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Translating Predictive Coding Into Perceptual Control

Wired wrote a good article about Karl Friston, the neuroscientist whose works I’ve puzzled over here before. Raviv writes:

Friston’s free energy principle says that all life…is driven by the same universal imperative…to act in ways that reduce the gulf between your expectations and your sensory inputs. Or, in Fristonian terms, it is to minimize free energy.

Put this way, it’s clearly just perceptual control theory. Powers describes the same insight like this:

[Action] is the difference between some condition of the situation as the subject sees it, and what we might call a reference condition, as he understands it.

I’d previously noticed that these theories had some weird similarities. But I want to go further and say they’re fundamentally the same paradigm. I don’t want to deny that the two theories have developed differently, and I especially don’t want to deny that free energy/predictive coding has done great work building in a lot of Bayesian math that perceptual control theory can’t match. But the foundations are the same.

Why is this of more than historical interest? Because some people (often including me) find free energy/predictive coding very difficult to understand, but find perceptual control theory intuitive. If these are basically the same, then someone who wants to understand free energy can learn perceptual control theory and then a glossary of which concepts match to each other, and save themselves the grief of trying to learn free energy/predictive coding just by reading Friston directly.

So here is my glossary:

FE/PC: prediction, expectation
PCT: set point, reference level

And…

FE/PC: prediction error, free energy
PCT: deviation from set point

So for example, suppose it’s freezing cold out, and this makes you unhappy, and so you try to go inside to get warm. FE/PC would describe this as “You naturally predict that you will be a comfortable temperature, so the cold registers as strong prediction error, so in order to minimize prediction error you go inside and get warm.” PCT would say “Your temperature set point is fixed at ‘comfortable’, the cold marks a wide deviation from your temperature set point, so in order to get closer to your set point, you go inside”.

The PCT version makes more sense to me here because the phrase “you naturally predict that you will be a comfortable temperature” doesn’t match any reasonable meaning of “predict”. If I go outside in Antarctica, I am definitely predicting I will be uncomfortably cold. FE/PC obviously means to distinguish between a sort of unconscious neural-level “prediction” and a conscious rational one, but these kinds of vocabulary choices are why it’s so hard to understand. PCT uses the much more intuitive term “set point” and makes the whole situation clearer.

FE/PC: surprise
PCT: deviation from set point

FE/PC says that “the fundamental drive behind all behavior is to minimize surprise”. This leads to questions like “What if I feel like one of my drives is hunger?” and answers like “Well, you must be predicting you would eat 2000 calories per day, so when you don’t eat that much, you’re surprised, and in order to avoid that surprise, you feel like you should eat.”

PCT frames the same issue as “You have a set point saying how many calories you should eat each day. Right now it’s set at 2000. If you don’t eat all day, you’re below your calorie set point, that registers as bad, and so you try to eat in order to minimize that deviation.”

And suppose we give you olanzapine, a drug known for making people ravenously hungry. The FE/PCist would say “Olanzapine has made you predict you will eat more, which makes you even more surprised that you haven’t eaten”. The PCTist would say “Olanzapine has raised your calorie set point, which means not eating is an even bigger deviation.”

Again, they’re the same system, but the PCT vocabulary sounds sensible whereas the FE/PC vocabulary is confusing.

FE/PC: Active inference
PCT: Behavior as control of perception

FE/PC talks about active inference, where “the stimulus does not determine the response, the response determines the stimulus” and “We sample the world to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”. If this doesn’t make a lot of sense to you, you should read this tutorial, in order to recalibrate your ideas of how little sense things can make.

PCT talks about behavior being the control of perception. For example, suppose you are standing on the sidewalk, facing the road parallel to the sidewalk, watching a car zoom down that road. At first, the car is directly in front of you. As the car keeps zooming, you turn your head slightly right in order to keep your eyes on the car, then further to the right as the car gets even further away. Your actions are an attempt to “control perception”, ie keep your picture fixed at “there is a car right in the middle of my visual field”.

Or to give another example, when you’re driving down the highway, you want to maintain some distance between yourself and the car in front of you (the set point/reference interval, let’s say 50 feet). You don’t have objective yardstick-style access to this distance, but you have your perception of what it is. Whenever the distance becomes less than 50 feet, you slow down; whenever it becomes more than 50 feet, you speed up. So behavior (how hard you’re pressing the gas pedal) is an attempt to control perception (how far away from the other car you are).

FE/PC: The dark room problem
PCT: [isn’t confused enough to ever even have to think about this situation]

The “dark room problem” is a paradox on free energy/predictive coding formulations: if you’re trying to minimize surprise / maximize the accuracy of your predictions, why not just lie motionless in a dark room forever? After all, you’ll never notice anything surprising there, and as long as you predict “it will be dark and quiet”, your predictions will always come true. The main proposed solution is to claim you have some built-in predictions (of eg light, social interaction, activity levels), and the dark room will violate those.

PCT never runs into this situation. You have set points for things like social interaction, activity levels, food, sex, etc, that are greater than zero. In the process of pursuing them, you have to get out of bed and leave your room. There is no advantage to lying motionless in a dark room forever.

If the PCT formulation has all these advantages, how come everyone uses the FE/PC formulation instead?

I think this is because FE/PC grew out of an account of world-modeling: how do we interpret and cluster sensations? How do we form or discard beliefs about the world? How do we decide what to pay attention to? Here, words like “prediction”, “expectation”, and “surprise” make perfect sense. Once this whole paradigm and vocabulary was discovered, scientists realized that it also explained movement, motivation, and desire. They carried the same terminology and approach over to that field, even though now the vocabulary was actively misleading.

Powers was trying to explain movement, motivation, and desire, and came up with vocabulary that worked great for that. He does get into world-modeling, learning, and belief a little bit, but I was less able to understand what he was doing there, and so can’t confirm whether it’s the same as FE/PC or not. Whether or not he did it himself, it should be possible to construct a PCT look at world-modeling. But it would probably be as ugly and cumbersome as the FE/PC account of motivation.

I think the right move is probably to keep all the FE/PC terminology that we already have, but teach the PCT terminology along with it as a learning aid so people don’t get confused.

Book Review: Inventing The Future

I.

They say “don’t judge a book by its cover”. So in case you were withholding judgment: yes, this bright red book covered with left-wing slogans is, in fact, communist. Inventing The Future isn’t technically Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ manifesto – that would be the equally-striking-looking Accelerate Manifesto. But it’s a manifesto-ish description of their plan for achieving a postcapitalist world.

S&W start with a critique of what they call “folk politics”, eg every stereotype you have of lazy left-wing activists. Protesters who march out and wave signs and then go home with no follow-up plan. Groups that avoid having any internal organization, because organization implies hierarchy and hierarchy is bad. The People’s Front of Judaea wasting all their energy warring with the Judaean People’s Front. An emphasis on spectacle and performance over results. We’ve probably all heard stories like this, but some of S&W’s are especially good, like one from an activist at a trade summit:

On April 20, the first day of the demonstrations, we marched in our thousands toward the fence, behind which 34 heads of state had gathered to hammer out a hemispheric trade deal. Under a hail of catapult-launched teddy bears, activists dressed in black quickly removed the fence’s support with bolt cutters and pulled it down with grapples as onlookers cheered them on. For a brief moment, nothing stood between us and the convention centre. We scrambled atop the toppled fence, but for the most part we went no further, as if our intention all along had been simply to replace the state’s chain-link and concrete barrier with a human one of our own making.

S&W comment:

We see here the symbolic and ritualistic nature of the actions, combined with the thrill of having done something – but with a deep uncertainty that appears at the first break with the expected narrative. The role of dutiful protester had given these activists no indication of what to do when the barriers fell. Spectacular political confrontations like the Stop the War marches, the now familiar melees against G20 or World Trade Organization and the rousing scenes of democracy in Occupy Wall Street all give the appearance of being highly significant, as if something were genuinely at stake. Yet nothing has changed, and long-term victories were traded for a simple registration of discontent.

To outside observers, it is often not even clear what the movements want, beyond expressing a generalized discontent with the world…in more recent struggles, the very idea of making demands has been questioned. The Occupy movement infamously struggled to articulate meaningful goals, worried that anything too substantial would be divisive. And a broad range of student occupations across the Western world has taken up the mantra of “no demands” under the misguided belief that demanding nothing is a radical act.

All of this is pretty standard commentary, both from leftists and from rightists making fun of them. What S&W added that I hadn’t heard before was an attempt to portray this all as coming from bad philosophy. I had always assumed most leftist groups sucked because they were primarily made of stoner college kids and homeless people, two demographics not known for their vast resources, military discipline, or top-notch management skills. But S&W believe they suck because they choose to suck, for principled reasons.

They give a few specific principles, but sum them up in the idea of prefiguration: leftist groups should embody utopian leftist values right now. If capitalism is big and complicated and inhuman, leftist groups should be small, simple, and human-scale. If capitalism is coldly rational, leftist groups should be based on transient displays of emotion. If capitalism creates highly-organized hierarchies, leftist groups should be a formless mass of equals. If capitalism is ruthlessly focused on results, leftist groups should prize the journey itself. The goal shifts from concrete results to “prefigurative experience”: where people have a sense of life outside of capitalist strictures, which then sort of mystically lights a spark that kindles revolution in the hearts of all mankind. Or something:

Even granting the problematic assumption that most people would want to live as the Occupy camps did, what efforts might be possible to physically and socially expand these spaces? When theorists face up to this question, vague hand-waving usually ensues: moments will purportedly ‘resonate’ with each other; small everyday actions will somehow make a qualitative shift to ‘crack open’ society; riots and blockades will ‘spread and multiply’; experiences will ‘contaminate’ participants and expand; pockets of prefigurative resistance will just ‘spontaneously erupt’. In any case, the difficult task of traversing from the particular to the universal, from the local to the global, from the temporary to the permanent, is elided by wishful thinking.

Is this a straw man? I have read many leftists complaining that this is what other leftists think, and relatively few leftists saying they think this – though this could be an artifact of who I read. But S&W don’t think it’s straw-mannish. To their credit, they write to an implied audience of pro-folk-politics leftists, begging them to change their ways. More on this later.

They conclude this section by saying that folk politics has failed and better ideas are needed. They give a brief nod to a long string of leftist victories over the past half-century or so (civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental regulation, massive increase in most categories of government social spending, etc, etc, etc), but are unimpressed, since these are compromises within capitalism domination. I would have liked to see them address an alternate perspective, where capitalism having to keep making compromise after compromise to defuse pressure from the left is exactly what lefist victory should look like. Would electing Bernie Sanders and instituting Medicare-For-All be just another capitalist compromise? What about electing Andrew Yang and instituting Universal Basic Income? At some point you have to admit that all these “compromises” add up and now you have 90% of what you wanted in the first place. I assume they have some kind of complicated theoretical structural reason why this doesn’t work, but it still seems like a pretty good deal.

