A Layman’s Guide to Recreational Mathematics Videos

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

Explainer channels

3Blue1Brown

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

Numberphile

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

Stand-up Maths

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

Mathologer

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

PBS Infinite Series (discontinued)

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

Mathmaniac

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

Eddie Woo

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

Welch Labs (discontinued?)

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

Problem-solving channels

Blackpenredpen

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

Michael Penn

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

Flammable Maths

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

MindYourDecisions

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

Other channels that sometimes talk about maths

Jan Misali

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

Veritasium

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

Vsauce

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

Andrew Dotson

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

Tibees

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

Simon Clark

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

TED-Ed

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

Music and fun

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

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

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

Bonus: podcasts about maths

The Joy of X

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

The 3B1B Podcast

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

Numberphile Podcast

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

Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.

Links for August

What I’ve been reading

Slime Mold on tricameral legislatures. What if there were three houses of Congress, the third one being composed of randomly selected members of the population, and laws could be approved by any two out of three of the houses? This post works through that idea.

If you are looking for more links or articles, I recommend these pages by Alexey Guzey and David Perell.

Some scepticism about the behavioural genetics literature that finds that parenting doesn’t matter.

Scott Alexander argues that the FDA is too conservative:

“A bunch of laboratories, universities, and health care groups came up with COVID tests before the virus was even in the US, and were 100% ready to deploy them. But when the US declared that the coronavirus was a “public health emergency”, the FDA announced that the emergency was so grave that they were banning all coronavirus testing, so that nobody could take advantage of the emergency to peddle shoddy tests. Perhaps you might feel like this is exactly the opposite of what you should do during an emergency? This is a sure sign that you will never work for the FDA.”

Also, an argument that kids missing school due to COVID will not end up being that harmful.

Does X cause Y? An excellent, and funny, allegory about the difficulties of causal inference. This is from the new blog Cold Takes, by GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky, which readers of this blog would enjoy.

Applied Divinity Studies argues in favour of allowing doping in the Olympics. I agree that the argument that the Olympics should be “fair” is bogus (genetic differences >> doping differences) but the social effects of allowing doping are not well understood. If we could be sure that the doping would be consigned to the actual tournament, that would be fine.

David Perell essay on saving the liberal arts. This article was about two times longer than it needed to be and it had a lot of fluff, however the subject matter is interesting.

Tanner Greer on the myth of panic. The risk of COVID was repeatedly downplayed by governments and health authorities to prevent “panic”, despite the lack of actual instances of panic in situations like this throughout history. If you don’t know about Palladium, I recommend checking out some of their other articles.

“With the sole exception of the Black Plague—and there only in Germany and the Low Countries—no premodern epidemic spawned violence, persecution, or chaos.”

Tim Urban on what he learned from visiting North Korea.

A post on why there has been such an economic divergence between Haiti and the Dominican Republic since the 1960s. Debt owed to France? Racism? Persistence? Here is also a Vox video on that subject from three years ago.

A game: antidepressant or character from the Lord of the Rings? Harder than you might think – I got tripped up on ‘Narmacil’ among others.

What I’ve been listening to

Andrew Sullivan on Conversations with Tyler. Also, Niall Ferguson on CWT. These podcasts are nice compliments to one another, and Sullivan talks about his Oxford days with Ferguson. CWT has been unusually good recently. The team that produces the podcast sent me and my girlfriend some swag because they liked my post about my favourite episodes, which was very kind of them.

Cal Newport on the 80,000 Hours podcast talking about how to improve productivity and improving attention as a potential EA cause area.

A good podcast about Thomas Kuhn’s ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’. And the SSC review.

Steven Strogatz on the new 3Blue1Brown podcast.

Maiden Voyage is one of the only recordings of the obscure jazz prodigy Austin Peralta, who died tragically young. I found out about him from this post by Ted Giola.

Moanin’ (expanded edition) I’m working on a listening guide to Lee Morgan, who was the trumpeter for a while for Art Blakey’s band. This album was released in 1959 and was their first major hit. It never gets old.

What I’ve been watching

Steven Mould has been making great videos explaining hydrodynamic mechanisms with 2D setups. Here’s one on Heron’s fountain.

Grant Sanderson chatting with Dillon Berger on his YouTube stream Physics After Hours.

