[Epistemic status: I haven’t independently verified each link. On average, commenters will end up spotting evidence that around two or three of the links in each links post are wrong or misleading. I correct these as I see them, but can’t guarantee I will have caught them all by the time you read this.]
The Movement For The Restoration Of The Ten Commandments Of God had such a strong emphasis on the Commandments that they “discouraged talking, for fear of breaking the Eigth Commandment [against bearing false witness], and on some days communication was only conducted in sign language.” Pretty impressive, although I feel like they might have departed from the Decalogue a tiny bit at the part where they murdered 530 people.
The 1960s were simpler times, when ads in kids’ magazines offered to sell you a pet monkey for $19.95. “My brother is 8, I am 9 years old…and we had $19.95 because we washed cars, we mowed lawns.” What could go wrong?
Gwern on hard to notice ways that things have improved during his lifetime (ie since the late 1980s). Some things are big technology, like the Internet and electric cars. Other things are tiny improvements in everyday objects, like self-adhesive stamps, power windows in cars, wheeled luggage, TVs you don’t have to adjust the antennae on, and computer mice you don’t have to remember to clean. Radios stopped being staticky, air travel got cheaper, showers don’t run out of hot water. Still others are vast vague improvements in whole areas of life, like cleaner air and water, or Amazon-style improved logistics. Recommended.
More sentimental cartography: a map of linguistics (h/t Copular Predicate)
In the 1500s, small forces of Europeans took over large chunks of the world, most famously Cortes and Pizarro in the Americans. But what about Portuguese conquerer Afonso de Albuquerque? In 1506 – just eight years after the first European ships rounded Africa and made it to the Indian ocean at all – he and the Portugese king made a plan to conquer enough Asian coastline to control trade on the Indian Ocean. Over the next seven years, they did exactly this, taking over choice ports like Hormuz (Iran), Goa (India), and Malacca (Malaysia). Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, who had the advantage of using guns while facing Stone Age empires, Afonso generally faced enemies as advanced (and sometimes more advanced) than himself. How did he do it? Daniel Kokotajlo on Less Wrong writes about the lessons from Afonso and the other conquistadors.
The McLibel Case – activists Helen Steel and David Morris distributed anti-McDonalds pamphlets in the UK. McDonalds sued them for libel, starting a case that would cast international attention on the UK’s unusually strict and freedom-of-speech-threatening libel laws. My favorite part of this article is about a proposed settlement: “Steel and Morris secretly recorded the meeting, in which McDonald’s said the pair could criticise McDonald’s privately to friends but must cease talking to the media or distributing leaflets. Steel and Morris wrote a letter in response saying they would agree to the terms if McDonald’s ceased advertising its products and instead only recommended the restaurant privately to friends.”
538 on which states have produced the most presidential nominees. Did you know eight nominees have come from the western US, and all of them were Republicans? Why should that be?
“At this point it’s been pretty conclusively established that the ocean is weird, but one of weirder marine phenomena I’ve encountered is the sea monk or sea bishop, an animal that was sighted of the coast of Poland in 1531, washed up on Danish shores in the late 1540s and went the 16th century equivalent of viral.” Even if you don’t read this one, at least look at the pictures!
Update: new meta-analysis out of Stanford reviews 35 studies and claims that Alcoholics Anonymous is the most effective path to abstinence, and “was nearly always found to be more effective than psychotherapy in achieving abstinence”. Read this in the context of my previous article Alcoholics Anonymous: Much More Than You Wanted To Know. Overall I am glad to have some evidence to use against the Internet people who always say “science has debunked Alcoholics Anonymous”, but I’m not convinced it’s the right solution for everyone, or necessarily better than any other equally-structured programs. I may have more to say when I’ve read the study in more detail.
This Twitter thread combines a discussion of Bay Area zoning policy with one of the best puns I have ever seen (the Bay won’t let someone rezone something, and this gets described as “an unrezonable decision”).
Marvel introduces two new social-justice-themed superheroes, Snowflake and Safespace (also, they’re black and nonbinary). The writer swears he is not making fun of anyone and actually thinks this is a good idea.