II.

What is the opposite of folk politics? S&W point to the Mont Pelerin Society.

The Mont Pelerin Society has a great story, and you should read Kerry Vaughn’s long writeup of the same topic. But the short and oversimplified version is: in the 1940s, everyone serious was either a Big Government Socialist or a Big Government Keynesian. Friedrich Hayek founded the Mont Pelerin Society (named after the site of its first meeting) to promote neoliberalism – here meaning the sort of small-ish government free market thinking common in economics today. At first they were just a few fringe thinkers with no power. But they developed a long-term strategy to change that. Vaughn, S&W, and others sum up the basic points as:

1. Foster intellectual talent

2. Seek long-term academic influence. Getting your members professorships won’t feel as exciting and tangible as reshaping policy immediately. Get the professorships anyway.

3. Push a utopian vision (in the case of the neoliberals, one of freedom and prosperity), along with practical first steps within the Overton Window (eg deregulating the airline industry).

4. Be prepared to step in as saviors when a crisis arrives. Milton Friedman:

There is enormous inertia — a tyranny of the status quo — in private and especially governmental arrangements. Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

The neoliberals spent the 1940s through the 1970s slowly moving through steps 1 – 3. They gathered a stable of friendly academics, journalists, politicians, and (especially) think tanks, sometimes by converting people in positions of power, other times by putting their own loyalists into positions, and especially by founding their own organizations. When the stagflation crisis of the 1970s struck, they had marshalled a strong case as the alternative to the Keynesian system that had produced the crisis. Politicians – especially Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – agreed to implement their policies, and the rest is history.

S&W abhor the Mont Pelerin Society’s policies, but they are impressed by their success. They describe the result of MPS’ efforts as a “hegemony”, a paradigm so self-consistent and self-contained that it seems like, as the famous saying goes, “there is no alternative”. Neoliberal economics has stock answers to all of the objections raised against it and supports neoliberal politics, which has stock answers to all the objections raised against it and supports neoliberal culture, and so on.

They argue that leftists should abandon folk politics and do something more Mont Pelerinish, which they call a counter-hegemonic project. The Left should create a network of academics, journalists, think tanks, and politicians who come up with leftist ideas, push the culture to the left, and make sure the public knows Communism is the alternative to the current failing system.

Isn’t this pretty much just the “long march through the institutions”? And didn’t it happen thirty years ago?

I’m confused by this whole topic. Marxists seem to talk a lot about Gramsci and “cultural hegemony”, and “march through the institutions” was a phrase used by Gramscians to describe their strategy of controlling institutions in the name of Marxism. And Inventing The Future seems to say “Yes, this is exactly what we want” and even cites Gramsci in a bunch of footnotes. But whenever a non-Marxist mentions this, it gets branded a vile far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. I’m guessing that there’s some subtle distinction between the stuff everyone agrees is true and the stuff everyone agrees is false, and that lots of people will get angry with me for even implying that it might not be a vast gulf larger than the ocean itself, but I can’t figure out what it is and don’t want to land on the wrong side of it and get in trouble.

So let’s say no. Let’s say S&W’s plan of taking over institutions in the name of leftism is completely new. Could this exciting and very original idea be just crazy enough to work?

S&W and their fellow communists aren’t the first group I’ve heard bring up the Mont Pelerin Society as an example to be emulated. As you can tell from the link above, some effective altruists are thinking in this direction too. And “take over academia and dominate the intellectual world” is a good job if you can get it. But it still sounds pretty hard, especially if lots of other people have the same idea.

The neoliberals had some dazzling successes. But so did Napoleon. And if the centerpiece of your strategy is “Take over France, then go from there, after all it worked for Napoleon”, you could be accused of focusing too much on one past success without considering alternatives. Also, you probably can’t take over France. Taking over France is hard. Sure, Napoleon did it once, but think of all the people who must have tried to take over France and failed. I don’t know, seems like a really underspecified plan.

III.

So what is S&W’s plan?

This doesn’t get a huge amount of space in the book, but it seems to be: fight for automation and universal basic income in order to produce a “post-work world”.

There is much discussion of why work is bad, which I appreciate. I think communists are wrong about a lot of things, but when this is all over, I believe their principled insistence that work is bad and that we should not have to do it – maintained firmly against a bunch of people who want basic job guarantees or who consider freedom from work a utopian impossibility – will be one thing they can be really proud of. S&W are very sure work is bad, they manage to express this without accidentally adding on anything blitheringly stupid, and their point that we should head into a post-work world is well-taken.

They discuss the increasing role of automation in society, complete with ill-fated predictions that many people who lost their jobs in the Great Recession (just before the book was written) will never get them back and unemployment will remain permanently high. They argue that automation is a vital component of a post-work world, and argue that leftist movements should use whatever strength they have to fight for automating things further. They argue that capitalism is not automating as quickly as it could be, and this is bad for workers:

Full automation is something that can and should be achieved, regardless of whether it is yet being carried out. For instance, out of the US companies that could benefit from incorporating industrial robots, less than 10% have done so. This is but one area for full automation to take hold in, and this reiterates the importance of making full automation a political demand, rather than assuming it will come about from economic necessity. A variety of politices can help in this project: more state investment, higher minimum wages, and research devoted to techniologies that replace rather than augment workers. In the most detailed estimates of the labour market, it is suggested that between 47 and 80 per cent of today’s jobs are capable of being automated. Let us take this estimate not as a deterministic prediction, but instead as the outer limit of a political project against work. We should take these numbers as a standard against which to measure our success.

(notice the suggestion to raise the minimum wage in order to encourage automation; this is more realism than I usually hear in this kind of discussion.)

Alongside the demand for increased automation, leftists should demand a universal basic income:

Drawing upon moral arguments and empirical research, there are a vast number of reasons to support a UBI: reduced poverty, better public health and reduced health costs, fewer high school dropouts, reductions in petty crime, more time with family and friends, and less state bureaucracy. Depending on how UBI is presented, it is capable of generating support from across the political spectrum—from libertarians, conservatives, anarchists, Marxists and feminists, among others. The potency of the demand lies partly in this ambiguity, making it capable of mobilizing broad popular support […]

The demand for a UBI is a demand for a political transformation, not just an economic one. It is often thought that UBI is simply a form of redistribution from the rich to the poor, or that it is just a measure to maintain economic growth by stimulating consumer demand. From this perspective, UBI would have impeccable reformist credentials and be little more than a glorified progressive tax system. Yet the real significance of UBI lies in the way it overturns the asymmetry of power that currently exists between labour and capital. As we saw in the discussion of surplus populations, the proletariat is defined by its separation from the means of production and subsistence. The proletariat is thereby forced to sell itself in the job market in order to gain the income necessary to survive. The most fortunate among us have the leisure to choose which job to take, but few of us have the capacity to choose no job. A basic income changes this condition, by giving the proletariat a means of subsistence without dependency on a job.

S&W finally sum up their platform as:

1. Full automation
2. The reduction of the working week
3. The provision of a basic income
4. The diminishment of the work ethic

I am surprised by points 1, 2, and 4. I don’t disagree with them. But they seem heavily dependent on point 3. If there’s no basic income, automation is a disaster – it just leaves everyone in the same kind of normal bad old unemployment we have now. Same with a diminished work week and lack of work ethic. Usually I think of platforms as the sort of thing where if you get three-quarters of what you want you can declare victory; here three-quarters of the platform would be a dystopia.

On the other hand, UBI would lead inevitably to the other three points. As S&W mention, once living off a UBI becomes a viable alternative to working, many people (though not everyone at once) will choose to do this. That will increase the cost of labor, drive wages up, and encourage businesses that haven’t yet automated to do so. It will also reduce the number of hours people need to (or choose to) work, and once people aren’t working and goods are being produced without labor, there won’t be any need for a work ethic.

I’m especially surprised by the insistence on automation (which takes up more space than this review might indicate). Aside from its ability to enable a UBI, automation itself doesn’t necessarily seem good. If it would cost more to automate a task than to hire workers to do it, there doesn’t seem much advantage in automating, assuming that workers have free choice to take whatever deal the business offers. That is, compare a world in which a factory pays $100,000 per year to operate a car-making robot, and you get a $30,000 a year basic income, vs. a world where a company pays $50,000 per year to hire a car-building employee, and you have the choice between getting a $30,000 a year basic income, or earning $80,000 a year by taking the company’s offer. The second world seems clearly better. I know the usual communist answer is to talk about flow-through effects on who has political power, but I feel like a world in which workers are necessary to make goods is one in which workers have more political power than a world where they aren’t.

So maybe a friendly amendment to S&W’s platform would throw out everything except the UBI?

I doubt they would accept this amendment, but I can’t predict exactly what they would say when turning it down. Certainly they really don’t like libertarians who agree with them on UBI and want to help them with it, but I can’t seem to wring a specific complaint out of their denunciations:

The demand for a UBI, however, is subject to competing hegemonic forces. It is just as open to being mobilized for a libertarian dystopia as for a post-work society. Hence, three qualifications must be added to this demand. First, it has to provide a sufficient amount to live on, second, it has to be universal and third, it has to be a supplement rather than a replacement for the welfare state…

There’s a lot of stuff like this, culminating in a triumphant jab that if there were a UBI, we would end up in the world libertarians claim they want, the one where everyone is free and happy and can choose how to live their lives, rather than the world we all know libertarians secretly do want, where everybody is oppressed by the rich forever. Won’t that be ironic! Won’t the libertarians howl with anguish when they realize what kind of clever political judo trick the Marxists have played on them!

I think I speak for everybody when I say: please don’t throw me in the briar patch! Not the briar patch! Anything but that!

IV.

S&W often use the word “hegemony”, usually in the context of a current neoliberal hegemony or a hoped-for future communist hegemony. I started out reading this as just an emphatic way of saying “power”, as in “the neoliberals are definitely almost-irreversibly in power” or “the communists are definitely almost-irreversibly in power”. After looking into it more, I think the best interpretation of “hegemony” is “paradigm” in the Kuhnian sense, or as the sort of thing that should be in one of the leftmost boxes of this table. A hegemony is a self-consistent way of looking at the world that guides how we think about things and what questions we ask. It is not just made of facts, but also of perspectives, biases, values, and investigational techniques, all coming together into a coherent whole.

