Miles Davis I recommend

Miles: The Autobiography

Miles Davis wrote an autobiography with Quincy Troupe, which understandably is essential reading for understanding him.

Jazz (Ken Burns)

This is a documentary series and accompanying book. I haven’t been able to find a place to affordably watch the documentary, but I recommend the book wholeheartedly. I also recommend this YouTube interview with Wynton Marsalis and Ken Burns about the series. A quote I liked: “When historians in 1,000 years look back on America, it’ll be remembered for three things: baseball, the constitution, and jazz.”

Miles Ahead

This film is set during Davis’ dormant period in the late 70s in which he was struggling with drug addiction and not making any music. It’s pretty good, though not amazing. The film was Don Cheadle’s directorial debut and stars Don Cheadle and Obi-Wan Kenobi Ewan McGregor. Cheadle did a great job with the raspy voice. People who know about this sort of thing say that the fingering and playing look believable because Cheadle actually learned how to play trumpet for the film.

The film was scored by the excellent Robert Glasper, who also produced the ending track, which is really good. I’ve included the Go Ahead John edit from the film in the playlist. I have had frustrations trying to find jazzy hip hop where the jazz wasn’t just bad or excessively electronic. Kendrick Lamar and Glasper seem like exceptions to this. Glasper also made a video for Wired where he reviewed jazz scenes in films, which you should watch.  

Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool

One of my favourite documentaries. It contains interviews with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Frances Taylor Davis, and others. They even interviewed the French woman whom Davis had a relationship while he was living in Paris in the 50s. The soundtrack is really good, and it includes Donna Lee, which I’ve also included in the companion playlist.

Other podcasts and videos

There were interesting discussions about Miles Davis on the Conversations with Tyler episodes with John McWhorter and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (you can search the transcripts to skip to the relevant part). I’m not sure whether they mention Davis specifically, but Tyler Cowen’s discussions with the music critics Alex Ross and Ted Giola are also excellent. Giola now has a Substack that you should subscribe to if you enjoyed this post. I also enjoyed this video from the YouTube channel Polyphonic about Kind of Blue. All of his other videos about jazz are also worth watching.

Thanks to Sydney, Gytis and Tom for reviewing drafts of this piece.

Book Review: The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction was written by Nate Silver, a consultant-briefly-turned-poker-player-turned-political-analyst who is most famous for the election forecasting website The Signal and the Noise is one of the small number of books – along with Philip Tetlock’s Superforecasting – that aim to seriously assess the question of how predictable the future is, and how people can systematically improve their prediction ability. This is a question which is of a lot of interest to me. Improving judgements about the future seems to be highly important in many areas (what will the effects of a policy be? When will different technological developments occur? How many people will die from COVID?) and very little attention is paid to it. I found The Signal and the Noise to be thoughtful, and I learned a lot from it.


A running theme of this book is that humans don’t have very good track records predicting the outcomes of complex systems. But one domain where humans have excelled is weather forecasting. Weather forecasts are amazingly accurate relative to the complexity involved. In the mid-70s, the US National Weather Service was off by about 6 degrees (Fahrenheit) when trying to forecast three days in advance. This isn’t much more accurate than what you get if you look at long-term averages – as in, what temperature is most likely in this region at this time of year, not taking into account any specific information. Now, the average miss is 3.5 degrees. This is actually slightly less of an improvement than I would have guessed, although to reduce the error in a forecast by a factor of two requires way more than twice as much effort, since errors can compound.  

I was surprised to learn how large a role humans still play in weather forecasting. Having a human expert use their judgement in assessing many computer-generated forecasts is better than any of the forecasts are by themselves. Humans make precipitation forecasts 25% more accurate than computers alone and temperature forecasts 10% more accurate. Moreover, the accuracy added by humans has not significantly changed over time, so humans have been getting better at the same rate as the machines (!). If you’re wondering why the weather forecasts you use don’t feel very accurate, it’s in part because weather services are private companies that tend to exaggerate forecasts for appeal; you won’t see this inaccuracy in government forecasts. In particular, meteorologists are known to have a “wet bias” – they forecast rain more often than it actually occurs.

There have been some pretty tremendous positive social externalities of commercial weather forecasting, most notably in creating sophisticated early warning systems for extreme weather. The ability to predict typhoons in India and Bangladesh, for instance, has probably saved many thousands of lives. Silver has a few stories in here about people who refuse to leave their homes during an evacuation because of an unjust scepticism of the forecasts. There also appears to be an exposure effect egoing on: studies of hurricanes find that having survived a hurricane before makes you less likely to evacuate future ones. 


The terms ‘fox’ and ‘hedgehog’ used in this book come from the Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”. Foxes are people who don’t have grand unified theories, who constantly revise their beliefs to account for new evidence, and live in uncertainty. Hedgehogs are partisans, and have overarching worldviews which they’ll contort the evidence to fit.

The legendary psychologist Philip Tetlock ran a forecasting tournament in which he tracked and graded the predictions of political experts including professors and government officials over nearly two decades and which he summarised in his book Expert Political Judgement. The main finding: experts are barely more accurate at prediction than chance, and usually perform worse than simple extrapolation algorithms (like “assume nothing will change”). There were too many hedgehogs and not enough foxes. The incentive for pundits and journalists is not to actually be accurate; it’s to appear reasonable while giving novel and entertaining predictions. Indeed, another of Tetlock’s major findings is that the more often an expert was on TV, the less accurate their predictions were.

Tetlock also found an overconfidence effect: when an expert says something has no chance of happening, it happens 15% of the time. When they said it is guaranteed to happen, it happens 75% of the time. While foxes get better at predicting with more information, hedgehogs get worse. If you have grand theories instead of partial explanations, having more facts can make your worldview even less accurate. Partisan differences in prediction were not seen in general (people were relatively unbiased in guessing how many seats republicans vs. democrats would win) but there were marked in specific cases (a left-leaning pundit is much more likely to say a specific democrat will win). These predictions were graded using a Brier Score.

(I wonder if this generalises? If we have some kind of broad philosophical or political worldview that biases us, we might actually see more bias the more we zero in on specific cases. Hence, while talking about specifics and partial explanations is usually the better way to get at the truth, to be effective it might require some deconstructing of one’s prior beliefs.)


