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.”


3 responses to “The Parable of the Rocketship and other tidbits”

  1. Twin Oaks is another Skinner inspired community.

    Except it’s awesome, still around and thriving, and worthy of a visit if you have any interest in intentional community.


  2. Lots of interesting points, but to single out one:

    Re: Speedrunning

    I share your fascination with speedrunning. Holden Karnofsky of Open AI has talked about his fascination with speedrunning in a blog post:

    A point I want to highlight is when he talks about how speed-running has adopted distincly science-like norms:

    “The TAS community has developed a bunch of science-type norms: “authors” make “submissions,” which are judged by extensive guidelines and “published” only if they are validated, better than the previous state-of-the-art, and (usually) not clearly improvable.

    I think TASes are a great metaphor for science, and give a much better feel for how I imagine science progresses than most stories about actual science. They demonstrate how a subculture can arise that consists of obsessives doggedly working (and collaborating) to push the frontier of understanding and performance on … absolutely anything, for no reason other than “Hey, I think I might be able to do/understand this random thing 0.1% better than anyone else has before (and it’s OK that someone else will take my place the following week).” They also demonstrate how that dogged work includes obsessively looking for weird edge cases one can exploit toward the goal, leading to “magical” seeming results. In speedrunning, this means finding ways to clip through walls and otherwise glitch the game in ways clearly not intended by the game designer; in science, this means stuff like nuclear power and space exploration. I think the analogy’s pretty much perfect.”

    My fascination with speedrunning comes from a similar angle. Specifically, what I find so fascinating about speedrunning is that it manages to divorce cultural evolution from all other evolutionary processes.

    Consider the evolution of performance in sports, for example. In the famous 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens won the 100m dash in 10.3 seconds. Fast forward 73 years, and Usain Bolt sets a new world record of *9.58* at the World Championships (coincidentally also at Berlin). That is a huge jump in performance between then and now. But what has caused the improvement in performance? For normal sports, it seems to a messy confluence of many different factors:

    * Deeper talent pool. There were roughly 2 1/2 billion people alive in 1936 compared to the over 7 billion alive today. More people means that the outliers will be even further from the mean.

    *Better nutrition. All else being equal, Jesse Owens would run faster today purely due to diet. (Supporting evidence for this are the historical trends in average height, average mortality, Flynn effect, etc.)

    *Better technology. For running, that means more aerodynamic clothing, bouncier running tracks, and faster running cleats. These are independant of athletic skill per se, but still result in a faster time.

    *And lastly, cultural evolution: the body of knowledge a community accumulates about the best way to perform different tasks. Running is not a very technical sport, but it’s still a trainable skill with well-accepted best practices. And I’m sure in the past seventy years there have been strides in this area as well.

    What’s so interesting about speed-running is that it isolates purely cultural evolution from the other factors. It’s a relatively new “sport” so the talent pool has stayed mostly stationary. Same with nutrition. Technology doesn’t really seem to be a factor for live speed-runs though I don’t know much about TAS speed-running unfortunatetly. All improvements seem to be purely about improvements in collective knowledge (and neurological training as well). Observing that process in real-time is just fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

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