The burned house horizon is the area in Europe where people from 7000 BC to 2000 BC often deliberately burned their own houses down for no apparent reason. Contains modern Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, etc. The “Cucuteni-Trypillian culture” built the largest cities in history up to that date, then burned them down every 75 years or so, consistently, for centuries. “Whether the houses were set on fire in a ritualistic way all together before abandoning the settlement, or each house was destroyed at the end of its life (e.g. before building a new one) it is still a matter of debate…some scholars have theorized that the buildings were burned ritually, regularly and deliberately in order to mark the end of the “life” of the house. The terms ‘domicide’ and ‘domithanasia’ have been coined to refer to this practice.” Also, “although there have been some attempts to try to replicate the results of these ancient settlement burnings, no modern experiment has yet managed to successfully reproduce the conditions that would leave behind the type of evidence that is found in these burned Neolithic sites, had the structures burned under normal conditions”
This is several Weird Venezuelan Happenings ago now, but hopefully you didn’t miss the time last month when a Venezuelan warship attacked an unarmed cruise ship for unclear reasons, but managed to sink itself in the process instead. See also this mock Wikipedia infographic about the battle.
I stumbled across this 2012 Siddhartha Mukherjee piece on depression recently. Even though it’s eight years old, it does a better job than most modern pop science in navigating the successes and failures of SSRIs and the serotonin hypothesis of depression more generally.
Moore’s Law is pretty great, but “in many areas, performance gains due to improvements in algorithms have vastly exceeded even the dramatic performance gains due to increased processor speed”.
The late 1980s saw the “heterosexual AIDS panic”, where people started worrying AIDS would devastate the straight community to the same degree as the gay community. At its peak, Oprah told her audience that “research studies now project that one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years”, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services claimed AIDS could be worse than the Black Death, which killed a third of Europeans. I came across this because Michael Fumento, who helped calm the panic and debunk the rumors, is back in the news saying coronavirus won’t be a big deal – which makes me worry he’s less a heroic lone voice of reason, and a more a guy who just really likes dismissing diseases.
Best of new Less Wrong: conflict theory vs. mistake theory as different strategies for general non-zero-sum games
The Taiwan Junket: an unimportant assemblyman in a backwater state legislature gets asked to propose a meaningless bill about Taiwan. When the meaningless bill passes because nobody cares enough to vote against it, he gets hailed as a hero in Taiwan and offered a free trip to the country to attend a dinner in his honor. He concludes that this was a Taiwanese government propaganda effort to dazzle citizens who aren’t paying attention to details.
Best of new Less Wrong: Choosing The Zero Point. If you frame vegetarianism as a moral obligation you’re shameful for failing at, people get angry and won’t do it. If you frame it as a surprising new opportunity to do more good than you expected to be able to do before, people get excited and are more interested. What’s the general case of this?
It’s always been true that for what the state spends on public-schooling your kid, you could hire fancy private tutors with tiny class sizes (for example, in New York you could buy a $100K/year tutor to teach five kids full-time). @webdevmason points out that this is even more relevant now that reopening public schools could help spread a deadly pandemic.
Silly rules improve the capacity of agents to learn stable enforcement and compliance behaviors claims that arbitrary rules (like eg Jewish ritual law) play a useful role by spreading information about which of your neighbors comply with taboos and how often violations get punished. They present a toy model that shows that rules against eating poisonous berries work better when coupled with an arbitrary pointless rule whose violation has no real consequences.
Many people including me have enjoyed reading comments by no_bear_so_low (aka De Pony Sum) on the SSC subreddit. Now he’s released an online collection of his essays.
Average national IQ correlates well with GDP per capita and other measures of development. But is average national IQ really the right number to look at? “Smart fraction theory” suggests we should instead look at the range of top IQs, since the smartest people are most likely to drive national growth by inventing things or starting businesses or governing well. Now Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson (names you may recognize!) have given the hypothesis its most complete test so far, and found that yes, IQ at the 95th percentile correlates better with national development than at the 50th percentile. But I am a little skeptical of their results, because 95th-%-IQ correlates at about 0.97 with 50th-%-IQ, so any signal from the difference would be very tiny and probably swamped by other features. Also, usually when 50th and 95th are really different, it’s because the country is multiracial (eg South Africa had the highest 50th-to-95th-percentile IQ difference in the whole sample) and those countries’ policies and economies depend a lot on unique features of exactly what’s going on racially. Some more commentary here.