The woeful state of prediction might lead you to worry about climate science, where government policy is explicitly shaped by expert forecasts. Indeed, the magnitude of warming from climate change has been overestimated by scientists historically. The actual level of warming was below the 1990 IPCC estimates’ most optimistic projection. In response, the IPCC revised down its models in 1995, and now the observed outcomes fall well within the confidence interval of the projected outcomes (albeit the warming is still slightly less than predicted). You can certainly tell a story here about bias: scientists probably want to find a large warming effect and they think (correctly) that we’re at way more risk of panicking too little than too much. However, these estimates assumed a “business as usual” case; so, one factor that wasn’t addressed adequately was that Chinese industry caused an increase in sulphur dioxide concentration starting around 2000, and sulphur dioxide causes a cooling effect. People forget about the other factors that contribute to warming – I was unaware that water vapour is actually the factor that contributes the most to the greenhouse effect! This all seems complicated to take into consideration so the less-than-stellar prediction performance of climate scientists can probably be forgiven. They also seem to have humility: just 19% of climate scientists think that climate science can do a good job of modelling sea-level rise 50 years from now, for instance. At least as of when this book was published (2012), the effect of climate change on most extreme weather events also appears to be unclear. This is a level of uncertainty that the media definitely fails to communicate.  

Notably, the estimates around climate change are spectacularly noisy, which is well-known, but I think I had failed to appreciate just how noisy they are. Over the last 100 years, temperature has declined in one quarter of decades – for instance, global temperatures fell from 2001 to 2011.

Another thing people seem to forget is for how long we’ve known about the greenhouse effect. It was discovered by Fourier (of Fourier transform fame) in the 1880s, and Arrhenius in 1897 was the first to predict that industrial activity would lead to a warming effect.


The economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that “the only function of economic forecasting it to make astrology look respectable.” Indeed, at least in terms of asset pricing, we shouldn’t expect economics to be of any help at all because of the efficient market hypothesis (EMH). This says that stocks and other financial products are priced in such a way that encapsulates the sum total of the information available to the market, such that individual trader advantage is rare. There are two components to EMH, which Richard Thaler sometimes calls the No Free Lunch assumption and the Price is Right assumption. No Free Lunch, or, colourfully, the Groucho Marx theorem, says that you shouldn’t be willing to buy a stock from anyone willing to sell it to you; in other words, it’s difficult if not impossible to consistently beat the market. The Price is Right says that assets are efficiently priced in a way that encapsulates all information.

Thaler has made a career out of exposing the extent to which economic models do not take sufficient account of human irrationality, and he is the ideological arch-nemesis of Eugene Fama, the father of EMH (they’re also golfing partners, which I think is cute). Thaler has a famous paper in which he looks at the company 3Com, which created a separate stock offering for its subsidiary Palm. There was a scheme whereby 3Com stockholders were guaranteed to receive three shares in Palm for every two shares in 3Com that they held, which implied that it was mathematically impossible for Palm stock to trade at more than two thirds of the value of 3Com stock. Yet, for several months, Palm actually traded higher than 3Com, through a combination of hype and transaction costs.

The final point that Silver makes about EMH is that it’s in this fascinating epistemic state where if people actually believed it was true, it would stop being true. The only reason people trade stocks is because they think that they have better judgement than the market (if you invest in a portfolio that tracks the market average you will outperform 50% of traders by definition). This mirrors a lot of what people say about startups: if people actually believed that almost every possible great company idea has already been taken, then they wouldn’t start so many companies, undermining the process that made the original statement close to true.

Why does Silver talk about a theory of asset pricing so much? Because it’s epistemically important to forecasting. If there’s an efficient market for ways to improve the world, then if something were a good idea, someone would already be doing it. If there was an efficient market for ideas, every good idea would already have been tried and rise to the level of scientific consensus. And yet science is subject to massive systemic flaws, and huge opportunities for improving the world remain untapped because of inertia and apathy. Improving our forecasts of the future is important. It seems like a lot of people stand to make a lot of money from doing this. It seems like a small community mostly consisting of nerds on the internet would not be able to massively advance this field. But this impression is wrong.

Silver points out that if you look at the predictions of the Blue Chip Economic Survey and The Survey of Professional Forecasters, the former has some forecasters which do consistently better than others over the long run, but the latter doesn’t. The reason why is that Blue Chip isn’t anonymous, and so forecasters have an incentive to make bold claims that would garner them a lot of esteem if they turned out to be true. One study found a “rational bias” – the lesser the reputation of the institution that someone was forecasting from, the more bold they were in the claims they made. While considerations of esteem probably worsen forecasts overall, they lead some individuals to consistently outperform the crowd.  

All of this should help us to understand bubbles. If EMH is true, how could outside observers notice massive market inefficiencies? Robert Shiller pointed out how the price-earnings ratio (share price divided by earnings per share) during the dot-com boom was unreasonably high, which was the sort of thing that had previously preceded a crash. One of the reasons why the bubble did not sort itself out despite people like Shiller pointing this out is the career incentives of traders: if you bet against the market and the market doesn’t crash, you look like an idiot, while going along with the herd won’t result in exceptionally bad personal outcomes. Silver says there is significant evidence that such herding behaviour exists. 

Given all this volatility, it shocked me to learn that, over the long run, house prices in the US were remarkably stable until recently. In inflation-adjusted terms, $10,000 invested in a home in 1896 would be worth just $10,600 in 1996 (as measured by the Case-Schiller index). The value of such an investment would then almost double between 1996 and 2006!   


There are a lot of interesting applications of the lessons from the science of prediction. One of the most exciting to me is predicting what research is going to replicate. One of the key lessons we should take from The Signal and the Noise is that academics, like everyone else, have all sorts of motivations, including prestige. Through honest motivations, scientists might go along with results that conform to their expectations and worldview, but that a financial market wouldn’t price as being likely to actually be true. While markets have problems (see above), they’re a vast improvement over hearsay and surveys. A ‘prediction market’ works because it actually incentivises people for accuracy in a way they almost never are in other domains. It also works in part because of the wisdom of crowds: group aggregations of forecasts outperform individual ones by 15-20% on average.

