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.

Software

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

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.

Spectacle 

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

VPN

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 smile.amazon.co.uk, 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

I’m Moving to Substack

My blog is entering its next stage of evolution. I have launched a Substack, called The Fitzwilliam, about “Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.” You can retweet my announcement here and subscribe to the blog here. Marginal Revolution announcement here.

Unlike this blog, The Fitzwilliam will have guest posts.

The name comes from a street in Dublin where I had lunch with my friends during which we hatched the idea for this blog. 

I will probably still post here sometimes, if the topic is of little interest to the Substack readership. All the posts will be free for the indefinite future.

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.

Thanks

Sam

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. 

Regards

Sam

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

Sam

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. 

Thanks

Sam

The Russians and taking ideas seriously

Hi,

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,

Sam

“I didn’t get passed the first sentence”

Hi,

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,

Sam

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…

Sam

Go woke, go broke (maybe)

Hi,

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. 

Sam

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. 

Sam

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

Sam 

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. 

Sam

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? 

Sam

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.”

Sam

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. 

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

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. 

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).

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.