Related: the above study shows Kazakhstan as having among the highest IQs in the world. This was surprising enough to me that I looked it up, and although they are middle-of-the-road by most measures, one study found they have an extraordinary number of super-high-achievers on standardized tests, beating out usual titans like Finland, Switzerland, Israel, and the US. They could be using the Chinese strategy (only let your smartest students take the test in order to look good). But also, the USSR also stuck its space program and several other science megaprojects in Kazakhstan, and a lot of the scientists stayed around after the USSR broke up, so maybe there are a lot of really bright Russian kids. Also, Stalin deported a lot of Koreans there for reasons that probably made sense to him at the time, and some of them are still around too. Also, they’ve resisted Western pressure to stop having a gifted program in their education system, which probably helps a lot. So who knows, maybe the numbers are right?
Stephen Wolfram: Finally We May Have A Path To The Fundamental Theory Of Physics, And It’s Beautiful vs. r/SSC commenters: Oh God, It’s Stephen Wolfram Talking About Cellular Automata Again. See also this Scientific American article, which leans towards the second position.
Best of new Less Wrong: Discontinuous Progress In History: An Update. The first nuke was thousands of times more powerful than any preceding bomb; a graph of bomb progress would have looked like a gently sloping line that suddenly shot up a cliff in 1945. How common is this pattern? Is progress along some metric (like bomb power, or ship speed, or…) usually linear, linear with occasional cliffs, or totally random? Katja Grace investigates. Be sure to check out the section on the Shipularity, where ship sizes briefly increased so quickly that a naive best-fit would have reached infinity in 1860, produced a single utterly huge ship (SS Great Eastern) in 1858, then crashed back down again and resumed growing normally. It concludes that trends are usually continuous except in certain unusual situations, such as “when Isambard Kingdom Brunel is somehow involved”. Of obvious relevance to AI singularities, since we’re wondering whether AI capabilities will grow at some constant rate or suddenly shoot up – someone should make sure no Brunel descendant gets a job at DeepMind.
Against exaggerated criticism of Dr. Seuss – no, he didn’t cheat on his wife when she had cancer, and he (probably) didn’t (exactly) drive her to suicide.
“The common assessment is that Cuba’s achievements in lowering infant mortality and increasing longevity are among the praiseworthy outcomes of the regime—a viewpoint reinforced by studies published in US medical journals…we argue that some of the praise is unjustified. Although Cuban health statistics appear strong, they overstate the achievements because of data manipulation.” And “data manipulation” includes things like “sometimes they force abortions on unconsenting mothers because the fetus looks sickly and if it dies after birth it will ruin their infant mortality stats”. See also discussion here. Cf. eg New York Times‘s treatment of the same topic – “Cuba has the Medicare For All that many Americans dream about…we should push for American babies born in low-income families to have the same to have the same opportunities for attentive health care as [Cuban babies] will have.” [EDIT: see comments here]
Stephan Guyenet on peer review: “I see a lot of harsh criticism of the scientific peer review process, and I think some of it is deserved. But as someone who has been conducting deep evaluations of published literature outside the peer review process, I’d like to offer some perspective…” When he reviews popular science books, he finds that they’re often egregiously wrong about basic facts and nobody has noticed, so he thinks peer review is necessary to enforce a minimum standard of honesty.
Reason presents a theory of how US health care got this way, and discusses the “doctor’s cooperatives” that were handling the job pretty well before the AMA regulated them out of existence.
Related: the New York Times asks health economics experts to rank different countries’ health care systems in a bracket-style tournament. Some big surprises – 4 out of 5 experts say the US’ system is better than Singapore’s! Switzerland is the overall winner.
According to polls, trust in experts (of all types) has increased significantly over the past twenty years. But experts keep telling me it’s been going down. Guess I’ll stop trusting them! But that means trust in experts is going down, which means I should have trusted them after all. Aaah, there’s no way out! Help! [EDIT: Only true for the UK]
New paper asks MTurk users and Intro Psych students to take a survey, and includes some text in the middle of a question meant to test whether they are really paying attention. It finds that 22% of Turkers (and 64% of students) weren’t reading the question before answering. Author: “I think MTurk workers are better respondents. All of the other evidence I’ve seen suggests that, too.”