You probably know Tom Lehrer’s periodic table song. However, my favourite track of his is actually his song about the mathematician Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky. “In my first book, I plagiarise everything. The index was taken from old Vladivostok telephone directory.”

Another mathematical song that’s been stuck in my head: a musical proof that Euler’s number is irrational.

Running untested code on a Christmas tree.

A short video about British electoral law.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Watched it twice in a week, my favourite Wes Anderson film.

Philomena An excellent film, about a relative no less. Which is really not saying much, because everyone in Ireland is related.

Godfather Part I Am I the last person on Earth to watch this film?

Book Review: The Beginning of Infinity

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

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

All progress comes from good explanations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We do not derive knowledge from the senses

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress is unbounded

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Problems are soluble and problems are inevitable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Abstractions are real

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

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

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

Anthropic reasoning is flawed

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

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

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

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

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

Focus on ejecting bad leaders, not selecting good ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty is objective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imitation is a creative act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability is overrated

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 We will always be at the beginning of infinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A List of Projects and Microgrants You Should Apply For

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

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

Projects and programs

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

Ireland-specific

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

Grants

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

My Five Favourite Episodes of ‘Conversations with Tyler’

Inspired by: Fergus McCullough.

Podcast feed: Website, Apple podcasts, Spotify, RSS

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

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

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

5. Emily Wilson

Link

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

4. Nathan Nunn & Melissa Dell

Link for Nunn and Dell

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

3. Karl Ove Knausgård

Link

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

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

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

2. Kwame Anthony Appiah

Link

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

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

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

1. David Deutsch

Link

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

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

Bonus: Rob Wiblin interviews Tyler

Link

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

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

Thanks to Sydney for reading a draft of this post.

Notes on Persistence and Economic Development

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

Persistence and institutions

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

Growth and inequality

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

Geography

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

Colonialism

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

Conclusion

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

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

Links for July

I added an ideas page to this website, which can be accessed from the homepage.

I also added a projects page for miscellany that doesn’t fit into a blog post.

What I’ve been reading

George Orwell’s thoughts on the common toad. “Presently [the toad] has swollen to his normal size again, and then he goes through a phase of intense sexiness.” I’m guessing the word ‘sexy’ used to mean “desiring sex” and George Orwell was not attracted to a toad? Otherwise, I will need to rethink the message of Animal Farm…

Simon Beard has a bio of the moral philosopher Derek Parfit on his website. Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of Parfit for the New Yorker remains one of my all-time favourite articles.

Scott Alexander on how effective lockdowns have been. It’s a mixed picture, the between-country comparisons are significantly less informative than the between-state comparisons in the US, due to data-reporting issues and cultural differences.

Mark Lutter released a catalogue of examples of successful social movements. I would add various postcolonial movements to restore a country’s language and culture, like the Gaelic League.

I finally read the Wait Buy Why articles about AI. And Luke Muehlhauser’s response.

Noah Smith argues that the high level of Jewish accomplishment in fields like science actually isn’t surprising, Scott Alexander pushes back, and Noah Smith posts a defence.

An overview on the EA Forum of how well the world’s governments responded to COVID (hint: poorly).

What Cowen, Collison and Hsu learned doing Fast Grants. If you click on just one of these links, have it be this one!

What’s it like to visit Peru during lockdown?

Higher than the Shoulders of Giants A very intriguing argument that the slowdown in growth post-1970 is due to the Controlled Substances Act, and that cultures tend to see periods of artistic and intellectual flourishing after the introduction of new drugs. An excellent post.

The Bomber Mafia A short engaging read about how the US switched from precision to civilian bombing. If you are going to read it, however, you should also read the LA Times review, which is very negative. Gladwell seems to have returned to his roots of cutesy and simplistic narratives. The reviewer takes a moralising perspective that I don’t appreciate: this is a book about white men in the air force – it’s simply not attempting to be comprehensive, or claim to represent the victims.

A Map that Reflects the Territory This is a collection of the best essays of 2018 from the website LessWrong. I very much enjoyed it. The best posts contained within are Varieties of argumentative Experience, A Voting Theory Primer, Is Science Slowing Down? and The Rocket Alignment Problem (an allegory about AI safety research).

What I’ve been watching

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom I can tell this works better as a play, right down the “all taking place in one room” (well, two rooms) trope.