Many of you will know this story: John Ionaddis publishes a paper with the provocative title Why Most Published Research Findings Are False which argues that due to the high number of researcher degrees of freedom, and the large variety of results that can be demonstrated with sophisticated statistics, most published research is probably wrong. More than a decade later, he seems to have been proven right. Bayer Labs found that more than two thirds of psychology research papers failed to replicate. Hence, the possible gain from a prediction market in study replication is large. One such project is Replication Markets.


Scott Alexander criticises how people sometimes use the low total death tolls from terrorism as a way to mock conservatives, or people who are concerned about terrorism in general. Most years, lightning kills more people in the US than terrorism, so why worry? Well, here’s a graph of the number of people that atomic bombs have killed since WW2 compared to the number of people who die by lightning each year. Would this be a convincing argument for not worrying about nuclear war? The tail risks are the whole goddamn point.

If you’ve read The Black Swan, you’ll know that lots of things are like this, with ‘heavy-tailed’ risk, and that we sometimes try to shoehorn these into normal distributions.

Earthquakes are distributed according to one such heavy-tailed distribution – a power law – whereby for every one point increase on the Richter scale, an earthquake is ten times less likely. So the bulk of the devastation comes from just a few earthquakes. The Chilean earthquake of 1960, the Alaskan earthquake of 1964, and the Great Sumatra Earthquake of 2004 accounted for half of all energy released by all earthquakes in the world over the entire 20th century! What else is less like height and more like earthquakes?


In one of the book’s middle chapters, Silver uses terminology about infectious disease that many of us have become familiar with over the last couple of months, particularly SIR models. One interesting thing he talked about was the failure of SIR models to account for how there wasn’t a re-emergence of HIV in the early 2000s among active gay communities like that in San Francisco (there was an increase in unprotected sex and other STDs). It’s actually still somewhat a matter of debate why this happened but probably it was because people began to “serosort” – namely, choose partners who had the same HIV status as them. This goes against one of the major assumptions of the SIR model, which is that interactions among individuals are random.

The next few pages blew my mind the most out of anything I had read in a while.  I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of President Ford’s 1976 campaign to vaccinate 200 million people against a suspected H1N1 pandemic. The vaccine dramatically increased the rates of the nerve-damaging Guillain-Barré syndrome, and the public turned against it, such that only 50% of people were willing to be vaccinated! The severity of the outbreak also turned out to have been exaggerated, so the government gave up after 25% of people were immunised. How have I not seen this being brought up in the context of COVID?


I recommend this book, particularly if you’re not already familiar with Philip Tetlock, forecasting, and Bayesian statistics. For people who are already interested in that kind of thing, I can still recommend skimming. I’m sure I’ll write about forecasting again on this blog at some point – I didn’t even have time to talk about superforecasters, the people who can consistently outperform expert predictions. ★★★★☆

Afterword: Philosophical Pondering on the Problem of Prediction

One question that Tetlock sometimes gets asked about is whether it’s nonsensical to ascribe a probability to an event that only occurs once. If you think the universe is deterministic, you might say that the probability of a certain candidate winning an election is either 0% or 100%, but you simply do not know which. So, in what sense can this be evaluated probabilistically? Does probability represent something metaphysical about what the outcomes would be if the trials were run infinitely many times? Or just a degree of belief? The former view is identified with the frequentist school and the latter the Bayesian school. Regardless of one’s philosophical position, Tetlock’s approach is to just get on with it: if we look at the set of all supposedly unpredictable things, do the things you predicted would happen 10% of the time happen 10% of the time?

Viewing probability as just degree of belief is actually very counterintuitive. There are problems with this that I still haven’t figured out, like the distinction between external and internal ‘credences’, of degrees of belief. I may think there is a 50% chance that Trump will win re-election, but isn’t there some higher-order uncertainty I have about whether I’m using the correct mental model to assess this, or whether I’m actually in a computer simulation, or something? But doesn’t this eliminate the initial theoretical appeal of having all considerations cash out into a single credence? What if your credences hold some mathematically impossible property?

David Hume thought that, because we don’t have certainty, saying that the sun will rise tomorrow is inherently not any more rational than saying it won’t. More recently, probability-as-beliefs was famously opposed by the statistician Ronald Fisher. One of the main problems with the frequentist school is how much of forecasting and probability turns into a game of finding the correct reference class, or relevant comparison group. The reference class for the die you roll is fair six-sided dice, but what reference class would the 9/11 attacks be in, for instance? So the principal objection to the Bayesian approach – that it is too subjective – applies also to views of probability-as-frequency.

Do All Languages Communicate at the Same Rate?

The speakers of some languages have a reputation for talking quickly while others have a reputation for talking slowly. Is this because some cultures actually communicate quicker than others, or are they just using more words to communicate the same information?

That is what Coupé et al. aims to answer empirically, using a dataset of 17 languages. They conclude that, indeed, the information communicated per second of speech is similar across languages – in particular, around 39 bits/s.

Duration of time that speakers of various languages require to communicate the same information

If you’re wondering how a syllable could have a bit value, you have a fun afternoon ahead of you reading about information theory. In an information-dense 8 bit/syllable language like Vietnamese, you on average have a 1 in 256 chance of predicting the next syllable, while in a 5 bit/syllable language like Japanese, you have a 1 in 32 chance. So, there are two competing strategies that balance each other out: either have information-dense syllables, and speak more slowly, or have information-sparse syllables, and speak quicker. Cool!

I couldn’t find anything on whether the same thing is true of dialects. Speakers with some accents speak much more quickly than others – for instance, Northerners are known for speaking quicker than Southerners in the US. This would be a great secondary school or undergraduate summer project. And it wouldn’t even be that hard to run – you could just give people the same piece of text to “translate” into their dialect, then see if the same information is communicated in the same amount of time.

Can a language benefit its speakers in general?

Researching speech efficiency got me wondering: are there specific benefits that speaking a certain language can give you?