I picked up Inventing The Future (on advice from a couple of left-accelerationists I encountered at the Southern California SSC meetup) because I feel bad that I’ve never been able to get my head around the communist paradigm. In the past, I’ve learned new paradigms by reading a lot of books from within that paradigm (and hating them) and debating people from within that paradigm (and thinking they’re crazy). Then fifty books and a hundred debates down the line, I finally get some kind of inkling of where they’re coming from, and then after a while I can naturally make my mind shift into that mode and my only differences with them are at the high-level generators of disagreement. I was born into the Woke California Liberal paradigm, I managed to force myself to understand the libertarian paradigm in college, I managed to force myself to understand the right-wing paradigm a few years ago, and I would really like to be able to understand the communist paradigm too.

This leaves me in the awkward position of needing to read a lot of communist books and wanting to be as accepting as possible towards them, while also inevitably knowing I’m going to hate the first fifty. So I’ll be honest: I really didn’t like Inventing The Future.

Part of this isn’t S&W’s fault. The book was very much not meant for me. Not everything has to be a 101 space. It’s perfectly fine for the Pope to write an encyclical explaining the Catholic position on marriage without including a justification of why you should believe in God, or why Jesus is so great, or why anyone should care what the Pope thinks, or whether marriage should exist at all. People who already believe all of those things should be able to debate the godly Christian papal way of defending marriage among themselves. Likewise, a book for communist true believers about how to win doesn’t necessarily need to justify communism.

But there were times when I feel like even a true believer would have been groping for some reassurance. During their attack on folk politics, S&W were pretty open about how the problem was that groups tried to apply communist principles to communist activism. For example, communism should be non-hierarchical, so some activist groups tried to be non-hierarchical, but then all those activist groups failed. Or: communism says we should abandon market economies for ones based on mutual aid, so Occupy camps tried to have internal economies based on mutual aid, but then those camps couldn’t get resources distributed effectively. S&W’s conclusion was: stop trying to run your activist groups in a communist way, that never works. I’m sure they’re right. But I feel like even true believers might have wondered why real communism, when it came, would go differently. This was never explained.

Likewise, S&W talked quite honestly about how many small-scale experiments with communism have failed. They gave the example of some Argentine workers forming commune-like organizations when that country’s economy collapsed. These kind of worked for a while, but the authors describe them as uninspiring, noting that such communes-within-capitalism could be “as oppressive and environmentally damaging as any large-scale business”. Once the economy recovered, Argentines were pretty relieved to be able to return to normal capitalist living. S&W’s conclusion: you have to destroy all of capitalism at once or it doesn’t count.

I understand this has been a common position in communism since well before Trotsky. But imagine a pharmaceutical company admitting that its drugs have killed everyone who’s taken them so far, but adding “But if we give this drug to everyone in the world at the same time, then it will definitely cure everything!” You would think they would at least add “We recognize this may be a cause of some concern to people who worry past trends won’t suddenly reverse, and we will just end up killing everyone in the world, but here’s why you shouldn’t worry…”. You would think even true believers might want to hear some reassurance at this point. S&W do not provide it.

I don’t want to be too harsh on them. Capitalists have a similar conundrum: if the free market works, how come most businesses are organized as top-down hierarchies? How come there’s a Vice President of Sales who gets hired, promoted, and fired – instead of just some sales consulting businesses offering their time to the CEO at market rate? Capitalists have confronted these issues; probably communists have confronted theirs too. This is the sort of 101 stuff that Inventing The Future is under no obligation to bother with. It just made the book a bad match for me.

And all of this was exacerbated by S&W devoting entire chapters to ideas I considered obvious that were apparently highly controversial to their intended audience. For example, S&W were going to make some demands for what a future communist state should be like. I was interested in hearing these demands. Instead they went on for page after page about whether it was okay to demand things. For example:

We [will] advance some broad demands to start building a platform for a post-work society. In asserting the centrality of demands, we are breaking with a widespread tendency of today’s radical left that believes making no demand is the height of radicalism. These critics often claim that making a demand means giving into the existing order of things by asking, and therefore legitimating, an authority. But these accounts miss the antagonism at the heart of making demands, and the ways in which they are essential for constituting an active agent of change. In this light, the rejection of demands is a symptom of theoretical confusion, not practical progress. A politics without demands is simply a collection of aimless bodies. Any meaningful vision of the future will set out proposals and goals, and this chapter is a contribution to that potential discussion…

When they get to discussing how communism is good, they don’t anticipate any object level complaints about how, eg, maybe capitalism is better. But they do worry that “communism is good” sounds like a universal statement, and universal statements can be exclusionary. So:

To invoke such an idea is to call forth a number of fundamental critiques directed against universalism in recent decades. While a universal politics must move beyond any local struggles, generalising itself at the global scale and across cultural variations, it is for these very reasons that it has been criticised.

As a matter of historical record, European modernity was inseparable from its ‘dark side’ – a vast network of exploited colonial dominions, the genocide of indigenous peoples, the slave trade, and the plundering of colonised nations’ resources. In this conquest, Europe presented itself as embodying the universal way of life. All other peoples were simply residual particulars that would inevitably come to be subsumed under the European way – even if this required ruthless physical violence and cognitive assault to guarantee the outcome. Linked to this was a belief that the universal was equivalent to the homogeneous. Differences between cultures would therefore be erased in the process of particulars being subsumed under the universal, creating a culture modelled in the image of European civilisation. This was a universalism indistinguishable from pure chauvinism. Throughout this process, Europe dissimulated its own parochial position by deploying a series of mechanisms to efface the subjects who made these claims – white, heterosexual, propertyowning males. Europe and its intellectuals abstracted away from their location and identity, presenting their claims as grounded in a ‘view from nowhere’. This perspective was taken to be untarnished by racial, sexual, national or any other particularities, providing the basis for both the alleged universality of Europe’s claims and the illegitimacy of other perspectives. While Europeans could speak and embody the universal, other cultures could only be represented as particular and parochial.

Universalism has therefore been central to the worst aspects of modernity’s history. Given this heritage, it might seem that the simplest response would be to rescind the universal from our conceptual arsenal. But, for all the difficulties with the idea, it nevertheless remains necessary. The problem is partly that one cannot simply reject the concept of the universal without generating other significant problems. Most notably, giving up on the category leaves us with nothing but a series of diverse particulars.

I am tempted to sum up the book as something like “So, obviously everyone agrees that we should overthrow all existing societies to install world communism. But many people doubt that causes lead to effects. Well, I’m here to tell you that we’ll never overthrow all existing societies in favor of world communism unless we take actions that cause that to happen.”

And the authors aren’t just being silly. The book has an epilogue where they respond to criticism they received since the book was published, and it’s all people praising them for their commitment to revolution while also accusing the causes-have-effects thing of being highly problematic. So A+ on writing what your audience needs to hear. I’m just not among them.

V.

Feminist critics of bad pick-up artistry accuse it of “looking for women’s secret cheat code that will make them have sex with you”. The opposite of looking for a cheat code (they say) is actually having and demonstrating value. If women don’t like you, you should try to cultivate value, or demonstrate the value you already have, instead of finding the Three Words And Five Gestures That Will Make Any Girl Get Naked Right Now.

Not everything has to be a 101 space. So maybe my concerns are just an artifact of me wandering into a part of literature where I don’t belong. But at its worst, Inventing The Future feels like a search for the public’s secret cheat code that will make them have a revolution with you.

There is no discussion of why communism is good. There is no discussion of whether the masses might not like communism because they’ve thought about it for a while and decided that communism is a bad idea. There is no discussion of whether some demonstration that communism is good would convince the masses to like it more. Just a laser-like focus on finding the secret propaganda cheat code that will convert the masses to communism.

I don’t know how unfair I’m being here. The most sympathetic reading I can give this is something like “Somewhere off-screen we’ve already agreed that every right-thinking person already knows communism is better than capitalism. And we’ve all agreed that the elites have brainwashed the masses into denying it. And the elites will never give up their own self-interest. So the only remaining question is how we can create a system of organization and publicity and so on powerful enough to reverse the masses’ brainwashing.” This is at least good conflict theory.

But at times S&W seem to dip into a deeper epistemological nihilism. From a paragraph on the rise of neoliberalism:

The crisis (stagflation) was one that no government knew how to deal with at the time, while the solution was the preconceived neoliberal ideas that had been fermenting for decades in its ideological ecology. It was not that the neoliberals presented a better argument for their position (the myth of rational political discourse); rather, an institutional infrastructure was constructed to project their ideas and establish them as the new common sense of the political elite.

Google cannot find any references to “myth of rational political discourse” except in this book. Maybe there’s some long discussion of this idea under another name somewhere, but S&W don’t think it’s worth clarifying or giving any further pointers. They just declare it a myth and move on.

Anyone who spends time on Twitter can be forgiven for thinking that rational political discourse is mythical, and that this is so obvious as to not require justification. I’ve written about these issues before and won’t repeat the entire debate. But one subpoint seems especially important: how does this interact with the plan to build a Mont Pelerin Society of the left?

I mentioned above that “take over academia and all other consensus-building organs of society” isn’t a primitive action. I imagine there are libertarians, tradcons, and fascists trying the same thing. What determines who wins?

I group the Mont Pelerin Society together with the Fabian Society and the EA/AI risk movement; all three groups followed similar strategies and were (or have been so far) remarkably successful. And they all share one key feature: remarkably talented people. My summary of MPS elides this as “cultivate intellectual talent”, but again, this isn’t a primitive action. If everyone tries to cultivate intellectual talent, who wins?

The Fabian Society sort of put some work into cultivating intellectual talent. But a more accurate description of the situation is “couldn’t keep intellectual talent out even if they tried”. They would just be sitting around, dreaming up a new idea for pamphlets, and George Bernard Shaw would wander in, say “Hey, I want to swear allegiance to your group and help you with whatever you need”, and they would say “Okay”, and then Shaw would do some kind of brilliant essay that transformed the way everyone thought about everything. Then the next time they needed something written, H.G. Wells would wander in and say “Hey, can I join and you can give me whatever work you need done and I’ll gladly do it?” and they would shrug and say “Sure”. The “cultivation” was downstream of having a really easy time attracting geniuses.

Right now one of the big issues in effective altruism is more available talented people than the movement knows what to do with. People with a resume a mile long who graduated in the top 10% of their class at Oxbridge show up at organizations, offer to work for peanuts, and the organizations say sorry, we’re still busy finding jobs for the last hundred people like you (EA leaders want me to clarify that you should still apply to EA jobs, because talent-matching is hard and people are generally bad at predicting whether they will be useful). Every so often random prestigious professors who control big pools of institutional resources will email the movement asking how they can join and what they can do.