The Miles Davis Quintet live in Milan 1964. 40:50 is where Miles gets pissed off at Herbie Hancock. Also, the Karlsruhe 1967 concert. It’s striking how little exposition or narration there is in old concerts. They don’t even say the names of the songs. Finally, Stockholm ’67.

The Eddy I was very excited to see that Damien Chazelle (director of Whiplash and La La Land) had a Netflix series about jazz. I was a little bit disappointed, however the soundtrack was excellent – I particularly recommend ‘Kiss Me in the Morning’ and the uptempo version of ‘The Eddy’.

A Quiet Place Part II An unnecessary sequel to be sure, although still a worthy way to pass the time. It felt good to go to a real-life cinema!

Jazz by Ken Burns A 12-part series, so this has taken up most of my TV-watching recently. I posted my notes.

A documentary about Monserrat, a Caribbean island that was originally settled by the Irish and has maintained a strong (and often bizarre) cultural connection to it. Many different parts of the island are named after places in Ireland, like Kinsale. It is weird to see black people from the Caribbean being called Seamus Murphy!

What I’ve been listening to

Tom Monyihan on the intellectual history of existential risk.

Richard Prum on birds and bird-watching.

Naval Ravikant posted his podcast with Brett Hall about The Beginning of Infinity.

Leopold Aschenbrenner on being a Valedictorian and German culture. I also recommend his blog.

Charisma – Lee Morgan A phenomenal album, Sweet Honey Bee is the best track.

Keith Jarrett live in Paris 1988 Solo piano, and mostly just the one track.

Clubhouse – Dexter Gordon ‘I’m a Fool to Want You’ is the most famous song on here, but I also like the title song.

Night Dreamer – Wayne Shorter Listen to the title song and to ‘Virgo’.

Notes on the Ken Burns Jazz Series

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

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

Links for June

First, some housekeeping:

  1. This blog is now funded by Emergent Ventures! Huge thanks to Tyler Cowen for this.
  2. My Miles Davis post got a fair amount of traction. I got a lot of feedback, most of which was constructive. My biggest error was not paying more attention to the late career live recordings, which are often significantly better than the studio albums. I’m keeping the post updated in response to my current thoughts and tastes.
  3. I’ve decided to rename these posts from ‘media diet’ to ‘links’. I’ll still include films and albums I recommend, but most of it will be links to podcasts, articles, and other interesting things that I find.
  4. I’ve made some aesthetic changes to the website, and I now have a cute lil’ owl as my icon.

What I’ve been reading

Luke Muelhauser gives a “painless introduction” to pre-Socratic philosophy.

Tim Urban on how to pick a life partner. And a review of the American presidents. It ends at McKinley, so I didn’t get to hear this thoughts about my boy Herbert Hoover 😦

Carl Zimmer in the NYT on aphantasia, or the inability to form mental images, and hyperphantasia, the formation of unusually vivid mental images. “Based on their surveys, Dr. Zeman and his colleagues estimate that 2.6 percent of people have hyperphantasia and that 0.7 percent have aphantasia.” I’m glad to see this subject getting more coverage.

Stephen Fry on the classics.

An oldie but a goodie: Scott Alexander’s Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting.

Exciting progress in the fight against dengue fever.

My investigations into Napoleon Bonaparte have continued.

In Defense of Finance The amount of outrage that people have about finance does indeed appear to vary in inverse proportion to how much they know about it.

Parasite: A Graphic Novel in Storyboards I couldn’t recommend this more highly.

The Death of Stalin Both the film and graphic novel are excellent. It is hard to imagine a work of fiction being more insane than what actually occurred after Stalin’s death.

Music: A Very Short Introduction Really an introduction to classical music. These Oxford ‘very short introduction’ books are excellent.

What I’ve been watching

Straight Outta Compton Recommended even if you know nothing about the subject matter. And Ben Westhoff on the evolution of gangster rap.

Kill Bill, Vol. 1 I know that Tarantino is a great filmmaker. What I’m less certain of is whether he’s ever directed a truly great film.

Sherpa Is there now a sherpa union? Is Everest overcrowding due to squeamishness about raising prices? How highly are guides implicitly valuing their lives? Someone needs to write a paper about the economics of sherpas.

The Dawn Wall There seem to be unusually many great documentaries about mountain climbing.

The Adventures of Tintin One of my favourite comic series as a kid, although some of it is indeed horribly racist so I am not sure the print versions will survive cancellation. I think this film is an underrated masterpiece.