I’m somewhat biased against this being true. If speaking East Whereverese raised your IQ by 5 points, you’d expect its beneficial features to be adopted by other languages, or be independently converged upon by multiple languages.

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that one of the reasons why Chinese students perform so well on mathematics tests is because of beneficial features of the Chinese language itself: namely, saying words in English is clunky and takes a lot of syllables, but numbers in Chinese are quicker and easier to speak. Being able to hold numbers in working memory for even a fraction of a second longer can be a real boon for maths ability. By age 4, Chinese children can already count to 40, while Americans of the same age can only count to 15, putting them a full year behind. And this is before formal education starts, so you can’t pin this one on the education system.

Again, this is mysterious to me. If you can upgrade your children’s numerical reasoning by a full year just by giving them a vocabulary that makes it easier to talk about words, why haven’t other languages evolved to do the same thing? I’ve always thought those parents that teach fake languages to their kids were wasting their time, but if Klingon is anywhere near as efficient in talking about numbers as Chinese, maybe they have a point! Are there other cognitive capabilities that the English language enhances that compensate for the mathematical disadvantage it puts its speakers at?

(Note: Scott Alexander points out how Chinese mathematics test scores are kind of fake, in that China struck a deal whereby it only administer the PISA exam (the standard test for comparing countries’ mathematics ability) in its most educated provinces (!). If the US were allowed to do the same thing, you find that the Chinese mathematical advantage goes away. But this wouldn’t explain Chinese kids being able to count higher. So, all in all, not sure what to make of this.)

Appendix: Podcast listening speed

It still boggles my mind that not everyone has realised that you can listen to podcasts and audiobooks at >160% speed while losing no comprehension. This seems to imply that the rate-limiting part of speech – and therefore why languages communicate at the same rate – is how fast people can speak, not how fast people can listen. In which case, I await the day where I can have a neural implant that allows people to communicate all the same information to me in half the time 🙂

Follow-up on the Open Borders Review

Appendix A: What I Left Out

There’s a lot more to talk about with this book, but my main review has all the points I have a strong view about. Caplan discusses the objection that immigrants would lower average IQ, and talks about Garrett Jones’ book Hive Mind, which argues that national IQ is very important in determining national prosperity. I’ll point you to the Slate Star Codex review for more discussion (with the caveat that IQ research is very controversial so please don’t get mad at me).

Caplan has a cute section of the book called ‘All Roads Lead to Open Borders’ in which he describes how open borders remain a good idea under a wide variety of philosophies, including utilitarianism, Kantianism, Christianity, and libertarianism. I don’t have strong views on the philosophy of immigration – my impression studying the subject at university was that any a priori objections should only make a difference at the margin, and are dwarfed by the empirics. Still, there are some plausible moral values you could hold that would make immigration less appealing – such as cultural preservation, or countries’ right to self-determination. Conversely, if you especially value cultural diversity or individuals’ rights to freedom of association, open borders seem more appealing.

One thing I didn’t talk about was brain drain, mostly because I don’t think it’s a very significant problem. Developing countries are not even close to coming up against the ceiling of people who are capable of doing in-demand jobs like being health professionals. Crudely, the reason why there aren’t many engineers in Chad isn’t that Chad trained a bunch of engineers who all left; it’s that Chad doesn’t have many engineers full stop. A lot of the philosophical literature on open borders also seems to be confused about this point. Doctors immigrating from developing countries doesn’t reduce the supply of doctors in those countries. The Philippines’ supply of nurses has actually increased as a result of the fact that they send so many nurses abroad. 

Appendix B: Arguments that Caplan Didn’t Use

  • How much of India and China’s economic growth is as a result of the fact that they’re really big, and therefore, moving across them is a lot like immigrating? When Caplan pointed this out, I was pretty surprised I hadn’t thought about it before. Were the two major economies to take drastic steps in reducing poverty in recent decades able to do so largely because they’re really big? This is like one panel on one page, but I felt like he could have developed the argument more. In general, I think the book’s argumentative style leans too highly on Estimates by Economists™ and not enough on case studies and natural experiments. Do more populous countries have greater growth in the long run? If so, this points us in the direction of open borders. Relatedly, I liked how Caplan talked about what Lant Pritchett calls ‘zombie economies’ – economies kept alive by restrictions that forbid people from leaving. A shockingly large share of the US has been declining in population for decades, yet we would regard it as absurd to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to leave Nebraska because doing so would go against Nebraska’s interests.
  • There are various arguments related to long-termism that Caplan didn’t use; namely, the downsides of immigration (higher crime, perhaps draining the government’s budget) are temporary but the upsides (higher economic growth) bear their fruit over centuries and will likely affect billions of future people. If you buy the argument, popular within effective altruism, that what matters most morally is our consequences on the long-run future, this would seem to be a point for open borders.
  • Caplan makes it seem like it’s an open-and-shut case that immigration doesn’t lead to an increase in unemployment. But many economists are also fans of the minimum wage. But surely there’s a tension here? If the minimum wage has no disemployment effects, the labour market is perfectly inelastic, and if immigration has no disemployment effects, the labour market is perfectly elastic. So how elastic is the labour market?
  • Such a disproportionate amount of innovation comes from immigrants. More inventors immigrated to the US from 2000 to 2010 than to all other countries combined. Immigrants account for a quarter of total US invention and entrepreneurship. Maybe this is just because America disproportionately lets smart and innovative people move there. But maybe there are some agglomeration effects going on here specifically related to immigration? Immigration – or more particularly, clustering people together – seems to have been key to the success of various intellectual hubs throughout history, like the Bay Area recently, Vienna in the 20th century, and Edinburgh in the 18th century. This seems like a ripe topic for progress studies to tackle. Aesthetically, I agree with Caplan’s choice not to talk about this much. People talking about all the “amazing contributions made by [insert immigrant group]” often comes off as condescending, in much the same way as token engagement with other cultures might. Make the case for immigration from prosperity and freedom, or don’t make it at all! But it still has to be confessed that immigrants do seem to contribute a disproportionate amount – technologically, artistically, scientifically, and culturally – to the US.
  • I think there are good reasons to believe that way fewer immigrants would actually move than Caplan presupposes. During the entire Greek financial crisis, only 3% of the Greek population moved country (!), at a time when the unemployment rate was 27% – and remember, Greeks have more than a dozen prosperous destination countries to choose from with no paperwork involved! Inertia is the most powerful force in the universe. Caplan’s defence of his high implicit estimates is that, once the ball gets rolling, more and more immigrants from a particular country will move – for instance, historically immigration from Puerto Rico to the US was lower than you would expect given the difference in economic opportunity, but then Puerto Rican communities formed in many US cities, and more and more people moved. Gallup finds more than 100 million people want to migrate to the US. 750 million say that they would leave their home country if they could. But we have reason to doubt people would actually act on this. This makes open borders a little more palatable to people that are sceptical of immigration: it wouldn’t be as different to the status quo as you might expect. 
  • What factors have led Canada and Australia to handle immigration so well?
  • There is a general perception that Muslim immigration to the EU has gone poorly. How much of this is hysteria? Why would future rounds of immigration not have problems in the same way?
  • Greying is not something that Caplan talked about much. At first this might seem surprising – one common-sense case for immigration is that people in Europe and America are getting too old to work and they need immigrants to replenish their workforce.
  • There aren’t really jobs that “Americans won’t do”, since, if people don’t like doing something, the wages will rise until they start doing it to meet demand. However, this price is such that there’s significant deadweight loss – mutually beneficial trades that no longer occur. For instance, more people would get more childcare if the government allowed more immigration. Caplan discusses this, but I didn’t feel sufficiently inspired to think about how this would be great for me personally. If I lived in a place with open borders, I’d probably hire a personal assistant or something.