The Mont Pelerin Society seems to have found itself in a similar situation. From Vaughn’s writeup:

Anthony Fisher was a highly decorated fighter pilot who read Hayek’s Road to Serfdom in Reader’s Digest. He traveled to London to seek out Hayek. “What can I do? Should I enter politics?” he asks. As a decorated veteran with good looks and a gift for public speaking, this was a live possibility.

“No.” replied Hayek “Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.”

Later in 1949, Ralph Harris, a young researcher from the Conservative Party gave a lecture with Anthony Fisher in the audience. Fisher loves what he hears and takes Harris aside after the talk. He explains his idea for an organization to make the free market case to intellectuals. Harris is excited. “If you get any further” he says, “I’d like to be considered as the man to run such a group.”

In 1953 Fisher starts the Buxted Chicken Co. which brought factory farming to Britain. The company begins to show a profit which allows him to revisit his idea for for a free-market institute. Fisher signs the trust deed with two friends and gets back in contact with Harris about running the institute. Harris agrees and becomes the new general director on 1 January 1957. Harris meets Arthur Seldon in 1956 and in 1958, Seldon joins the organization. He was initially appointed Editorial Advisor and become the Editorial Director in 1959.

Thirty years later in 1987, Harris become Lord Harris of High Cross and oversaw an institute which boasted 250 major corporate supporters and a budget equivalent to around £1.6M (in 2016 pounds). Seldon helped produce more than 300 publications and nurtured and developed more than 500 authors. Fisher founded the Atlas Economic Research Foundation which worked to aid in the creation of new think tanks, creating 36 institutes in 18 countries all based on the IEA model.

Note Hayek’s advice to Fisher: “Society’s course will be changed only by a change in ideas. First you must reach the intellectuals, the teachers and writers, with reasoned argument. It will be their influence on society which will prevail, and the politicians will follow.” Maybe Hayek believed the public was generally rational. Maybe he didn’t. But he at least believed reasoned argument worked on some people, and that those people would disproportionately be the intellectuals and thought leaders who could bring everybody else around.

How come the Mont Pelerin Society took over academia, but you didn’t? I think the active ingredient of Mont Pelerin strategy is having a good idea. I don’t necessarily mean objectively good in a cosmic sense. But good in the sense that the smartest people around in your era, using the best information around in your era, will conclude it’s true and important after reasoned debate, and offer to help. Good in the sense that you’re not the sort of people who use the phrase “myth of rational political discourse”. The Mont Pelerin Society has been proven right about a lot of things; does anyone want to un-deregulate airplanes these days? Being right about a lot of things seems heavily correlated with eg Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi joining you, and eg Karl Popper and Michael Polanyi joining you seems heavily correlated with being the sort of group that can get your people into high academic positions.

I admit that Naive Rationalist Praxis is repeating all the reasons why your idea is right – and then, if people don’t listen, repeating them louder and more slowly, like an American tourist trying to communicate in France. I admit that probably you should be more sophisticated than that, and that S&W’s approach hints at a much-needed corrective.

But I still think that if Friedrich Hayek is looking down on us from his gold-plated mansion in Neoliberal Heaven, he’s going to think we’re doing something important right that Inventing The Future is missing.

V.

The last part of the book I found interesting was the emphasis on utopianism.

Both Vaughn and S&W identify the Mont Pelerin Society’s utopianism as part of its strength. From Vaughn:

Hayek believed that liberalism was losing to socialism because the socialists had the courage to be Utopian. The socialists explained the values they were working to attain and justified their project in the context of these values. To combat the socialists, Hayek insisted on explaining the Utopian vision of the neoliberals – a vision he couched in human freedom with competitive markets as the only way to ensure this freedom. As the development of the movement shows, this focus on Utopian visions is an extremely potent weapon.

S&W agree, and say the left’s greatest victories have come in an equally ambitious climate:

Utopian ideas have been central to every major moment of liberation – from early liberalism, to socialisms of all stripes, to feminism and anti-colonial nationalism. Cosmism, afro-futurism, dreams of immortality, and space exploration – all of these signal a universal impulse towards utopian thinking. Even the neoliberal revolution cultivated the desire for an alternative liberal utopia in the face of a dominant Keynesian consensus. But any competing left utopias have gone sorely underresourced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. We therefore argue that the left must release the utopian impulse from its neoliberal shackles in order to expand the space of the possible, mobilise a critical perspective on the present moment and cultivate new desires.

As the last sentence suggests, they believe that capitalism and neoliberalism are incompatible with utopianism, and their success has snuffed out previously widespread utopian ideals:

By contrast, today’s world remains firmly confined within the parameters of capitalist realism.32 The future has been cancelled. We are more prone to believing that ecological collapse is imminent, increased militarisation inevitable, and rising inequality unstoppable. Contemporary science fiction is dominated by a dystopian mindset, more intent on charting the decline of the world than the possibilities for a better one. Utopias, when they are proposed, have to be rigorously justified in instrumental terms, rather than allowed to exist in excess of any calculation. Meanwhile, in the halls of academia the utopian impulse has been castigated as naive and futile. Browbeaten by decades of failure, the left has consistently retreated from its traditionally grand ambitions. To give but one example: whereas the 1970s saw radical feminism and queer manifestos calling for a fundamentally new society, by the 1990s these had been reduced to a more moderate identity politics; and by the 2000s discussions were dominated by even milder demands to have same-sex marriage recognised and for women to have equal opportunities to become CEOs. Today, the space of radical hope has come to be occupied by a supposedly sceptical maturity and a widespread cynical reason.

Anyone who believes that utopian thinking is dead should come to the Bay Area. You can spend Monday listening to an Aubrey de Gray lecture on the best way to ensure human immortality in our lifetimes, Tuesday talking to the Seasteading Institute about their attempts to create new societies on floating platforms, Wednesday watching Elon Musk launch another rocket in his long-term plan to colonize space, Thursday debating the upcoming technological singularity, and Friday helping Sam Altman distribute basic income to needy families in Oakland as a pilot study.

And at every one of these events, you’ll see socialists demanding these people stop, and doing everything in their power to make these people’s lives miserable. Capitalism hasn’t snuffed out utopianism. Utopianism is alive and well everywhere except on the left.

I know the arguments in this space. I know people wonder “what if the benefits of utopia only go to the rich?”. Or “what if letting people have their own private visions of utopia means elites can shape the future?”. Or “when some people don’t have health care, doesn’t spending money on utopian visions seem irresponsible?”. Or a thousand other different things.

But the more of this you do, the less Mont Pelerinny you’ll be. Also, you’ll prevent us from reaching utopia. Which, by definition, would be really really good.

Despite my differences with S&W, I respect them for having a utopian vision. I respect them for putting some work into achieving it. I respect them for (to the limited degree that they can specify exactly what they want) having some decent ideas, even if it’s in a paradigm I can’t quite get my head around. And on the off-chance that Andrew Yang gives them everything they want, by throwing out their entire way of thinking and marching under the banner of libertarianism instead, I intend to be very polite and avoid rubbing their faces in it.

Gwern’s AI-Generated Poetry

Gwern has answered my prayers and taught GPT-2 poetry.

GPT-2 is the language processing system that OpenAI announced a few weeks ago. They are keeping the full version secret, but have released a smaller prototype version. Gwern retrained it on the Gutenberg Poetry Corpus, a 117 MB collection of pre-1923 English poetry, to create a specialized poetry AI.

I previously tested the out-of-the-box version of GPT-2 and couldn’t make it understand rhyme and meter. I wrongly assumed this was a fundamental limitation: “obviously something that has never heard sound can’t derive these complex rhythms just from meaningless strings of letters.” I was wrong; it just didn’t have enough training data. Gwern’s retrained version gets both of these right, and more too. For example:

Thou know’st how Menoetiades the swift
Was dragged, of Hector and the fierce compeers
And Phrygian warriors. So, we will dispatch
Your bodies, then, yourselves to burn the ships
In sacrifice; with torches and with bells
To burn them, and with oxen to replace
Your gallant friends for ever. But I wish
That no man living has so long endured
The onset of his foes, as I have power
To burn or storm; for mighty Hector erst
Was slain, and now returns his safe return

This is all perfect iambic pentameter. I know AP English students who can’t write iambic pentameter as competently as this.

(by the way, both “compeers” and “erst” are perfectly cromulent words from the period when people wrote poems like this; both show up in Shelley)

It has more trouble with rhymes – my guess is a lot of the poetry it was trained on was blank verse. But when it decides it should be rhyming, it can keep it up for a little while. From its Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard fanfic:

Methinks I see her in her blissful dreams:
Or, fancy-like, in some mirage she lies,
Majestic yet majestic, and of seems
The image of the unconquerable skies.

Methinks I see her in her blissful dreams:
—Or, fancy-like, in some majestic cell,
Where lordly seraphs strew their balmy dreams
On the still night, or in their golden shell.

There, in the calm of some Platonic dream,
Sits she, and views the unclouded moon arise
Like a fair lady full of realms divine;

And, all at once, a stony face and bright
Glittering in moonlight, like the noon-tints of a night.

COME ON, IT’S A ROBOT. THAT’S BETTER THAN YOU COULD DO IF YOU WERE A ROBOT. GIVE IT A BREAK.

I think its problem is less ability to rhyme, and more a sort of…maintaning the will to rhyme. Gwern prompts it with several Alexander Pope pieces; Pope is a very formal poet who always rhymes in the exact same way. For each Pope piece, GPT-2 does the first couplet in perfect Pope style, then degenerates into increasingly confused gibberish. For example:

Pride even in numbers; wit’s a kind pretence
To something foreign still, but ne’er to sense;
A constant waste of words, the world produces,
A lazy sap, that nothing that’s foreign to expels,
; that’s foreign still unknown to the soul;
A young, like, but in the world in motion,
Obscending not, which smells all our own the worse than our own our own the soul’s, and soul;
Like sense; which is like, but in all our whole.
Which thus far more like, but in all things that’s an excellence; and ne’er unchanged by which is folly’s the worse, they give the worse maintained by which
If sick of sense;
Wholubil, or snug. ills, we know our own our first in sense the worse maintained between the worse, soon expired.

