I realise that we’re now quite a bit into June, but I only had the idea for this post a few days ago. These posts will be a collection of articles, books, podcasts, music and films that I read/listened to/watched recently. I won’t bother mentioning things that I’ve already written separate posts about.
What I’ve Been Reading
My friend Will Robbins and others have written a Progress Studies 101 curriculum on Notion. If you’re not familiar with progress studies, it’s a new intellectual movement to study the causes of civilisational progress, and how to continue it – from industrial history to funding models. It was inspired by this Atlantic article by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen
Ted Giola on his favourite new albums of April.
My friend just wrote this piece in the University Observer. People are indeed confused about what ‘originality’ means, and everything is a remix.
A very bearish case on Europe’s vaccine rollout.
It turns out that famous story about how Pepsi used to have the 6th largest navy in the world isn’t true at all. The real story is still very interesting.
Making Sense Kind of a lazy premise for a book, because it’s just the lightly edited transcripts of the best episodes of Sam Harris’ podcast. And I’m not even sure I agreed with the selection of conversations: I would have included the Will MacAskill and Jonathan Haidt episodes, and I would have dropped the particular emphasis on conversations about consciousness (unless Harris is planning to turn this into two books). The David Chalmers and Anil Seth conversations repeat the same old tropes about the hard vs easy problem, qualia, what it’s like to be a bat, and so on.
Blink Enjoyable as an audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, but it doesn’t hold up well scientifically even by the standards of his books. The most interesting study he talks about is that one where you can predict people’s personality traits shockingly well just by examining their bedrooms because, for example, people with tidier rooms will be higher in trait conscientiousness. This is why Republicans have tidier rooms than Democrats. I don’t know whether this has survived replication. I think if you’re going to read any of Gladwell’s books, you should read them all. Because, even though the scientific details of many of them are sketchy, as a whole they are much more nuanced. Outliers, for example, is about advantages that look like advantages, while David and Goliath is about advantages that look like disadvantages. Similarly, Blink is about the reliability of snap judgements, and Talking to Strangers is about the unreliability of snap judgements.
To Explain the World Pretty standard book for the history of science genre. Main takeaways: the distinction between episteme and techne and the natural and the artificial in ancient Greece was a big impediment to progress. Aristotle, a great observationist, didn’t trust experiments for this reason. Also, it’s also not as simple as Copernicus coming up with the heliocentric model to replace the geocentric one: heliocentric models go back to Aristarchus, and there were a couple of variations on the geometry of the solar system – for instance, that the planets went around the sun but the sun went around the Earth. Also didn’t realise Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different people 🙂
The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Pretty good as an audiobook, although the ‘sensitive college students are destroying academia’ genre is done to death by now. The more interesting part is about the alarming mental health trends, most among girls, of people born post-1996. There is a well-known study that shows that screen time is uncorrelated with mental health outcomes for teenagers (which is true), but Haidt points out that, among girls, social media use explains more of the variance of mental ill health than heroin use (!!). (Note that this is mostly because very few people do heroin.) I hope that Haidt stays on this intellectual path and fleshes his argument more by looking at other countries.
Them: Adventures with Extremists Light and entertaining, just like all of Jon Ronson’s stuff. The book is significantly outdated, and treats conspiracy theorists with a kind of levity that you wouldn’t see today, in an age of QAnon and covid denialism. A main theme of the book is that a lot of people with fringe beliefs are just garden-variety crazy, rather than part of an organised hate movement. I don’t think a book would be written today, now that conspiracy theories like anti-vax have done so much harm.
A Promised Land Malcolm Gladwell once said that the best autobiographies are form people who were second-in-command, or lower down the ranks of power, because the people on top have too much to lose from writing candidly. This is certainly the case with Obama’s book. It’s possible that he really does think the way he writes, but in that case, I overestimated his intellectual depth. I wish he had talked more about his intellectual influences and what he was reading at Colombia and Harvard, but the stuff about his upbringing was mildly interesting.
What I’ve Been Watching
Operation Varsity Blues This documentary is well put-together and has a cool format (real phone transcripts that are acted out) but seems morally mistaken in a number of respects. To be honest, I’m not sure that auctioning off university slots would be worse than the current system.
In Bruges One of my favourite comedies. The film is filled with references to death, and the whole setup with the midget is almost Shakespearian.
Parasite Immediately became one of my favourite films. Bong Joon-Ho just released a black-and-white version of the film, and I’m very excited to watch it. My girlfriend and I had an interpretation closer to the politically incorrect version given by Alex Tabarrok: namely, that the real villains of this film are the poor family, and the rich family are actually good, if naive, people. Some of the things said about this film in places like Vox and NYT makes me question whether they really watched the film.
No Country for Old Men There’s a good hour in the middle of this film that feels like completely pointless violence, and you only figure out that it’s not pointless toward the end when there’s a more philosophical and subversive twist.
A Beautiful Mind There are surprisingly many great films about maths. Fermat’s Room and The Man Who Knew Infinity are also great.
This was a great two-part series on the Napoleonic wars that I watched. This period in history is absolutely insane.
What I’ve been listening to
Plays – Chick Corea Chick Corea was a famous jazz pianist who died this year. Pastime Paradise (a cover of Stevie Wonder) is just sublime.
RoundAgain – Joshua Redman Brad Meldheu is one of the best living jazz artists I know about. Right Back Round Again is the best song from this album.
Anatomy of Angels – Jon Batiste Jon Batiste’s jazz is great. Listen to the title track and to Round Midnight.
Swingin’ in Seattle – Cannonball Adderley Recently released. His voiceovers are great and it really shows Cannonball as the playful more popular version of the First Great Quintet era jazz giants.
My Favorite Things – Joey Alexander Joey Alexander is spectacularly talented, and he’s only 17 which really makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life. The best tracks from this album are Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and Tour De Force.
Making Sense with Iain McGilchrist I’m surprised that McGilchrist isn’t more well-known. I’m building up to The Master and his Emissary, which is about hemispheric lateralisation (i.e. how the brain was divided in two and assigned functions to them). He has a theory about how this division shaped history, although I don’t understand the argument. He was also excellent on EconTalk.
Very Bad Wizards: William James on habit William James, the father of American psychology, seems like an incredibly underrated thinker. He reminds me of Adam Smith in that he pre-empted so much of his field. Indeed, the very topic of habits and automatic processing is very scientifically and philosophically rich. Very Bad Wizards is one of my favourite podcasts – if you have any interest in psychology or philosophy, I highly recommend going through their archive and listening to the episodes that interest you.
80,000 Hours with Howie Lempel The 80,000 Hours podcast, hosted by Rob Wiblin, is one of the most popular pieces of media in the effective altruism community. This recent episode about living with a mental illness is very relevant to my recent post about depression.
Julia Galef has done a number of interviews for her new book The Scout Mindset. The best is this one on the Mindscape podcast with Sean Carroll.
The New Shape of Pasta from Planet Money. This chronicles one man’s journey to try to invent a new form of pasta, which combines the benefits of flat pastas like tagliatelle with the frills of farfelle (the dickie bow pasta). Click through for a picture.