Appendix C: One Billion Americans

Another book I read recently and recommend is Matt Ygelsias’ One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger (Caplan reviewed it on his blog). He argues for large-scale population growth, partially through immigration but mostly through an increase in fertility, to maintain American pre-eminence over China and India. He argues that, for all of its failings, American dominance is better than the alternative. And America is at a disadvantage on this front by having a billion fewer people than the Asian giants.

I’m not sure this argument should have gone in the book – it would take a long time to justify, and open borders appeals to a lot of left-libertarian sensibilities that might be offended at the idea of American global hegemony. But it would be an interesting project for the open borders community to look at the geopolitics of population growth. How important are marginal increases in population to geopolitical power? Are spurts in population growth followed by increases in various measures of hard power? Soft power?

Book Review: Open Borders

Bryan Caplan is an economist at George Mason University and all-around interesting guy who is known for his out-there views about various social and political issues (especially education). Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration is his latest book, which argues for an end to all restrictions on migration and is in the format of a graphic novel illustrated by Zach Weinersmith of SMBC fame. The first thing I would say about this book is that the graphic novel format works really well. The art style is cute and I think graphic novels are heavily underrated. Realistically, most people are not going to read a regular book about the economics of immigration. But this way Caplan can lure us in with fun cartoons! The next thing I would say is that the book makes an important argument on an issue where people have particularly poorly thought-out opinions. The data are pretty clear that immigration is massively more beneficial than most people realise – certainly economically, and perhaps socially too. However, upon reflection there are serious objections to open borders, and the arguments in the book have a number of omissions.

The argument

Caplan really does believe that there should be no restrictions on immigration whatsoever, and that’s exactly what his cartoon representation in this book argues for. The basic argument goes like this: people should, in general, be allowed to make decisions that they think will improve their lives, assuming they’re not hurting anyone. Moving to a new country is exactly such a decision. Since immigrants often move in search of work, moving is associated with a massive increase in economic prosperity: by moving to the US and receiving no additional training or education, the average citizen of a developing country can expect their income to increase fivefold; for countries like Nigeria, the figure is tenfold. This is because developed countries are safer, more prosperous and have better quality institutions, so immigrants are more productive in them. The gains are so vast that a standard estimate is that open borders would double world GDP. And yet rich countries continue to restrict immigration, sometimes through formal caps, and sometimes through complicated bureaucracy and paperwork which at best dissuades people from entering and at worst makes it literally impossible (like rejecting you for not filling out the middle name section on a form when you don’t have a middle name). Some of the arguments against immigration are xenophobic or racist, but many are legitimate concerns bought up in good faith. However, most (all?) of these are simply not borne out by careful consideration of the evidence. The consensus among economists is that immigration does not generally decrease natives’ wages. Nor does it lead to an increase in poverty, crime, or a significant strain on the welfare state and social services. While the data about this is more unclear, immigrants seem to be barely different from natives in their political views and they adopt a lot of the cultural values of their destination country. Hence, the contrary considerations are not enough to overwhelm our initial presumption in favour of allowing people to move and massively improve their standard of living, and so we should have open borders.

The objections  

1: Parochialism

Open Borders is an extremely US-centric book. As someone from the land of ‘not America’, this is something that frustrates me about a lot of non-fiction. Caplan justifies his focus on the US by saying that his audience is mostly Americans and that that’s where the highest quality data exists for. But in this case, the book makes a way narrower argument than is set out in the book’s intro. By focusing primarily on America, the case is made stronger than it otherwise would be. For instance, immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Europeans but fewer crimes than native-born Americans. Immigrants to the US also seem to assimilate unusually well (although some people say this is just because European countries are more regulated, and in their infinite wisdom make decisions like forbidding refugees from getting jobs).

Focusing so much on the US is bizarre because the European Union has open borders between its member states! Surely analysing whether this has gone well should be the most convincing piece of evidence about open borders. Ireland is 17% foreign-born, a significantly higher proportion than the US, and from eyeballing the data is looks like the immigration rate to Ireland has nearly quadrupled in the last 20 years. This would seem like a major success story of immigration. Meanwhile, Caplan only talks about the EU for a few panels toward the end of the book. The considerations above don’t seem to justify anywhere near this level of parochialism.

Until the 1920s, the US had de facto open borders, and this is another thing that I wish Caplan had dug into more. It certainly seems like America benefited a lot from immigration at this time (or, at the very least, that immigrant groups like the Irish did) but have people studied what the effects of open borders actually were?