First two lines are perfect rhyme and rhythm, next four have no rhyme but are close to the right meter, next few have almost random length, and by the last one we’ve abandoned grammar and are making up nonsense words like “wholubil”. Every Pope test Gwern runs is like this:

They talk of constancy and faithless love,
A seraph trembles at the specious glove;
Nor in the rich confin’d relief of state,
Find proud pretence, nor in the disdiscoveries of fate.
For when misfortune makes choice remains the conduct’s the prize half known,
Can we secret soul without due, they fear of sense of more known.
Some rise where’ rights, they make it pays due.
.
.
. Sense and judgment, as equal prize seem meanly, the reward the joy, as much possess the prize paid, as well reckon the prize we do not less dare not less keenly wise.
We see;
Of happy lovers ought, as well done, like a friend.
Know they ought, ’tis ev’ is the other joy, as well worth a right;
The joy, as well might, as well may, as well may all is great.
Nor need of joys not as well maysters, as well as well may they give; but as little store; but as well as well as well may shewn, as much, as well we know, as well as well can be sure might prove, as well may well as well as well as well as well may view;
The mind: as well as well as well as well as much the fair as well as well as well as well as well as well as well may

Again, first two lines are great – “a seraph trembles at the specious glove” is both nonsense and exactly the sort of thing Alexander Pope would write, but by the fourth line we have nonsense words, by the fifth we lose the meter, the eighth and ninth are just periods, and finally it starts stuttering helplessly.

I tested this many more times on a public version (not poetry-trained) and found a similar effect – the first two lines are always the best, and it deteriorates from there. I’m interested in hearing from people who understand the model better than I do about why this should be.

Some other highlights:

My heart, why come you here alone?
The wild thing of my heart is grown
To be a thing,
Fairy, and wild, and fair, and whole

That last line, with its ABAB structure, is actually brilliant even by the standards of human poets. “Fairy and wild and fair and whole”. I could say that all day. This has to be a coincidence. It’s not that good anywhere else. But even having something generally okay enough that it can occasionally blunder into something that good is great.

From its Hindu phase:

…which Indra, King of all the Blest,
Had thrown by Rávan’s mighty breast,
The monstrous coil, the brawny hand,
The monstrous mouth, the jaw, the jaw,
The jaw, the jaw and bleeding jaw,
The ungovernable host, the jaw,
And the great bow which never bends,
The arm, the fist, the knee, the ends,
The body laid with mighty stroke,
And the great bow which never bends.
So, when the giants fought, and fell
With murderous strokes, the giant fell,—
So falls the tree with all his trunks
Terrific in its death, that shoots
Wild volley at the mighty trunk,—
So fell the tree with all its boughs
While all the vipers dug and sowed—
So fell the tree with all its boughs.
But Ráma’s heart was sad within
He wept and mourned his captive’s sin

The first two lines are great (and the program must have invented the epithet “King of All The Blest” for Indra, because I can’t find it anywhere else). The description of Ravan’s jaw is, uh, quite memorable. “So falls the tree with all his trunks” is a good deployment of a metaphor which is frankly overused in old poetry. I’m ambivalent between interpreting the repetition as an AI getting stuck in a loop vs. as good use of repetition as a poetic device.

The next few are from this list of a thousand randomly generated samples:

And they have seen the last light fail;
By day they kneel and pray;
But, still they turn and gaze upon
The face of God to-day.

And God is touched and weeps anew
For the lost souls around;
And sorrow turns their pale and blue,
And comfort is not found.

They have not mourned in the world of men,
But their hearts beat fast and sore,
And their eyes are filled with grief again,
And they cease to shed no tear.

And the old men stand at the bridge in tears,
And the old men stand and groan,
And the gaunt grey keepers by the cross
And the spent men hold the crown.

And their eyes are filled with tears,
And their staves are full of woe.
And no light brings them any cheer,
For the Lord of all is dead

And:

There are several kinds of people in America;
There are several kinds of people, I mean their number.
There’s a girl growing up in the house by the light,
There’s a youth upon the road, or a girl somewhere in New York;
There’s a prettier girl, and a man more congenial,

But none of the likes of the likes of the fellows are equal.
There’s one who has never been married and married,
There’s one who don’t want to be treated with kindness;
A fair youth is never employed nor neglected;
There’s one who has never yet come to a neighbor,
And one who resides in New York from the start;

But none of the likes of the likes of the fellows
Are equal to him, and wherever he goes,
The heart somehow breaks under the hand that is steering;
And so it is with me

And this quatrain just worked out really well:

Fair is the Lake, and bright the wood,
With many a flower-full glamour hung:
Fair are the banks; and soft the flood
With golden laughter of our tongue

This one is notable for competent metaphor:

How the clouds
Seem to me birds, birds in God’s garden! I dare not!
The clouds are as a breath, the leaves are flakes of fire,
That clash i’ the wind and lift themselves from higher!

And this one is obviously a failure on one level, but on another level is some kind of great experimental modern political poetry:

The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), majestical,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious,
The Emperor Wu (the great Wu), rapacious

This one displays an interesting combination of world-knowledge and lack-of-world-knowledge:

In the dark the sun doth gleam,
And in the dark the moon doth seem
But now the evening is begun–
Gone is the sun upon the earth!
The silver moon doth like a cup
Of blood-red wine, and as that cup
Is drained of life, doth quench no drop.
What man will drink such wine?
There is no soul of earth or birth
Which man hath never known of earth.
There is no soul who doth not sit
And sing to it, and cry, “Drink!”
There is no soul whose feet are set
On youth’s eternal paradise;
For all is a solemn harmony,
And all is a perpetual chant,
And all the world is a song of God.
There is no soul so wholly free

And here’s another:

There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads – you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.

Except this last time I’m cheating: this is an excerpt of Tennyson’s Ulysses, one of the most famous English poems. I included it as a placebo, ie a test to see whether real poems sound fake if you think they’re by an AI when you read them. I’ll be honest: if I didn’t know this was Great Poetry, I would skim it over and assume it made several mistakes. Like: is “gloom” really a verb? (it is if you’re Alfred, Lord Tennyson). Is the last line grammatical? (yes: it’s an adjective phrase modifying “work”, ie “some work which is fitting for the sort of men who fought gods to do”). Are the mariners’ souls opposing their foreheads? (I’m still confused on this one). These are all the sorts of things that would make me go “Haha, AIs are still pretty dumb” if I were reading it blindly.

If you liked these poems, you might also appreciate Gwern’s work making AI-generated anime waifus.

(and you can also donate to Gwern’s Patreon here)

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Does Reality Drive Straight Lines On Graphs, Or Do Straight Lines On Graphs Drive Reality?

Here’s a graph of US air pollution over time:

During the discussion of 90s environmentalism, some people pointed out that this showed the Clean Air Act didn’t matter. The trend is the same before the Act as after it.

This kind of argument is common. For example, here’s the libertarian Mercatus Institute arguing that OSHA didn’t help workplace safety:

I’ve always taken these arguments pretty seriously. But recently I’ve gotten more cautious. Here’s a graph of Moore’s Law, the “rule” that transistor counts will always increase by a certain amount per year:

The Moore’s Law Wikipedia article lists factors that have helped transistors keep shrinking during that time, for example “the invention of deep UV excimer laser photolithography” in 1980. But if we wanted to be really harsh, we could make a graph like this:

But the same argument that disproves the importance of photolithography disproves the importance of anything else. We’d have to retreat to a thousand-coin-flips model where each factor is so small that it happening or not happening at any given time doesn’t change the graph in a visible way.

The only satisfying counterargument I’ve heard to this is that Moore’s Law comes from a combination of physical law and human commitment. Physical law is consistent with transistors shrinking this quickly. But having noticed this, humans (like the leadership of Intel) commit to achieve it. That commitment functions kind of as a control system. If there’s a big advance in one area, they can relax a little bit in other areas. If there’s a problem in one area, they’ll pour more resources into it until there stops being a problem. One can imagine an event big enough to break the control system – a single unexpected discovery that cuts sizes by a factor of 1000 all on its own, or a quirk of physical law that makes it impossible to fit more transistors on a chip without inventing an entirely new scientific paradigm. But in fact there was no event big enough to break the control system during this period, so the system kept working.

But then we have to wonder whether other things like clean air are control systems too.

That is, suppose that as the economy improves and stuff, the American people demand cleaner air. They will only be happy if the air is at least 2% cleaner each year than the year before. If one year the air is 10% cleaner than the year before, environmentalist groups get bored and wander off, and there’s no more progress for the next five years. But if one year the air is only 1% cleaner, newly-energized environmentalist voters threaten to vote out all the incumbents who contributed to the problem, and politicians pass some emergency measure to make it go down another 1%. So absent some event strong enough to overwhelm the system, air pollution will always go down 2% per year. But that doesn’t mean the Clean Air Act didn’t change things! The Clean Air Act was part of the toolkit that the control system used to keep the decline at 2%. If the Clean Air Act had never happened, the control system would have figured out some other way to keep air pollution low, but that doesn’t mean the Clean Air Act didn’t matter. Just that it mattered exactly as much as whatever it would have been replaced with.

If this were true, you wouldn’t see the effects of pollution-busting technologies on pollution. You’d see them on everything else. For example, suppose that absent any other progress on air pollution, politicians would regulate cars harder, and that’s what would make air pollution go down by 2% that year. In that case, the effects of inventing an unexpected new pollution-busting technology wouldn’t appear in pollution levels, they would appear in car prices. Unless car prices are also governed by a control system – maybe car companies have a target of keeping costs below $20,000 per car, and so they would skimp on safety in order to bring prices back down, and then the effects of a new anti-pollution technology would appear in car accident fatality rates.

How do we tell the difference between this world, and the world where the Clean Air Act really doesn’t matter? I’m not sure (does anyone know of research on this?). Maybe this is one of those awful situations where you have use common sense instead of looking at statistics.

I’m worried this could be a fully general excuse to dismiss any evidence that a preferred policy didn’t work. But it does make me at least a little slower to believe arguments based on interventions not changing trends.

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Puritan Spotting

[Related to: Book Review: Albion’s Seed]
[Epistemic status: Not too serious]

I realize I’ve been confusing everyone with my use of the word “Puritan”. When I say “That guy is so Puritan!” people object “But he’s not religious!” or “He doesn’t hate fun!”

I don’t know what the real word for the category I’m calling “Puritan” is. Words like “Yankee”, “Boston Brahmin”, or “Transcendentalist” are close, but none of them really work. “Eccentric overeducated hypercompetent contrarian early American who takes morality very seriously” is good, but too long.

Instead of explaining further, here’s a (more than half-joking) Puritan checklist. Maximum one item per red box.