Tom Scott on Ogham, the ancient Irish writing system. We learned about this in school, but the unusual implications for unicode I did not know about.

What I’ve been listening to

Blue’s Moods One of the most underrated jazz albums I know about. My favourites are ‘I’ll Close My Eyes’, ‘Scrapple from the Apple’ and ‘When I Fall in Love’.

Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia A wonderful collection. The best tracks are ‘Dinah’ and ‘The Gypsy’.

The Capitol Studios Sessions Jeff Goldblum released a jazz album and it’s actually… surprisingly good. Listen to ‘Cantaloupe Island’.

The Sidewinder I recently watched the documentary ‘I Called Him Morgan’, which has rekindled my interest in Lee Morgan. The best tracks are the title song and ‘Totem Pole’.

Covered (Live at Capitol Studios) I mentioned Robert Glasper in my Miles Davis post, this is one of his ‘pure’ jazz albums. ‘So Beautiful’ is my favourite song here.

Agnes Callard on status and polyamory.

Elijah Milgram on Nozick, Nietzsche, Mill and others.

David Whyte on his poetry collection ‘Consolations’. The Making Sense podcast is worth subscribing to the premium version of (they give it to you for free if you can’t afford it).

The Very Bad Wizards podcast try to make sense of Gogol’s short story ‘The Nose’ with Yoel Inbar.

Links for May

I realise that we’re now quite a bit into June, but I only had the idea for this post a few days ago. These posts will be a collection of articles, books, podcasts, music and films that I read/listened to/watched recently. I won’t bother mentioning things that I’ve already written separate posts about.

What I’ve Been Reading

Jim Carroll has also been blogging about Miles Davis.

My friend Will Robbins and others have written a Progress Studies 101 curriculum on Notion. If you’re not familiar with progress studies, it’s a new intellectual movement to study the causes of civilisational progress, and how to continue it – from industrial history to funding models. It was inspired by this Atlantic article by Patrick Collison and Tyler Cowen

Ted Giola on his favourite new albums of April.

My friend just wrote this piece in the University Observer. People are indeed confused about what ‘originality’ means, and everything is a remix.

A very bearish case on Europe’s vaccine rollout.

It turns out that famous story about how Pepsi used to have the 6th largest navy in the world isn’t true at all. The real story is still very interesting.

Making Sense Kind of a lazy premise for a book, because it’s just the lightly edited transcripts of the best episodes of Sam Harris’ podcast. And I’m not even sure I agreed with the selection of conversations: I would have included the Will MacAskill and Jonathan Haidt episodes, and I would have dropped the particular emphasis on conversations about consciousness (unless Harris is planning to turn this into two books). The David Chalmers and Anil Seth conversations repeat the same old tropes about the hard vs easy problem, qualia, what it’s like to be a bat, and so on.  

Blink Enjoyable as an audiobook, narrated by Gladwell, but it doesn’t hold up well scientifically even by the standards of his books. The most interesting study he talks about is that one where you can predict people’s personality traits shockingly well just by examining their bedrooms because, for example, people with tidier rooms will be higher in trait conscientiousness. This is why Republicans have tidier rooms than Democrats. I don’t know whether this has survived replication. I think if you’re going to read any of Gladwell’s books, you should read them all. Because, even though the scientific details of many of them are sketchy, as a whole they are much more nuanced. Outliers, for example, is about advantages that look like advantages, while David and Goliath is about advantages that look like disadvantages. Similarly, Blink is about the reliability of snap judgements, and Talking to Strangers is about the unreliability of snap judgements.

To Explain the World Pretty standard book for the history of science genre. Main takeaways: the distinction between episteme and techne and the natural and the artificial in ancient Greece was a big impediment to progress. Aristotle, a great observationist, didn’t trust experiments for this reason. Also, it’s also not as simple as Copernicus coming up with the heliocentric model to replace the geocentric one: heliocentric models go back to Aristarchus, and there were a couple of variations on the geometry of the solar system – for instance, that the planets went around the sun but the sun went around the Earth. Also didn’t realise Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different people 🙂

The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff. Pretty good as an audiobook, although the ‘sensitive college students are destroying academia’ genre is done to death by now. The more interesting part is about the alarming mental health trends, most among girls, of people born post-1996. There is a well-known study that shows that screen time is uncorrelated with mental health outcomes for teenagers (which is true), but Haidt points out that, among girls, social media use explains more of the variance of mental ill health than heroin use (!!). (Note that this is mostly because very few people do heroin.) I hope that Haidt stays on this intellectual path and fleshes his argument more by looking at other countries.

