Links For August 2023
[Remember, I haven’t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, and will highlight important corrections later, but I can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]
1: The Book Review contest is winding down. If you’re worried about missing your fix, consider Jeffrey Smith’s website The Pequod, where he has reviews of 4,789 of his favorite books.
2: The Bible says the Messiah will be a descendant of King David in the male line. Christians think Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, but Jews are still waiting - and still keeping track of King David’s descendants (author Boris Pasternak might be one). Yosef Dayan, a Mexican-Israeli rabbi, claims to be the head of the House of David and therefore the legitimate heir to the throne of Israel; lately he’s been casting kabbalistic death curses on Israeli prime ministers.
3: Marginal Revolution: Should YIMBYs oppose [traffic] congestion taxes?
4: H/T @StefanFSchubert: “Forecasts used to say China would quickly overtake US GDP, but that's no longer the case”:
5: Debate between commenter and friend of the blog David Friedman, and Austrian economist Gene Epstein, on whether libertarianism’s standard pitch should center on the non-aggression principle vs. practical benefits. I’m not very interested in the propaganda angle, but they use it as a jumping-off point to discuss the broader battle for the soul of libertarianism.
6: The Murchison Murders were a series of murders which began when a mystery writer asked his friends to help him come up with the perfect body disposal method. One friend came up with a method so good that another friend, who overheard it, couldn’t resist putting it into action. He got away with two killings, got cocky, didn’t perform the full method on the third, and was caught by police.
7: Claim: in the 1980s, the life satisfaction / depression rates of liberal and conservative youth were about equal; over the past few years, young liberals have increasingly gotten worse while conservatives stay about the same. H/T Zach Goldberg on X:
8: Zach Stein-Perlman’s favorite AI governance research this year.
9: The Chichijima incident was notable as a time when George H. W. Bush almost got eaten by cannibals. During WWII, nine American pilots were shot down over an island commanded by a crazy Japanese officer who ate his enemies' livers. Eight were captured and killed (and four of those were eaten), and Bush alone fled and survived.
10: El Salvador’s murder crackdown claims results of 90% decrease in homicides, 44% decrease in emigration to US, and 90% approval rating for president Nayyib Bukele (h/t Richard Hanania).
11: In an earlier set of comments, I ignorantly repeated a claim that Mother Teresa denied her patients painkillers because she thought suffering brought people closer to God. A commenter corrected me: painkillers were just generally in short supply in India during her era (more discussion here).
14: Is GPT-4 getting worse? This isn’t absurd; some people claim OpenAI has simplified the model to cut costs (though OpenAI denies this). Matei Zaharia argues yes, but I’m more convinced by the AI Snake Oil blog’s argument for no (h/t Stuart Ritchie).
15: Vox has a good piece about AI company Anthropic. I would quibble that they’re not the only safety-focused or EA-affiliated org, and we have yet to see how truly safety-focused or altruistic any AI company can be while continuing to be an AI company. But granting that it’s all a matter of degree, I agree the degree seems pretty high for them. And NYT also has an Anthropic article.
16: Eliezer bets $150,000 to $1,000 against UFOs being aliens, and gives the same argument I would - it’s unlikely that any civilization advanced enough to travel through space would still be primitive enough to use macroscopic, biologically-piloted craft that sometimes crash.
17: More nails in the coffin of growth mindset. “When examining the highest-quality evidence (6 studies, N = 13,571), the effect was nonsignificant: d = 0.02, 95% CI = [−0.06, 0.10]. We conclude that apparent effects of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement are likely attributable to inadequate study design, reporting flaws, and bias.” I think the older, very-high-effect-size studies were clearly terrible, but I’d still like to look further into the newer, small-but-significant-effect-size-that-makes-a-difference-across-large-groups studies and how they went wrong.
18: Previous work showed that after adjusting for selection bias, “what college you go to doesn’t matter” for average earnings. I was always skeptical of this - are all those rich people sending their kids to Ivies for no reason? Now Chetty, Deming, and Friedman find that:
Attending an Ivy-Plus college instead of the average highly selective public flagship institution increases students’ chances of reaching the top 1% of the earnings distribution by 60%, nearly doubles their chances of attending an elite graduate school, and triples their chances of working at a prestigious firm. Ivy-Plus colleges have much smaller causal effects on average earnings, reconciling our findings with prior work.
One of the authors, David Deming, has a Substack here where he explains the study in more depth. Like everyone else, this study also finds that rich people are using “holistic admissions” and the de-emphasis of standardized testing to gain an advantage:
H/T Nate Silver, who writes: “Not sure how you can look at this data, ostensibly be interested in either meritocracy or equality, and want to move away from standardized tests. It's the subjective measures that are most slanted in favor of the rich kids.” Cf. Erik Hoel.
