Links for September

PSA: If you live in the Edinburgh area, I am organising an Astral Codex Ten meetup group. The first meeting will (probably) be on the 24th of October with Scott Alexander himself, but hopefully we will have enough people to be sustaining after that. I also help organise an effective altruism group in Edinburgh, so if you are the type of person that reads this blog and live in or near Edinburgh then check out our website and Facebook page.

What I’ve been reading

Something cool that happened: I posed a question to Tyler Cowen about why British talk/panel shows are so much better than American ones and he posted it on Marginal Revolution, and later posted a response.

I was completely unaware that smallpox hadn’t come to large swaths of Central Asia until the 18th century.

I’ve been reading through all of Paul Graham’s essays as a source of startup-related wisdom. I enjoyed reading his argument that the reason manufacturing workers were overpaid in the 20th century was not because of unions but because manufacturing was a growth sector. Software engineers might be overpaid today for similar reasons. I also finally read What You Can’t Say.

An argument that the recent fiasco in Afghanistan shows that expertise in the social and political sciences is basically fake. I loved the opening paragraph:

“Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?

Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?

For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.”

 A critique of rationalist amateur sociology using rationalist amateur sociology.

A post about Scott Alexander’s writing style and what makes it so good. Next I want to see a breakdown of how he’s able to write so much.

Scott Alexander on ivermectin, the knee-jerk reaction to a story about ivermectin, and the knee-jerk reaction to the knee-jerk reaction.

The Browser has a great interview with the blogger Applied Divinity Studies. “I once met a guy who dropped out from a Harvard PhD and launched a startup entirely because Tyler [Cowen] linked to a post he wrote.”

A recent post that has been doing the rounds about how Tyler Cowen is such a good curator of talent. Although of course I am strongly motivated to come to the conclusion that Tyler Cowen is a good curator of talent 😀

Replacing Guilt Initially a series of blog posts, now a book, that argues against guilt as a motivation and in favour of finding other intrinsic motivations. I would like to see a sequel in which someone argues for a rigorous humanities education on this basis. The book format didn’t add anything for me, so feel free to read as blog posts.

What I’ve been listening to

A conversation between Julia Galef and Kelsey Piper, a journalist from Vox, about how to reason about COVID and other hard things. Ivermectin bad, fluvoxamine good (probably). Also contains a discussion of the “degrowth” movement, of which there has been several critiques recently.

Mushtaq Khan on the 80,000 Hours podcast talking about using institutional economics to predict which government reforms will work. I appreciate his point that it’s excruciatingly difficult to make generalisations. Neoclassical economic theory grew out of trying to understand Britain and America, and if this is your starting point, then it is no surprise that you come to the conclusion that what’s good for economic development is free markets and democracy. If economics had first developed in Singapore and Korea, then we would have concluded that what’s good for economic development is protectionism and authoritarianism.

Bryan Caplan on open borders and who’s to blame for poverty. This podcast was unusually good and is now my favourite conversation with him.

I greatly enjoyed the Conversations with Tyler episode with David Cutler and Edward Glaeser about the economics of cities. Edinburgh is mentioned as an example of a city that is beautiful and dense. Everywhere near where I live is at least five-stories; it is only on the outskirts that you see ugly low-density modern buildings. Density doesn’t come at the expense of beauty; frequently, the opposite is true.

A podcast with Ben Kuhn, the CTO of Wave. I can’t yet recommend other episodes of this podcast – they still have audio issues and such – but it has potential.

Sam Harris talks to Balaji Srinivasan about crypto, monopolies, Singapore and building new institutions. Balaji is much further along the train to crazy town than I am, but he makes for an excellent podcast guest.  

Zeynep Tufekci on CWT. For those of you who don’t know, Tufekci is a Turkish sociologist who is recently famous for having been right very early about COVID. Conversations with Tyler has been unusually good recently, possibly because some of the episodes are recorded in-person again.

Two recent episodes of the 80,000 Hours podcast with Holden Karnofsky were particularly good. In the second of these podcasts Holden argues that effective altruism has been radically underestimating personal fit and the excruciating finitude of our willpower. Interestingly, Caplan argues the opposite in the podcast linked above (“Of course I am morally obligated to go on a skiing holiday in the alps. I need to feel refreshed so I can make more money and donate it!”).

Candy – Lee Morgan I am working on a guide to the trumpeter Lee Morgan, but it’s taking a while because cultivating in myself a greater appreciation of music is a lot of work. See also Lee Morgan in concert. My favourite songs have been Sweet Honey Bee from the album Charisma and (of course) Moanin’.   

What I’ve Been Watching

The Good Place Surprisingly good, although corny at times. The characters are absurdly exaggerated, but I found the plot very satisfying and engaging. Finally people will stop telling me to watch it because I’m interested in moral philosophy!

Isle of Dogs Wes Anderson’s second animated film. Some people think that Anderson is getting too contrived, and I can see where this critique comes from. I plan to write a post about Wes Anderson at some point, so come back to me then.

Wilde Who else could be cast to play Oscar Wilde other than Stephen Fry?

The Rolling Thunder Revue A documentary about Bob Dylan’s famous 1976 tour by Martin Scorsese. I don’t know much Dylan, but he has done a uniquely good job staying weird. And perhaps this is because of the dickishness and not in spite of it. You can see this in the recent interview clips with him for the documentary: he clearly doesn’t want to be there and thinks the premise of the documentary is bullshit.

Capote Phenomenal, I don’t know why I waited so long to watch it. In this video an accent expert breaks down Philip Seymour Hoffman’s vocal performance for this film.

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