The obvious next step is to rank historical figures by Puritanism Points. Here are the top five famous Americans I can find, as per Wikipedia:

#5: SAMUEL MORSE
Samuel Morse was born to Pastor (+3) Jedediah (+1) Morse and his wife Elizabeth (+1) in Charlestown, Massachusetts (+3), the eldest of six children (+3). After attending Yale (+1), he pursued a career as an internationally famous painter. But when his wife Lucretia (+1) fell sick, he was unable to receive the news in time to go home to her before she died, inspiring him to change careers during mid-life (+3) and become an inventor. He spent his life perfecting the telegraph (+1), but also invented an automatic sculpture-making machine (+3). In later life, he switched careers again, becoming an anti-Catholic activist (+1); he ran for Mayor of New York on an anti-Catholic platform, and wrote anti-Catholic pamphlets like A Foreign Conspiracy Against The Liberties Of The United States (+1). He was also a well-known philanthropist (+3). His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

Total Puritanism = 28

#4: ELIZABETH CADY STANTON
Elizabeth (+3) Cady Stanton was born in Johnstown, New York (+1), one of eleven siblings (+3) including a brother named Eleazar (+1) and a sister named Tryphena (+1). She learned Greek as a child (+1) and her disillusionment at being barred from higher education because of her gender led her to start a crusade (+3) for women’s rights, along with other timely causes like abolitionism (+3) and temperance (+3). Although she was an agnostic herself (+1), she did write The Women’s Bible explaining why the Bible should have been more feminist (+3). She described herself as a pacifist, but during the Spanish-American War, stated that “Though I hate war per se, I am glad that it has come in this instance. I would like to see Spain swept from the face of the earth” (+3). Her hairstyle looked like this (+3)

Total Puritanism: 29

#3: LYSANDER SPOONER
Lysander (+3) Spooner was born to Asa and Dolores Spooner in Athol, Massachusetts (+3), the second of nine children (+3) including his elder brother Leander (+1). He is best remembered as one of the founders of modern libertarianism, and as the developer of the Non-Aggression Principle (+3). But he also had a brief career as a lawyer (+1) – brief because he was practicing law illegally, without a license, because he thought licensing restrictions were illegal government tyranny. Later he founded a mail delivery company, again illegally, because he thought the Post Office was illegal government tyranny (I can’t believe he doesn’t gain any points for this; I need a better checklist), and invented (+1) a new monetary system (+3) because he thought that the existing monetary system was illegal government tyranny (see eg his pamphlets Gold and Silver as Standards of Value: The Flagrant Cheat in Regard to Them, +1). Among his other works were pamphlets on his idiosyncratic religious views like The Deist’s Immortality, And An Essay On Man’s Accountability For His Belief (+1, +1, +3), and a whole host of abolitionist books and pamphlets like A Plan For The Abolition Of Slavery (+1, +3). His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

Total Puritanism = 31

#2: ROGER BABSON
Roger Babson was born to 10th-generation Massachussetts natives (+3) Nathaniel (+1) and Ellen (+1) Babson. After attending MIT (+1), he pursued a career as a businessman, investor, and philanthropist (+3). His charitable efforts included the founding of two colleges (+3) – Webber University and Utopia College – and erecting a set of giant boulders with exhortations to be virtuous on them (+3). In later life, he switched careers (+3) to become a social reformer in the Open Church Movement (+3) and run for President as the candidate of the Prohibition Party (+3); he also invented the parking meter (+1). He is perhaps best remembered for founding an organization to destroy gravity (+3, but only because I can’t give + infinity without it being unfair to everyone else), and wrote various essays on the topic with titles like Gravity – Our Enemy Number One (+1). His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

Total Puritanism = 32

#1: BENJAMIN FRANKLIN
Born in Massachussetts (+3), son of Josiah (+1) and Abiah (+1) Franklin, one of seventeen siblings (+3, but deserves more) including a brother Ebenezer (+1). He was too poor to go to college, but handled his own education, creating a 7 x 13 Table of Virtues that he used to guide his daily studies and behavior (+3). He became an inventor, developing not only the Franklin stove (+1), the lightning rod (+1), and bifocals (+1), but also a system of propelling naval vessels by giant kites (+3). Later he switched careers (+3) to become a Founding Father of the United States (+3) and leader of the American Revolution (+3). He also wrote books like Poor Richard’s Almanack (+1), Advice To A Friend On Choosing A Mistress (+1), and The Means And Manner Of Obtaining Virtue (this one I am giving infinity points). Called himself a Deist (+1) and wrote a pamphlet (+3) explaining his idiosyncratic semi-Christian beliefs (+3); he also wrote a Bible fanfic in which God explained to Abraham the importance of Tolerance (+3). He was President of the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society (+3), but also invented his own racial categorization system where only Anglo-Saxons were white, and German immigration should be banned as a threat to the whiteness of America (+3); he nevertheless founded philanthropic organizations to help German immigrants (+3). He was sympathetic to pacifism and said that “There never was a good war or a bad peace”, but supported the Revolutionary War (+3), which he thought necessary. His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

Total Puritanism = infinity

Other high scorers: Dorothea Dix (in addition to her psychiatric reforms, founded several schools and wrote a whole book of overwrought poetry praising flowers), Hiram Maxim (his son, also named Hiram Maxim, was also a famous inventor), Hiram Bingham (his son, also named Hiram Bingham, was also a famous traveler), Aaron Burr (grandson of Jonathan Edwards; his son was a chairman of the Moral Reform Society), Mary Baker Eddy (“My favorite studies were natural philosophy, logic, and moral science. From my brother Albert, I received lessons in the ancient tongues, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin”), Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr (close to my heart as a doctor/essayist/reformer) and Henry David Thoreau (everything about him). Let me know in the comments if you have more.

I find this kind of thing fun, and I do better than chance at guessing whether people are Puritan or not before I know the answer. But I don’t want to say this is Objectively Right. I’m sure the checklist combines traits that are inherently Puritan (like being from Massachusetts) with ones that are more common among various groups of early Americans (like inventing things, or having large families), which means this has elements of the wiggin fallacy.

The most egregious false positive I’ve found is Mark Twain. He was born in Missouri, one of seven children (+3) including an older brother Orion (+1 – he also had a brother named Pleasant Hannibal, which doesn’t get him Puritanism Points but ought to get him something). Along with being a writer who wrote various humorous books (+3), he was also (+3) an inventor, and received patents for suspenders, a history trivia game, and a self-pasting scrapbook (+3). He was an abolitionist (+3) and Deist (+1), and wrote various books about his idiosyncratic views on religion (+3). He described himself as a pacifist, but supported revolutionary violence from Robespierre to the Russian communists (+3). His hairstyle looked like this (+3).

This gets him 26, which is pretty concerning. But it’s worth noting that his great-great-grandfather was Ezekiel Clemens of Essex, Massachussetts, so he does have some Puritan blood in him, however diluted.

Other people who seem Puritan to me but AFAICT have no genealogical or cultural link: Cyrus McCormack, Homer Hickam, Emperor Norton. Also, surprisingly many Jews. There’s a weird symmetry there: both groups started out living in in small, very strict religious communities where they wore black and had lots of kids; then upon contact with Modernity they both went the opposite route and became famous for their education, irreligion, and preeminence in various forms of liberal tikkun olam. Must be one of those coincidences.

People complain that there is too much neo-Puritanism around these days, but they usually just mean people are moralistic reformers. I have the opposite worry: what happened to these people? When was the last time you saw somebody called Hiram invent five different crazy machines, found a new religion, and have twelve children who he named after Greek nymphs? Anyone who is serious about “Making America Great Again” should be deeply worried.

The modern American caricature is the Borderers: impulsive gun-crazy fundamentalist hillbillies with country-western accents. The opposite American stereotype – the virtue-obsessed nonconformist eccentric inventor philanthropist – has almost disappeared. These people still exist – Bill Gates does a good job embodying the ideal (or for a closer-to-home example, Ben Hoffman of Compass Rose) but they’re disconnected from any historical archetype. Lots of writers have argued that if you want people to avoid a race-based identity, you need a national identity you can assimilate people into. But right now the US national identity is one that’s repulsive to a lot of people. I’m disappointed that Puritanism is no longer a thing that people can aim at.

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Ketamine: Now By Prescription

Last week the FDA approved esketamine for treatment-resistant depression.

Let’s review how the pharmaceutical industry works: a company discovers and patents a potentially exciting new drug. They spend tens of millions of dollars proving safety and efficacy to the FDA. The FDA rewards them with a 10ish year monopoly on the drug, during which they can charge whatever ridiculous price they want. This isn’t a great system, but at least we get new medicines sometimes.

Occasionally people discover that an existing chemical treats an illness, without the chemical having been discovered and patented by a pharmaceutical company. In this case, whoever spends tens of millions of dollars proving it works to the FDA may not get a monopoly on the drug and the right to sell it for ridiculous prices. So nobody spends tens of millions of dollars proving it works to the FDA, and so it risks never getting approved.

The usual solution is for some pharma company to make some tiny irrelevant change to the existing chemical, and patent this new chemical as an “exciting discovery” they just made. Everyone goes along with the ruse, the company spends tens of millions of dollars pushing it through FDA trials, it gets approved, and they charge ridiculous prices for ten years. I wouldn’t quite call this “the system works”, but again, at least we get new medicines.

Twenty years ago, people noticed that ketamine treated depression. Alas, ketamine already existed – it’s an anaesthetic and a popular recreational drug – so pharma companies couldn’t patent it and fund FDA trials, so it couldn’t get approved by the FDA for depression. A few renegade doctors started setting up ketamine clinics, where they used the existing approval of ketamine for anaesthesia as an excuse to give it to depressed people. But because this indication was not FDA-approved, insurance companies didn’t have to cover it. This created a really embarrassing situation for the medical system: everyone secretly knows ketamine is one of the most effective antidepressants, but officially it’s not an antidepressant at all, and mainstream providers won’t give it to you.

The pharmaceutical industry has lobbyists in Heaven. Does this surprise you? Of course they do. A Power bribed here, a Principality flattered there, and eventually their petitions reach the ears of God Himself. This is the only possible explanation for stereochemistry, a quirk of nature where many organic chemicals come in “left-handed” and “right-handed” versions. The details don’t matter, beyond that if you have a chemical that you can’t patent, you can take the left-handed (or right-handed) version, and legally pretend that now it is a different chemical which you can patent. And so we got “esketamine”.

Am I saying that esketamine is just a sinister ploy by pharma to patent and make money off ketamine? Yup. In fact “esketamine” is just a cutesy way of writing the chemical name s-ketamine, which literally stands for “sinister ketamine” (sinister is the Latin word for “left-handed”; the modern use derives from the old superstition that left-handers were evil). The sinister ploy to patent sinister ketamine worked, and the latest news says it will cost between $590 to $885 per dose.