19: From @data_depot: “In 2002, 48% of Americans said "the govt is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves." 52% said "it is run for the benefit of all people." In 2020, 84% said the govt is run by a few big interests. Only 16% said it is run for the benefit of all people.”
Source seems to be here, which reveals 2002 was a local peak in trust in government; maybe because of post-9/11 unity, but even 2000 was 34%, much better than our current 16%. My first instinct is to attribute this to a rise in vulgar Marxism, in the sense of everyone (even conservatives) now being trained to think in terms of an elite class screwing over everyone else (cf my review of Manufacturing Consent). But there was a previous low of 19% in 1994, which doesn’t seem to correspond to anything especially bad going on in the US, so I don’t know.
20: AskReddit: Medical professionals - have you ever had a patient so lacking in common sense you wondered how they made it so far? Linking this because there’s lots of evidence showing that education (as a proxy for intelligence?) is associated with increased life expectancy, and this thread gives you a visceral appreciation of why that might be.
Looks like a weak downward trend since 2021 I can’t explain, plus a strong downward trend since 11/2022 which must be from ChatGPT. In case you were wondering how AI was affecting programming! (update: probably false, see here, though see also here for evidence of smaller but real decline)
22: This month in culture war topics:
London’s Pride parade featured a convicted kidnapper/torturer/rapist/sadist as a speaker, who advocated that anti-trans people should be “punch[ed] in the f**king face” ; the organizers say they stand by her.
Cambridge MA schools decide to stop teaching advanced math, because some students can’t understand it and so it would be “inequitable” and “widen the persistent disparities of educational performance among subgroups”. See also Joel Grus’ commentary. I don’t understand this even on its own terms; surely every class has some people who fail it, and is therefore inequitable; why is advanced math any worse than having school at all? Critics note that Cambridge parents’ only option to give their kids a full education will now be to private-school or home-school them, ironically increasing disparities rather than than narrowing them.
23: What Happens To The Brain During Consciousness-Ending Meditation? Scientists do an EEG on a meditator practicing nirodha-samāpatti, a Buddhist meditation that produces a lack of consciousness similar to but supposedly deeper than sleep. They find that:
[O]verall brain synchronisation was reduced. Usually, certain parts of the brain are active at the same time, firing electrically together. ‘One part of the brain has a relationship with the activity of another part of the brain in a way that’s predictable,’ Laukkonen says. These parts of the brain are usually communicating with each other, but the new findings suggest that during nirodha-samāpatti that feature quietens down. Similar brain desynchronisation has been observed when people are given anaesthetic doses of propofol or ketamine, but not during sleep.
I think this ties into some wider evidence suggesting that level of consciousness is related to level of synchronization between brain regions.
24: The Republicans are considering weakening PEPFAR, a program which saved millions of lives by providing cheap anti-AIDS medication to Africa, based on concerns that some of the money might be going to abortions (this doesn’t seem to be happening in a meaningful way).
25: Elsewhere in bad policy: after California voted for higher standards for animal welfare in factory farms, the agricultural industry has proposed the EATS Act, banning states from setting standards for what agricultural products they will allow. This seems like a clear attack on states’ rights to me. Still, its supporters cast it as promoting states’ rights, since if eg California bans unethically-factory-farmed meat then Iowa doesn’t have the right to unethically-factory-farm its meat if it wants to sell to California. This is a stupid argument, like saying that it “promotes individual rights” to force dieters to eat high-calorie meals, because their decision not to do so impinges on the rights of chefs to make their meals high-calorie if they would like to sell to dieters. If you’re making a federal power grab, at least admit you’re making a federal power grab! I hope this will either fail or get struck down by the Supreme Court. A post on the Effective Altruist forum urges you to write your representative.
26: Friends of the blog Stuart Ritchie and Tom Chivers have a new podcast, The Studies Show, dedicated to explaining the latest scientific controversies. Highly recommended (on priors; I don’t listen to podcasts so I can’t be sure). Sample episodes on Ozempic safety and psychedelics for mental health.
27: More evidence for the claim that all marriage is within the same social class, and that tradeoffs only happen among the different sub-qualities that make up social class, and not as social class vs. other things like beauty (China edition).
28: However much sex-and-relationship drama you have in your social movement, it doesn’t hold a candle to what the 19th century Puritan suffragettes were getting up to.
29: Gwern: why hasn’t AI-generated music taken off in the same way as AI-generated art or AI-generated text? He thinks it’s a combination of copyright, low demand, and technical difficulty.
30: Men seem to have higher variance on a wide variety of traits (both biochemical, like cholesterol level, and socially interesting, like intelligence) compared to females (the Greater Male Variability Hypothesis). One common explanation is that men have only one X chromosome, compared to women’s two, so any unusual genes on the X chromosome get “averaged out” in women but not in men. An obvious question is whether the fraction of genes on the X chromosome is enough to explain the magnitude of greater male variability. Emil Kierkegaard does a simulation and says no, suggesting that evolution must be actively selecting for male variability somehow. I appreciate this work, but also appreciate the work showing greater female variability in animal species where the male has two of the same chromosome, suggesting that it is chromosome-based after all. I don’t know how to square these two findings.