2: Humility

Open borders would be the largest social transformation possibly ever, and there isn’t even that much research about it. We should in general be extremely humble about the prospects that our views about complex topics are completely right, and the downsides from open borders, if we are wrong, could be quite significant.

Caplan is unusually scrupulous at making sure his claims are backed up by the data. His book The Case Against Education is one of the most meticulously researched books I have ever read. So, it was a bit disappointing that there weren’t more margins of error attached to his claims. How confident are we that open borders would really double world GDP? 10%? 50%? 90%? Even with such error bars, after reading about the replication problems in economics and the colourful uses of statistics to get one’s desired conclusion, I don’t find these kinds of projections very convincing compared to natural experiments and case studies, and I mentioned that the EU, the most compelling such example, is not talked about much.

3: Environment

Unless I’m mistaken, at no point does Caplan address the environmental harms of open borders. Moving people from low-emitting poor countries to high-emitting rich countries would lead to a pretty dramatic acceleration in global CO2 emissions. Admittedly, “keep most of the world poor” is a terrible climate change strategy, but there are some climate problems you might want to solve first before advocating for open borders. A world with open borders would be much richer, and so would have a lot more money to throw at the problem of climate change, but how much more would it throw? If the case for open borders were airtight, it would have to address this. I’m confident that Caplan has reflected and come to the conclusion that there are no climate problems that we can solve in a short-enough period of time to justify the harm caused by delaying open borders, but he doesn’t show his work.

Sometimes, climate change gets used as an excuse for opposing almost any societal progress. This is unfortunate. But “open borders would create this gigantic problem, namely massively accelerated climate change, but the benefits outweigh the harms” was not the argument I got from the book. “Open borders are so good, and the objections are not that significant” was the argument I took away from the book.

There are considerations I can think of that would make the environmental objection less serious. Immigration would probably accelerate the trend of urbanisation, and cities are better for the environment (smaller houses, more use of public transportation, etc.). People would also be able to move away from the regions that are worst affected.

I’m also seriously concerned about the animal suffering that would be induced by open borders. I think that we should give a high degree of moral consideration to complex animals like cows and pigs, and that globally, eating meat, 90% of which comes from factory farms, creates an almost unimaginable level of suffering. There are a couple of reasons why open borders would make this worse: the Western diet is more meat-heavy than diets from other places, and richer people in general consume more animal protein. Some people talk about the meat-eater problem: many interventions in global development look much less cost-effective if you give moral concern to animals (since, if the interventions save human lives or make people better off, they lead to greater meat consumption). The high demand may further entrench factory farming as the default way meat is produced. This is not a consideration that most people have when thinking about open borders, but the premises are relatively uncontroversial. Virtually everyone agrees that animals are worthy of moral concern, and many (most?) people see some problem with eating factory-farmed meat, even if they do not act on their discomfort.

4: Culture

Caplan has a section where he addresses the political effects of immigrants, largely drawing on data from Alex Nowrasteh at the Cato Institute finding that immigrants are a tiny bit more liberal than the general population but that their kids and grandkids regress to the political mainstream. Immigrants and natives didn’t have a partisan difference until the 1980s, and the partisan difference comes from immigrants being more likely to identify as independent, not from being more likely to identify as Democrat (although maybe after a while immigrants become acclimated and realise that third-parties never win…). This is interesting but doesn’t address the tail risk of immigration leading to a Trump/Brexit dysfunctional level of polarisation or backlash (admittedly, that would be very speculative). It may be the case that the biggest harms from immigration come from people irrationally freaking out about immigration, but, uh, people are in fact irrational.

Here’s Michael Huemer, in one of the most well-known philosophical defences of open borders, on the effects of immigration on culture:

“Empirically, it is doubtful whether apprehensions about the demise of American culture are warranted. Around the world, American culture, and Western culture more generally, have shown a robustness that prompts more concern about the ability of other cultures to survive influence from the West than vice versa. For example, Coca-Cola now sells its products in over 200 countries around the world, with the average human being on Earth drinking 4.8 gallons of Coke per year. McDonald’s operates more than 32,000 restaurants in over 100 countries.”

This seems to kind of sidestep the objection. Mass migration to the US is not a concern because Coca-Cola will go out of business; it’s a concern because democracy, freedom of speech, and the rights of women and homosexuals are deeply unpopular in much of the world. Importing millions of people from autocracies and societies that are otherwise deeply illiberal may well have adverse effects on democracy. This makes the case for having long waiting times for citizenship pretty good.

The selection effects right now for immigration to the US are really strong, but we have every reason to believe that they would decline under open borders. If immigration restrictions were lifted, the average quality of immigrant would almost certainly drop. This is something Caplan admits to, but the response to it didn’t feel convincing. Just how much selection bias is there in who gets admitted and who doesn’t?

5: Inequality

Caplan is an economist, so I can’t really argue with his reasoning about the economics of immigration. While the book is pretty convincing in arguing that immigration is the best tool we have for reducing poverty in an absolute sense, I’m less clear about the effects on poverty in a relative sense. Poor Americans still have it great by global standards, but they certainly don’t feel that way, and the point of all this prosperity is presumably to make people subjectively better off. Defeating bona fide poverty – the type where people can’t feed their kids – is priority number one, but still!

Currently, the people who move from poor countries to rich countries are self-selected for being hard-working, intelligent, and conscientiousness. But what happens when the really unmotivated ne’er-do-well’s start coming too? Under the current regime, these people would be relegated to the fringes of society. Could open borders even make some immigrants worse off, even if their pay cheque triples?

Caplan also doesn’t really consider the extent to which racism and xenophobia might flare up in response to immigration (though he does have a great section covering the effects on social trust). The countries that are the closest to having open borders are the gulf states; they have many migrant workers from countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. On one level, this is great: Qatar benefits from cheap infrastructure, the Sri Lankans benefits by getting higher-paid jobs. But I do also fear that this will lead to a kind of racially segregated dystopia.

In fact, immigrant groups would be largely stratified based on how wealthy they were to begin with. African immigrants would likely be deeply poor, followed by not-as-poor Indians, then richer Chinese, and so on. What happens to the politics and culture of a society that is that racially stratified? This is of course also a problem now, but I wonder what it might mean to scale it up so much. The fact that levels of education and training correlate with immigrants’ ethnicity vis-à-vis the differences in wealth among countries would lead to a problematic level of statistical discrimination, at the very least.