(regular old ketamine still costs about $10 per dose, less if you buy it from a heavily-tattooed man on your local street corner)

I’ve said it before: I don’t blame the pharma companies for this. Big Government, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that drugs should have to undergo tens of millions of dollars worth of FDA trials before they get approved. No government agencies or altruistic billionaires have stepped up to fund these trials themselves, so they won’t happen unless some pharma company does it. And pharma companies aren’t going to do it unless they can make their money back. And it’s not like they’re overcharging; their return to investment on R&D may already be less than zero. This is a crappy system – but again, it’s one that occasionally gets us new medicines. So it’s hard to complain.

But in this case, there are two additional issues that make it even worse than the usual serving of crappiness.

First, esketamine might not work.

Johnson & Johnson, the pharma company sponsoring its FDA application, did four official efficacy studies. You can find the summary starting on page 17 of this document. Two of the trials were technically negative, although analysts have noticed nontechnical ways they look encouraging. Two of the trials were technically positive, but one of them was a withdrawal trial that was not really designed to prove efficacy.

The FDA usually demands two positive studies before they approve a drug, and doesn’t usually count withdrawal trials. This time around, in a minor deviation from their usual rules, they decided to count the positive withdrawal trial as one of the two required positives, and approve esketamine. I suspect this was a political move based on how embarrassing it was to have everyone know ketamine was a good antidepressant, but not have it officially FDA-approved.

But if ketamine is such a good antidepressant, how come it couldn’t pass the normal bar for approval? Like, people keep saying that ketamine is a real antidepressant, that works perfectly, and changes everything, unlike those bad old SSRIs which are basically just placebo. But esketamine’s results are at least as bad as any SSRI’s. If you look at Table 9 in the FDA report, ketamine did notably worse than most of the other antidepressants the FDA has approved recently – including vortioxetine, an SSRI-like medication.

One possibility is that ketamine was studied for treatment-resistant depression, so it was only given to the toughest cases. But Table 9 shows olanzapine + fluoxetine doing significantly better than esketamine even for treatment-resistant depression.

Another possibility is that clinical trials are just really tough on antidepressants for some reason. I’ve mentioned this before in the context of SSRIs. Patients love them. Doctors love them. Clinical trials say they barely have any effect. Well, now patients love ketamine. Doctors love ketamine. And now there’s a clinical trial showing barely any effect. This isn’t really a solution to esketamine’s misery, but at least it has company.

Another possibility is that everyone made a huge mistake in using left-handed ketamine, and it’s right-handed ketamine that holds the magic. Most previous research was done on a racemic mixture (an equal mix of left-handed and right-handed molecules), and at least one study suggests it was the right-handed ketamine that was driving the results. Pharma decided to pursue left-handed ketamine because it was known to have a stronger effect on NMDA receptors, but – surprise! – ketamine probably doesn’t work through NMDA after all. So there’s a chance that this is just the wrong kind of ketamine – though usually I expect big pharma to be smarter than that, and I would be surprised if this turned out to be it. I don’t know if anybody has a right-handed ketamine patent yet.

And another possibility is that it’s the wrong route of administration. Almost all previous studies on ketamine have examined it given IV. The FDA approved esketamine as a nasal spray – which is a lot more convenient for patients, but again, not a lot of studies showing it works. At least some studies seem to show that it doesn’t. Again, usually I expect big pharma not to screw up the delivery method, but who knows?

Second in our litany of disappointments, esketamine is going to be maximally inconvenient to get.

The big problem with regular ketamine, other than not being FDA-approved, was that you had to get it IV. That meant going to a ketamine clinic that had nurses and anesthesiologists for IV access, then sitting there for a couple of hours hallucinating while they infused it into you. This was a huge drawback compared to eg Prozac, where you can just bring home a pill bottle and take one pill per day in the comfort of your own bathroom. It’s also expensive – clinics, nurses, and anesthesiologists don’t come cheap.

The great appeal of a ketamine nasal spray was that it was going to prevent all that. Sure, it might not work. Sure, it would be overpriced. But at least it would be convenient!

The FDA, in its approval for esketamine, specified that it could only be delivered at specialty clinics by doctors who are specially trained in ketamine administration, that patients will have to sit at the clinic for at least two hours, and realistically there will have to be a bunch of nurses on site. My boss has already said our (nice, well-funded) clinic isn’t going to be able to jump through the necessary hoops; most other outpatient psychiatric clinics will probably say the same.

This removes most of the advantages of having it be intranasal, so why are they doing this? They give two reasons. First, they want to make sure no patient can ever bring ketamine home, because they might get addicted to it. Okay, I agree addiction is bad. But patients bring prescriptions of OxyContin and Xanax home every day. Come on, FDA. We already have a system for drugs you’re worried someone will get addicted to, it’s called the Controlled Substances Act. Ketamine is less addictive than lots of chemicals that are less stringently regulated than it is. This just seems stupid and mean-spirited.

The other reason the drugs have to be given in a specially monitored clinic is because ketamine can have side effects, including hallucinations and dissociative sensations. I agree these are bad, and I urge patients only to take hallucinogens/dissociatives in an appropriate setting, such as a rave. Like, yeah, ketamine can be seriously creepy, but now patients are going to have to drive to some overpriced ketamine clinic a couple of times a week and sit there for two hours per dose just because you think they’re too frail to handle a dissociative drug at home?

I wanted to finally be able to prescribe ketamine to my patients who needed it. Instead, I’m going to have to recommend they find a ketamine clinic near them (some of my patients live hours from civilization), drive to it several times a week (some of my patients don’t have cars) and pay through the nose, all so that some guy with a postgraduate degree in Watching People Dissociate can do crossword puzzles while they sit and feel kind of weird in a waiting room. And then those same patients will go home and use Ecstasy. Thanks a lot, FDA.

And the cherry on the crap sundae is that this sets a precedent. If the FDA approves psilocybin for depression (and it’s currently in Phase 2 trials, so watch this space!) you can bet you’re going to have to go to a special psilocybin clinic if you want to get it. Psychedelic medicine is potentially the future of psychiatry, and there’s every indication that it will be as inconvenient and red-tape-filled a future as possible. If you thought it was tough getting your Adderall prescription refilled every month, just wait.

So far, I am continuing to recommend that my patients who want ketamine seek intravenous racemic ketamine at an existing ketamine clinic, since this has a stronger evidence base. Once insurance starts covering esketamine, I may change my mind if money becomes an issue. But I’m annoyed that it’s come to this.

OT123: Oped Thread

This is the bi-weekly visible open thread (there are also hidden open threads twice a week you can reach through the Open Thread tab on the top of the page). Post about anything you want, but please try to avoid hot-button political and social topics. You can also talk at the SSC subreddit or the SSC Discord server – and also check out the SSC Podcast. Also:

1. Some great comments on the article about Facebook moderation, including testimonials from a 4chan mod and a friend of a YouTube mod. And here’s a Facebook employee describing some of the steps they take to make mods’ lives easier. Also, comments by JenniferRM are a rare privilege and always great and this one is no exception.

2. Or an alternative candidate for comment of the week: NullHypothesis explains the relationship between thorium and molten salt reactors.

3. Does anyone want to automate the Psychiat-List – ie the process of submitting names and rating names that are already up there? Or is there some sort of pre-existing build-your-own-Yelp software out there simple enough that even I could use it? I would be willing to pay some amount of money for this, though I don’t know what’s reasonable to offer and it’s definitely sub-four-digits.

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Links 3/19: Linkguini

The Obama Presidential Library is starting to come together. It’s very modern-looking, but not in a bad way. Related: did you know that Dan Quayle has the only (?) unofficial vice-presidential library? And that Jefferson Davis has a presidential library of his own? (albeit sponsored by Mississippi, not the US)

Ben Landau-Taylor is a stirrup denialist.

How did the descendants of the Mayan Indians end up in the Eastern Orthodox Church?

The Center for Effective Altruism has been offering monthly prizes for the best posts on effective altruism. See the November, December, and January winners.

Scientist Mark Edwards became a hero when he first discovered and exposed toxic levels of lead in Flint, Michigan. For the past few years, he’s been saying that the water is better now and the crisis is over, “and that turned him from a hero into a pariah”.

Does Parental Quality Matter? Study using three sources of parental variation that are mostly immune to genetic confounding find that “the strong parent-child correlation in education is largely causal”. For example, “the parent-child correlation in education is stronger with the parent that spends more time with the child”.

Although most big cities have many “sister cities”, Paris and Rome both have legally enshrined sister city monogamy, because “only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris”.

80,000 Hours’ advice on going into a career in AI policy. “If you’re a thoughtful American interested in developing expertise and technical abilities in the domain of AI policy, then this may be one of your highest impact options, particularly if you have been to or can get into a top grad school in law, policy, international relations or machine learning.”

I’ve written before about how people underestimate the interpersonal differences in visual imagination, but I was surprised by this poll which apparently found that many people imagine in black-and-white, in outlines, or just in faded pastel colors. Huh? For me a shape as simple as a red star would be near-perfect (though it feels somehow insubstantial, or perhaps strobing in and out at a very fast rate.)

Almost a third of the world’s Bitcoin mining happens in a rural area of Washington State where a bunch of hydroelectric dams make electricity extra-cheap. How crypto is transforming the Mid-Columbia Basin.

Far-right anti-Muslim Dutch politician converts to Islam. Says he tried to write a book proving Islam was bad, but the research went the opposite way he expected. Maybe the most impressive example of open-mindedness of all time – but some followers are still holding out hope it’s just a weird stunt.

Because everyone is terrible and everything sucks forever, some people are trying to factory-farm octopuses.

Before and after pictures of tech leaders like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, and Sergey Brin suggest they’re taking supplemental testosterone. And though it may help them keep looking young, Palladium points out that there might be other effects from having some of our most powerful businessmen on a hormone that increases risk-taking and ambition. They ask whether the new availability of testosterone supplements is prolonging Silicon Valley businessmen’s “brash entrepreneur” phase well past the point where they would normally become mature respectable elders. But it also hints at an almost opposite take: average testosterone levels have been falling for decades, so at this point these businessmen would be the only “normal” (by 1950s standards) men out there, and everyone else would be unprecedently risk-averse and boring. Paging Peter Thiel and everyone else who takes about how things “just worked better” in Eisenhower’s day.