31: During the pandemic, scientists became hopeful that irradiating rooms with germ-killing but seemingly-safe-for-humans far-ultraviolet radiation could provide a general solution to infectious disease. Max Gorlitz on the EA Forum gives a progress report. TL;DR: still seems promising, but there’s a lot more work to be done to determine whether doses that kill pathogens are safe for humans, and what the optimal dose that kills the most pathogens with the least risk to humans is. UV air filters would have fewer safety concerns but be less effective.
32: Jake Selinger, currently dying of cancer with “a few weeks or months” left to live, writes about how the FDA is preventing him from obtaining treatments that he thinks could save him. He would like to use his death to spread awareness of this issue, and asks people involved in drug development who have first-hand knowledge to get in touch:
Many of the people with first-hand knowledge of the costs of the FDA’s slowness don’t want to speak out about it, even anonymously. They’re justifiably worried about their lives and careers, as well as what appears to be the FDA’s penchant for punishing companies or individuals who criticize or want to reform it. So the people who know most about the problem are incentivized not to speak up about it, kind of like the way mafioso were discouraged from discussing what they knew for fear of retribution. Some of them will talk about their experiences and knowledge over beer or coffee, but they won’t go further than that.
There are reform efforts and at least three serious people I now know of who are working on books about the invisible graveyard that I’m likely to join soon—and perhaps become a mascot for: a million deaths are a statistic but one is a tragedy, as they say. If the life and death of one man can stand for the millions who have died, maybe people will pay more attention. So if you have any direct experience that you’re willing to share, including anonymously, consider doing your bit for reform.
If that’s you, contact him ASAP, I guess, and good luck to Jake with this project and everything else.
33: Claim: phase transition in Cu2S impurity fully explains superconductor-like properties of supposed “room temperature superconductor” LK-99 (paper, Twitter discussion). Prediction markets on Manifold and Polymarket are down from high-30s% last week to ~10% now.
OpenAI is the most LibLeft, Google and Facebook are more authoritarian. “The paper speculates this might be due to BERT's training on more conservative books, while newer GPT models trained on liberal internet texts,” OpenAI denies the obvious alternative explanation that they’re better at RLHFing their AIs and so they match standard Bay Area politics better. I’d like to see future investigations include Anthropic’s Claude, which has been RLAIFed with some pretty left-wing-sounding prompts.
35: Ravens Progressive Matrices isn’t an especially good IQ test (it’s not a terrible IQ test, it’s just caught on way more than its mediocre effectiveness can justify). My guess is that people like it because it’s easier to explain why it’s not culture-biased, even though in fact it’s no less culture-biased than a lot of other testing methods.
36: Claims about early-twentieth-century society: during World War I, people used to write Man In The High Castle style dystopias about what life would be like if the Kaiser’s Germany took over the free world:
Under Kaiserist occupation, the various authors imagine, the no longer free people of Britain: may be fined on the spot by police officers for ordinary infractions, no jury trial, a simple matter of notebook paperwork, and as such the police are encouraged to fine a variety of things seemingly as a form of taxation: property infractions, momentary traffic violations, jaywalking. Beyond this, the formerly free people of Britain are heavily restricted in what firearms they can own and many of those they do own are subject to registration with the state. They require extensive permitting and government approval to modify their own homes on their own private property. The now slave British are now taxed an inordinate amount directly out of their income, sometimes into the double-digit percentages of their annual earnings, and what is more horrifying it is left to them to report it, THEY ARE MANDATED TO ACT AS THEIR OWN TAX COLLECTOR AND SELF INCRIMINATE, with terrible consequences if they are caught under-reporting or merely mistaken.
One reads these well-selling invasion novels from ~1900 or so… and every indignity they thought an unthinkable horror and tyranny that could only be enacted upon a conquered people —slavery at the societal level!— is simply the common “Price we pay for civilization” that every 21st-century westerner has had it beaten into them to just accept.
One need not stretch a libertarian’s imagination steeped in political theory to say “The Victorians would have thought of modern life as slavery” They wrote books explicitly calling it slavery.
37: Same author: why did Mormon fertility drop? Argues it’s because Trump’s brand of profane hillbilly Republicanism alienated the Mormons, and their negative reaction drove them “[too] close to the vortex of the progressive-liberal-urban monoculture” to defend against their memes. I’m not sure their graph really supports this - there’s only a slight escalation in a pre-existing trend in 2016 - but it’s an interesting way of thinking about the world.
38: Study: legislators with draft-age sons were less likely to vote for wars back when there was a draft. Interesting finding, but I’m mostly linking this study for the sake of its title, “No Kin In The Game”.