I initially was very sympathetic to the view – defended by some philosophers – that wealth inequality is not a problem per se; poverty is. But the more I think about it, the more this feels like squabbles over semantics. Yes, the distribution of resources is not intrinsically morally significant, but the mere fact that poor people don’t have very much money isn’t morally significant either. Conducting research about this is hard, and take the literature with a grain of salt, but, holding poverty constant, inequality seems to have lots of negative effects on all sorts of outcomes, including crime. So, given that it has negative outcomes, and is frequently caused by unjust social conditions, inequality – which would be increased within countries by open borders – is worth worrying about!

(Finally, regarding the welfare state, because I didn’t know what section to put it in. One of the more sophisticated considerations contra redistribution is that excessive transfer payments aren’t really compatible with high levels of immigration (unless you want to go bankrupt), and we know with a high degree of certainty that immigration is better at reducing poverty than government programs. But does this actually happen? Do places that grow their welfare state subsequently shrink their level of immigration, or shift it toward higher-skilled immigrants? Is there something funky going on such that support for immigration and welfare became tightly correlated beliefs?)  


Toward the end of the book Caplan discusses whether it’s a good idea to be advocating for open borders, or whether the idea is so radical that it will turn people off immigration even more. He comes to the conclusion that discussing open borders shifts the Overton window toward increasing immigration. I’m not so sure. For how important it is to convince people about things, I’ve seen remarkably little empirical research as to how you do it. Putting group polarisation aside, is it a good idea to give someone a stronger case or a weaker case to convince them to move their views in the direction of the argument?

This book made me think about what low-hanging fruit might exist in the space of increasing immigration. As I mentioned, immigration in many countries is not formally capped but is de facto limited by being confusing and costly. Have people tried to start companies to fill this niche of streamlining immigration? Are there any foundations willing to run this kind of thing as a non-profit? Google turns up surprisingly few results.   

All in all, I recommend this book. The thing it changed my mind the most about is the extent to which wealth is a function of where you are, not who you are. One estimate is that 60-70% of the global wealth disparity is explained by location alone. You could fix the institutions of poor countries from the ground up – but we don’t know how to do this, it would take a long time, and it’s unclear to what extent their problems arise from geography, so wouldn’t get fixed by better policies anyway. Hence, the case for more immigration still looks pretty watertight. I hope to see these arguments developed further!

Preferences for Masculine or Feminine Faces May Be WEIRD

One of the critiques commonly levelled against psychology is that its samples mostly come from Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Joseph Heinrich and others published a highly cited paper in 2010 in which they found that the cross-cultural range of psychological variation was much larger than previously assumed, and that WEIRD samples are actually some of the least representative of humans in general. You cannot test a bunch of Yale sophomores and make conclusions about the universal human condition, as it turns out. A bunch of cross-cultural psychology work ensued. Here’s a highlight from Scott et al. 2014:

“A large literature proposes that preferences for exaggerated sex typicality in human faces (masculinity/femininity) reflect a long evolutionary history of sexual and social selection. This proposal implies that dimorphism was important to judgments of attractiveness and personality in ancestral environments. It is difficult to evaluate, however, because most available data come from large-scale, industrialized, urban populations. Here, we report the results for 12 populations with very diverse levels of economic development. Surprisingly, preferences for exaggerated sex-specific traits are only found in the novel, highly developed environments. Similarly, perceptions that masculine males look aggressive increase strongly with development and, specifically, urbanization. These data challenge the hypothesis that facial dimorphism was an important ancestral signal of heritable mate value. One possibility is that highly developed environments provide novel opportunities to discern relationships between facial traits and behavior by exposing individuals to large numbers of unfamiliar faces, revealing patterns too subtle to detect with smaller samples.”

I take this to mean that in the ancestral environment, it may well have been the case that more masculine men made better mates, but the sample size of men that the average woman had observations of was so small that she couldn’t make the inference. And vice versa for femininity. A number of books have given me the general picture that humans’ preferences and dispositions (for instance, boys’ preferences for rough and tumble play) are mostly genetic and don’t result from social conditioning. Explanations like this, that appeal to the group dynamics of interacting with many more people than we did as hunter-gatherers, seem more convincing to me.

A New Book to Introduce People to Ethical Vegetarianism

My new favourite book about vegetarianism is Dialogues on Ethical Vegetarianism by the philosopher Michael Huemer, published in 2019. I think it should be the new standard text in effective altruism fellowships and discussion groups to introduce issues surrounding eating meat. Ending factory farming is only one part of animal advocacy, but I am dissatisfied with the existing treatment of animal experimentation in Animal Liberation. And wild animal welfare as a field of study is too new to have had a go-to book written about it. The main advantages of the book are, as I see it:

  • Dialogues is only 135 pages long (including notes), so it’s totally reasonable to assume someone can read it in a week or two.
  • The book is written in dialogue format, which reads nicely (I love dialogues so much I wrote one myself). It does a good job anticipating the reader’s objections. And it illustrates the process of how people’s minds get changed about meat-eating. 
  • Animal Liberation, being written in 1975, is outdated. The section about animal experimentation has aged particularly poorly. Ethics review has tightened significantly since then (perhaps too much). As I recall, Singer argued that animal experimentation is not particularly useful to science, which came across to me as simply naive. I am not aware of any scientist who would make this claim.
  • Huemer is good at not telling you his unrelated opinions. He is an anarchist, but you would never know that from the book. Most writing about animal welfare in the popular press features the author giving their tangentially related left-of-centre takes about society (including Eating Animals).
  • Huemer is far from utilitarian, which is a good rejoinder to those who believe that eating meat is only wrong if utilitarianism is true (or some weaker version of that claim). In fact, the protagonist of the dialogue at one point says something that implies that the imperative not to eat animal products is strongest under the non-consequentialist moral theories. 
  • Dialogues was boringly titled and marketed, so people are unlikely to read it unless they are prompted through their local effective altruism group. This raises the value of assigning the book because people are likely to passively encounter the memes from the more popular animal welfare writings.
  • Peter Singer himself in the preface says that when people ask him about why he is vegan, he recommends they read this book and not Animal Liberation
  • The book has an annotated bibliography which is a good jumping-off point for anyone that wants to read more. 