New study: ID laws have not stopped any voter fraud, but they also haven’t disenfranchised anyone or had disproportionate race-based effects. They just do nothing and don’t matter. (EDIT: Here’s another study that does find disenfranchisement)

A parable on the difficulty of science: P. Apterus is a strikingly-colored insect. Researchers who studied them successfully in Europe moved to Harvard and found their insects failed to metamorphisize properly. Eventually they tracked this to the paper towels lining their cage; in the US, these are made with wood from a species of fir with anti-insect hormones that survive the paper-making process.

Reason: Against global poverty decline denialism.

Also from Reason: Celebrate, Don’t Mourn, The End Of What’s Always Been A Bad Plan (on California high-speed rail). Related: before the end, even the politician behind the rail initiative denounced it as “almost a crime”. And Cato presents the generalized case against trains. “The bottom line is that states and cities should not even ask whether urban or intercity passenger rail projects are feasible. I can tell you at the start that they are not: unless you are in Tokyo or Hong Kong, buses, cars, and planes are always superior to passenger rail.” Interested to hear the local transit geeks’ opinion on this.

Related (I am lying, it’s not really related at all): the metaphysics of public transit.

In happier California-canceling-things news, the University of California has declined to renew its Danegeld subscription to academic journal rent-seeker publisher Elsevier. This is a bold move which has the chance to start a virtuous feedback loop, but it’s going to be a big hassle for California academics who are no longer able to access a lot of the journals in their fields (hopefully they all know how to use sci-hub).

It’s fun to beat up on PETA, but first at least read PETA’s argument that some of the worst stories about them are deliberately spread by meat industry lobby groups.

Related: Ozy is offering a $500 bounty for a good guide on how to best switch from factory-farmed fish to more animal-friendly wild-caught fish.

This letter from the New York State budget director has gone viral; it describes how terrible a choice rejecting Amazon’s HQ was for New York’s finances. I’m sure the budget director is right that the economic benefits Amazon would have brought to the state were much greater than the subsidies necessary to lure them there, but he misses the point: subsidizing them is still defecting against other states in a negative-sum way. Doing it is the economically correct choice in the same way that paying Danegeld or bribing corrupt politicians is the economically correct choice, and refusing to do so is a self-sacrificing but morally admirable step towards a better world (if done in a way that encourages other states to participate in the new equilibrium).

Did you know: a terrorist group made up of Holocaust survivors vowed to kill six million Germans in revenge for Nazi atrocities, but were caught and arrested after only non-fatally poisoning two thousand.

China’s SesameCredit social monitoring system, widely portrayed as dystopian, has an 80% approval rate in China (vs. 19% neutral and 1% disapproval). The researchers admit that although all data is confidential and they are not affiliated with the Chinese government, their participants might not believe that confidently enough to answer honestly.

I know how much you guys love attacking EAs for “pathological altruism” or whatever terms you’re using nowadays, so here’s an article where rationalist community member John Beshir describes his experience getting malaria on purpose to help researchers test a vaccine.

New Orleans has reduced its homeless population by 90% (albeit after a post-Katrina high). Their secret? Giving them homes.

The orchestra study – one of the most famous studies proving gender discrimination, cited over a thousand times – doesn’t stand up to basic scrutiny (and here’s a r/TheMotte reader independently noticing the same thing). And another famous study proving gender discrimination in tech, recently cited in the New York Times, appears not to actually exist. I would call this a new low, but it really isn’t, it’s pretty par for the course. Meanwhile, there’s a mountain of good evidence showing gender discrimination is not a major driver of gender imbalance in tech, and it might as well be a local election in Timbuktu for all the media coverage it gets.

The Stranger‘s list of errors and corrections for 2018 (comedy).

Entendrepreneur (which may have named itself) is a really really neat online pun and portmanteau generator.

A new generation of nuclear energy startups are pushing liquid molten salt reactors, scalable safe nuclear reactors that don’t produce waste and can’t melt down. Potential as a green energy solution is obvious. But what happened to the hype around thorium five years ago?

Did you know there’s now a working Ebola vaccine?

You probably knew that the “wasabi” around today mostly isn’t real wasabi, but did you know the same is true of soy sauce? This BBC feature on the attempt to save real soy sauce from extinction is annoyingly-designed but very good. It’s also very Japanese: “To lock the planks into place, Fujii Seiokesho’s craftsmen told Yamamoto not to use glue, but bamboo. After talking to a neighbour, Yamamoto learned that his grandfather had planted a bamboo grove decades earlier for exactly that reason, knowing that someone in the family would one day need to build more barrels.” Real soy sauce from this guy’s company is apparently available on Amazon; I’m going to get some and try it and report back.

Some evidence against the theory that missing fathers cause earlier menarche.

Before you point to sugar as the Lone Dietary Villain, keep in mind that the British may eat less sugar today than they did in 1913, when obesity was very rare.

John Nerst of EverythingStudies’ political compass.

We’ve reached max environmental determinism! We’re reaching levels of environmental determinism that shouldn’t even be possible! Does Positive Thinking In Pregnancy Boost Children’s Math Skills?

This article on The Takeover Of The American Mind is a pretty standard-issue anti-SJW piece, but I’m linking it for the second graph, which shows SJWness of Google searches by state. The leaders are Rhode Island, Vermont, Maryland, Connecticut, and Massachussets – which (aside from Maryland) I take as evidence for the neo-Puritan hypothesis.

I wonder how things are going in the alternate universe where Donald Trump ended up as First Lady of Venezuela.

New study uses genetics to determine that the correlation between brain size and intelligence is causal.

r/TheMotte on the Cardinal George Pell case.

I know it’s off-brand of me to like this, but these colorful scarves representing local climates over time are really pretty and an interesting teaching aid on climate change.

Know Your GABA Receptor Subunits. Cannot 100% vouch that this is all true, but on a quick skim it looks basically right to me, and a lot more comprehensible than anything else I’ve read on the subject.

Bryan Caplan has won yet another bet, this one on US vs. EU unemployment.

Did you know: The first cellular automaton was given by the Archangel Uriel to John Dee in the 1500s, and was only fully decoded by Jim Reeds (note nominative determinism, especially if Jim = Gym = γυμνός!) in 1996.

Sarah Constantin, who used to work in the personalized medicine industry, describes which parts of it she’s disillusioned with, and which parts still might work.

For a fun time, compare Nathan Robinson’s review of Ray Dalio’s Principles with Peter McCluskey’s review of the same book. It’s less that they disagree on any particular point and more that they have totally different personalities and totally different ideas about what a book review is supposed to do.

This 17th century anti-Dutch pamphlet really goes all in on the subtitles, subsubtitles, and subsubsubtitles. Also, note the figure on the left; possible origin story for the Trump family?

Know your crosses!

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Prospiracy Theories

[Title from this unrelated story or this unrelated essay]

Last week I wrote about how conspiracy theories spread so much faster on Facebook than debunkings of those same theories. A few commenters chimed in to say that of course this was true, the conspiracy theories had evolved into an almost-perfect form for exploiting cognitive biases and the pressures of social media. Debunkings and true beliefs couldn’t copy that process, so they were losing out.

This sounded like a challenge, so here you go:

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Meaningful

[With apologies to Putnam, Pope, and all of you]

Two children are reading a text written by an AI:

The hobbits splashed water in each other’s faces until they were both sopping wet

One child says to the other “Wow! After reading some text, the AI understands what water is!”

The second child says “It doesn’t really understand.”

The first child says “Sure it does! It understands that water is the sort of substance that splashes. It understands that people who are splashed with water get wet. What else is left to understand?”

The second child says “All it understands is relationships between words. None of the words connect to reality. It doesn’t have any internal concept of what water looks like or how it feels to be wet. Only that the letters W-A-T-E-R, when appearing near the letters S-P-L-A-S-H bear a certain statistical relationship to the letters W-E-T.”

The first child starts to cry.


Two chemists are watching the children argue with each other. The first chemist says “Wow! After seeing an AI, these kids can debate the nature of water!”

The second chemist says “Ironic, isn’t it? After all, the children themselves don’t understand what water is! Water is two hydrogen atoms plus one oxygen atom, and neither of them know!”

The first chemist answers “Come on. The child knows enough about water to say she understands it. She knows what it looks like. She knows what it tastes like. That’s pretty much the basics of water.”

The second chemist answers “Those are just relationships between pieces of sense-data. The child knows that (visual perception of clear shiny thing) = (tactile perception of cold wetness) = (gustatory perception of refreshingness). And she can predict statistical relationships, like that if she sees someone throw a bucket of (visual perception of clear shiny thing) at her, she will soon feel (tactile perception of cold miserable sopping wetness). She uses the word “water” as a concept-hook that links all of these relationships together and makes predicting the world much easier. But no matter how well she masters these facts, she can never connect them to H2O or any other real chemical facts about the world beyond mere sense-data.”

The first chemist says “Maybe she knows things like that water makes iron rust. That’s a chemical fact.”

The second chemist says “No, she knows that (clear shiny appearance + wetness + refreshment) makes (dull metallic appearance + hardness) get (patchy redness). She doesn’t know that H2O + Fe = iron oxides. She knows many statistical relationships between sense-data, but none of them ever connect to the deeper chemical reality.”

The first chemist says “Then on what level can we be said to understand water ourselves? After all, no doubt there are deeper things going on than chemical reactions – quantum fields, superstrings, levels even deeper than those. All we know are some statistical relationships that must hold true, despite whatever those things may be.”


Two angels are watching the chemists argue with each other. The first angel says “Wow! After seeing the relationship between the sensory and atomic-scale worlds, these chemists have realized that there are levels of understanding humans are incapable of accessing.”

The second angel says “They haven’t truly realized it. They’re just abstracting over levels of relationship between the physical world and their internal thought-forms in a mechanical way. They have no concept of or . You can’t even express it in their language!”

The first angel says “Yes, but when they use placeholder words like ‘levels even deeper than those’, those placeholders will have the same statistical relationship with the connection between models and reality as .”

“Yes, which is the difference between being able to respond to ‘Marco!’ by shouting ‘Polo!” vs. a deep historical understanding of Europe-Orient trade relations in the Middle Ages. If all you know is that some statistical models are isomorphic to other models and to Asiyah itself, you still won’t have the slightest idea what the s of any of them are.”

“I’m not claiming humans really know what anything means,” said the first angel. “Just that it’s impressive you can get that far by manipulating a purely symbolic mental language made of sense-data-derived thought-forms with no connection to real at all.”

“I guess that is kind of impressive,” said the second angel. “For humans.”


God sits in the highest heaven, alone.

“Wow!” He thinks to Himself, “that cellular automaton sure is producing some pretty patterns today. I wonder what it will do next!”

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