Speaking of surveys, here’s the results from r/TheMotte’s. I am obviously interested in A Ranking Of Everything, From Scott Alexander To Stalin. Yes, I am the top-ranked person on the list and beat eg George Washington. You could sort of explain that by r/themotte being a spinoff from this blog and so heavily selected for people who like me. But note that other top ten responses are things like “I believe capitalism is a better economic system than all available alternatives” and various other controversial things – users are ranking controversial things they agree with higher than obviously good stuff (“Andrew Yang” is above “religious freedom”; “I believe a baker should be allowed to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding” is above “Abraham Lincoln”). Check out also the writeup of The Modal Motte User if you want to feel uncomfortably seen.
Reporters Without Borders has built The Uncensored Library on Minecraft, containing all the information banned by the repressive governments of the world. The idea is that repressive-state-citizens behind firewalls that prevent them from accessing traditional websites with banned terms can still play Minecraft and get the information that way. Oh, and the architecture is beautiful, exactly what you’d want for a utopian worldwide library dedicated to freedom of thought built in a virtual world with no resource constraints. If we told 1990 we had something like this, they’d think the future had turned out okay after all.
Lesbians (inhabitants of the island of Lesbos) are suing lesbians (homosexual women) in Greek court for “appropriating their national identity”.
YouTube admits boosting mainstream media channels over individuals’ videos even though users watch less of them and it makes them lose money.
LA Times on the affordable housing crisis in California. The government regulates affordable housing so heavily that it’s more expensive to build affordable housing for poor people than luxury houses for rich people, and so affordable houses mostly just never get built.
Related: a story about how Mitt Romney solved a homeless shelter budget crisis in Massachusetts. The old policy was that homeless people would stay in a homeless shelter until it was full, and then anyone else who needed shelter would get put up in a hotel at government expense. But lots of people were getting put up at hotels at government expense and it was really expensive. Romney’s new policy was that if a shelter was full and a new person showed up, the longest-time resident of the shelter could go to the hotel, and the new person would stay at the homeless shelter. The rate of new people wanting to stay at full homeless shelters plummeted.
A newly-discovered microbe can “completely stop mosquitoes from being infected by malaria”, scientists already investigating whether it can be used to help eradicate the disease.
In the 1970s, the Japanese auto industry produced noticeably better cars than the US auto industry at lower prices. How did they manage it, and how come it took the US decades to catch up? This review is the best I’ve found on the subject, but although it has lots of great history I still don’t have a good feeling for exactly what the Japanese advantage was and why it was so hard for Americans to do even when the Japanese basically handed their US competitors all their procedures on a silver platter.
DrugsAnd.Me is an exceptionally good site on recreational drugs, when they are vs. aren’t dangerous, and how to use them safely if you decide to go that route. I find myself learning new things even on drugs I am supposedly competent to prescribe to people. Did you know some people think Asians might metabolize benzodiazepines unusually slowly and should start with half the usual dose?
The Scunthorpe Problem is when innocuous words trigger censorship or spam filters because they contain a suspect string – for example, the English town of Scunthorpe sometimes gets censored because it contains “cunt” (also the English town of Lightwater, because it contains “twat”). Some of these are really funny – apparently it’s hard to discuss socialism on some sites because the substring “cialis” makes the filter think it’s an erectile dysfunction ad.
John Alexander Dowie, legendary charlatan faith healer and messianic prophet, got several thousand of his followers to move to his new commune of Zion, Illinois, a town described as “”a carefully-devised large-scale platform for securities fraud”. He is most famous for getting into a Messiah-duel with contemporary Muslim Messiah-claimant Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, founder of the still-extant Ahmadiyya movement. Ahmad challenged Dowie to a contest where they would each pray to outlive the other; whoever survived longest was the real Messiah. Dowie died a year before Ahmad, so I guess the Muslims win this one. Also, check out his outfit. Stylish!