And the main disadvantages are:

  • Relative to how short it is, the book is expensive (€18 paperback, €15 Kindle).
  • Nutrition, or how to cook veggie/vegan, is not dealt with.
  • The book doesn’t seriously discuss wild animal welfare at any length. However, the topic is sufficiently new that I’m not aware of any books that cover it. Animal experimentation is not dealt with. 

I haven’t seen any discussion of this book in EA circles, which is a shame, as I thought it was pretty neat. I hope to see it assigned as reading by EA groups in the future. 

Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post. 

P.S. Huemer has a great blog called Fake Nous. Bryan Caplan and Huemer also had a dialogue not dissimilar to the one depicted in the book on Bryan’s blog

Links for January

What I’ve been reading

Which country has the world’s best healthcare system?

An argument that you should buy things, not experiences.  

Chris Blattman has restarted blogging. See for example his best non-fiction of the year, parts one and two.

The story of scurvy; or, why reality is very weird.

Things you are doing but don’t want to be doing. Dynomight is one of the best recent blogs.

Dan Wang’s 2021 letter on living in China, opera, and reading. Strongly recommended.   

I have very much enjoyed reading old New Yorker columns from David Denby. He is in my view far superior to his killjoy successor as film critic Richard Brody. See for example his best movies of the year roundup.

Noah Smith interviews Tyler Cowen. I wanted this to be much longer!

Normative implications of the contamination theory of obesity.   

Always read Scott Sumner’s film recommendations.

Questions for Sam Bowman, from the new blog by Sam Atis (so many Sams in the blogosphere!).   

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix This one might have been my favourite. I picked this up after watching all the Harry Potter films, since I only made it to book four as a kid. It definitely doesn’t need to be this long and I think Harry Potter needed a Silmarillion-style companion to contain all the worldbuilding tangential to the plot.

The Half-Blood Prince Maybe it’s just me but JK Rowling uses a truly excessive number of adverbs. One of the things I liked about the Lord of the Rings prose style was the confidence to almost always use the word ‘said’ instead of this “Dumbledore said calmly” malarkey.

The Deathly Hallows This might have been my least favourite of the Harry Potter books. It tends to overexplain. Potter’s origin story ends up relying on a few implausible details that I think would have been better off being left unspecified. The epilogue scene was the worst in the entire series. But still, of course, who doesn’t love Harry Potter?

What I’ve been watching

Harry Potter (all) My least favourite entries here were Goblet of Fire and Deathly Hallows Part I. If I had to nitpick, I would say the series has too much visual inconsistency, not just in lighting but in how certain spells are represented. I highly recommend watching all of the films over a week or so.  

Moonrise Kingdom A much less contrived version of Wes Anderson. Watch this if The French Dispatch was too visually busy for you.

Once A perfect example of a low-budget film having a ton of heart, in a way that makes up for being visually rough around the edges. I had no idea how beloved/successful this film was when I started watching it, and the main track has 100 million plays on Spotify. I saw the excellent musical adaptation a few years ago. Doubly recommended to anyone Irish (though my American girlfriend loved it).

Snowpiercer Not as good as Okja or Parasite, but a great premise and a well-executed twist. Jamie Bell’s Irish accent is passable. I still can’t get into Tilda Swinton, and she feels out of place in everything I’ve seen her in. Snowpiercer has fallen victim to the trend of every popular piece of Korean cinema being interpreted by Americans as a metaphor for capitalism.

A mini-doc about rationality celeb Aella taking acid.

What I’ve been listening to

A good podcast about The Godfather.

Sam Bankman-Fried talking to Sam Harris on his podcast about philanthropy (again with the Sams!).

Once: soundtrack (see above).

Links for December

Links are late this month, due to my Christmas-induced slowdown in media consumption.

What I’ve been reading

Zvi Mowshowitz’s current model of omicron. It’s hard to believe this came out only a week ago.

Why does yoga feel good? Some hypotheses.

Cheating as a last resort. And more from the same blog: experiments in choosing a partner via filling out an online form. I recommend Aella’s Twitter!

On how the term ‘no evidence’ has been so thoroughly abused during the pandemic.

Every once in a while, you should investigate something as though you had no trust whatsoever in any of your sources of information.   

Hayao Miyazaki is like the superhero trope: coming out of retirement for one last job.

52 Things Tom Whitwell learned in 2021.

Trying to solve the mystery of why some diseases are seasonal. Answer: it’s not the cold. 

What I’ve been listening to

The Conversations with Tyler 2021 retrospective.

Elon Musk on the Lex Fridman podcast.

Tyler Cowen on the Clearer Thinking podcast. Tyler’s point about getting on tracks of compounding returns early is maybe the most important piece of advice I’ve ever heard. And Spencer Greenberg is always worth listening to.

We Like it Here by Snarky Puppy.

What I’ve been watching

In defence of the imperial measurement system. It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as you probably think.

In search of the war donkeys of Cyprus. And other travel videos: to Afghanistan and Iraq.

A short film about a Chinese guy who teaches himself Irish, thinking it’s the language spoken in Ireland: Yu Ming is Ainm Dom.

The adorable chemistry professor from Brady Haran’s videos gets a tram named after him.

The French flag was changed in secret two months ago and nobody noticed!  

The Iron Lady I am unclear what exactly this film is trying to tell me about Margaret Thatcher. The message I’m getting is something like “stubbornness is sometimes good by accident; net effect unclear”. Nothing in here about actual pro-market principles. Where is my Oscar-winning film whose message is that neoliberalism is great and it wrenched Britain out of the economic dark ages?

The Father Fantastic, and stylistically similar to The Irony Lady. Truly remarkable for a directorial debut from a playwright.

12 Years a Slave Probably one of the only times I’ve had to pause a film out of sheer discomfort. I was surprised to learn that this and Django are the only non-documentary films about slavery that I’ve seen. These two facts are no doubt related.