Them: Adventures with Extremists Light and entertaining, just like all of Jon Ronson’s stuff. The book is significantly outdated, and treats conspiracy theorists with a kind of levity that you wouldn’t see today, in an age of QAnon and covid denialism. A main theme of the book is that a lot of people with fringe beliefs are just garden-variety crazy, rather than part of an organised hate movement. I don’t think a book would be written today, now that conspiracy theories like anti-vax have done so much harm.

A Promised Land Malcolm Gladwell once said that the best autobiographies are form people who were second-in-command, or lower down the ranks of power, because the people on top have too much to lose from writing candidly. This is certainly the case with Obama’s book. It’s possible that he really does think the way he writes, but in that case, I overestimated his intellectual depth. I wish he had talked more about his intellectual influences and what he was reading at Colombia and Harvard, but the stuff about his upbringing was mildly interesting.

What I’ve Been Watching

Operation Varsity Blues This documentary is well put-together and has a cool format (real phone transcripts that are acted out) but seems morally mistaken in a number of respects. To be honest, I’m not sure that auctioning off university slots would be worse than the current system.

In Bruges One of my favourite comedies. The film is filled with references to death, and the whole setup with the midget is almost Shakespearian.

Parasite Immediately became one of my favourite films. Bong Joon-Ho just released a black-and-white version of the film, and I’m very excited to watch it. My girlfriend and I had an interpretation closer to the politically incorrect version given by Alex Tabarrok: namely, that the real villains of this film are the poor family, and the rich family are actually good, if naive, people. Some of the things said about this film in places like Vox and NYT makes me question whether they really watched the film.

No Country for Old Men There’s a good hour in the middle of this film that feels like completely pointless violence, and you only figure out that it’s not pointless toward the end when there’s a more philosophical and subversive twist.

A Beautiful Mind There are surprisingly many great films about maths. Fermat’s Room and The Man Who Knew Infinity are also great.

This was a great two-part series on the Napoleonic wars that I watched. This period in history is absolutely insane.

What I’ve been listening to

Plays – Chick Corea Chick Corea was a famous jazz pianist who died this year. Pastime Paradise (a cover of Stevie Wonder) is just sublime.

RoundAgain – Joshua Redman Brad Meldheu is one of the best living jazz artists I know about. Right Back Round Again is the best song from this album.

Anatomy of Angels – Jon Batiste Jon Batiste’s jazz is great. Listen to the title track and to Round Midnight.

Swingin’ in Seattle – Cannonball Adderley Recently released. His voiceovers are great and it really shows Cannonball as the playful more popular version of the First Great Quintet era jazz giants.

My Favorite Things – Joey Alexander Joey Alexander is spectacularly talented, and he’s only 17 which really makes you wonder what you’re doing with your life. The best tracks from this album are Giant Steps, My Favorite Things, and Tour De Force.

Making Sense with Iain McGilchrist I’m surprised that McGilchrist isn’t more well-known. I’m building up to The Master and his Emissary, which is about hemispheric lateralisation (i.e. how the brain was divided in two and assigned functions to them). He has a theory about how this division shaped history, although I don’t understand the argument. He was also excellent on EconTalk.

Very Bad Wizards: William James on habit William James, the father of American psychology, seems like an incredibly underrated thinker. He reminds me of Adam Smith in that he pre-empted so much of his field. Indeed, the very topic of habits and automatic processing is very scientifically and philosophically rich. Very Bad Wizards is one of my favourite podcasts – if you have any interest in psychology or philosophy, I highly recommend going through their archive and listening to the episodes that interest you.

80,000 Hours with Howie Lempel The 80,000 Hours podcast, hosted by Rob Wiblin, is one of the most popular pieces of media in the effective altruism community. This recent episode about living with a mental illness is very relevant to my recent post about depression.

Julia Galef has done a number of interviews for her new book The Scout Mindset. The best is this one on the Mindscape podcast with Sean Carroll.

The New Shape of Pasta from Planet Money. This chronicles one man’s journey to try to invent a new form of pasta, which combines the benefits of flat pastas like tagliatelle with the frills of farfelle (the dickie bow pasta). Click through for a picture.