Robert Trivers was the inspiration for E. O. Wilson to write “Sociobiology”, and whether because of Wilson drawing away the flak or Trivers’ own radical leftist politics (he worked with Huey Newton, to whom this book is dedicated) he was never as much a figure of controversy. Reading his Folly of Fools, it quickly became apparent that Robin Hanson “America’s Creepiest Economist” owes much of his thinking on signalling, status & hypocrisy to the research program Trivers pioneered. I haven’t yet read “The Elephant in the Brain”, so I can’t say whether he should be paying royalties, but anyone who is interested in that topic should definitely read this.

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A sensible moderation policy might involve automatically holding back any comment from a commenter who hasn’t yet been approved. But agnostic holds all new comments under moderation by default and sometimes just doesn’t choose to approve them. Knowing this, I saved a copy of the last one I tried to submit in reply to this, and am pasting it below.

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Every summary I’ve read of the Russo-Persian wars notes that the latter held the numerical advantage (particularly since the former were busy fighting the Ottomans & Napoleon), but the former won because of their better technology. These summaries never say what that better technology was. This is well after the Safavid “gunpowder empire” so it’s not like they didn’t both have firearms. I know the Russians would later have a disadvantage against the faster rate of fire of rifles used by the Ottomans (including repeating Winchester lever-actions) during the siege of Plevna (although they still ultimately won that war). I haven’t heard something comparable specific for the wars with Persia.

I have previously discussed Tsarist expansion in my reviews of For Prophet and Tsar as well as East of the Sun, the latter of which had some erroneous claims about the advantages Europeans derived from their firearms. I had already asked for a good history of Russian expansion back during the GWB administration. I had commenters back then who could actually recommend such books, whereas now I blog less and so much has moved to social media. Out of spite for that trend I will continue not cross-posting blog entries to twitter.

While arguing with some other people at Astral Codex 10 about the merits of communist regimes that have actually existed, marxbro1917 started questioning whether famines are actually more common under them. I interjected by bringing up Amartya Sen, citing & quoting a paragraph of his on the subject. I begin quoting after that point, as the comments started becoming too nested to be readable.

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I can’t expect people to regularly check posts from 2008 for updates, so the news is worth a post on its own.

Some while back I was reading some arguments that analog computers are currently underrated. Then not too long after that I came across this video about how we don’t know if π^π^π^π is an integer because the result would be so large so as to be intractable (even if we don’t care about the most significant digits and would modulus them). One of the benefits of analog computers is that they can solve problems near instantaneously compared to digital ones (I believe this is due to parallelism in most cases, although the speed at which electricity moves through wires is another). I also knew that they often mathematical calculations via the rotation of gears, which intuitively struck me as suitable both to modulus and operations involving π. There is the issue with how precise your machines parts are for that, and perhaps the error/noise would grow exponentially for that large exponential function. I gather slide rules are used to calculate exponentials, but (having never used one, or any analog computer) myself, my understanding is that they depend on having pre-calculated numbers on different sections to ensure the correct relation. Skepticism toward the ability of analog computers to efficiently solve problems difficult for digital ones is found in this paper from Scott Aaronson (which he discusses near the end of this blog post) and this one arguing for a “Strong Church’s Thesis” on the resources required for an analog computer to solve such problems. The thing is, those papers are talking about taking traditional problems given to digital computers using finite inputs and finite computational time and then translating that to an analog computer. π cannot actually be expressed finitely (unless you simply declare your base unit to be in terms of it), and as a transcendental number requires an infinite series to calculate. And this isn’t an issue of us searching a large number of possible solutions to see if any match a problem like with the Traveling Salesman, it’s a problem of arithmetic. I’m guessing the video is correct and it can’t be feasibly be done (even to an approximation) or someone would have done it, but I feel like I don’t know nearly enough about analog computing to know how the best way to go about such a calculation would be and why that wouldn’t work, so the premise that it couldn’t work still feels unproven to me.

He actually said goodbye at the end of last year, but because I haven’t been reading regularly I just didn’t notice. He’s not done with blogging though, as he & Katherine Chen are moving to Markets, Power & Culture. Much like how Bleeding Heart Libertarians gave way to 200 Proof Liberals. Yet another reason to feel old if you remember the blogging era.

Nested comments on Substack become unreadable after a certain number of levels, so I’m using this post to continue a conversation. (more…)

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One of the few things I blogged about last year was the demise of a blog… specifically, Scott Alexander’s. He had noted in (what was) his last post that he planned on returning via Substack once he sorted out his real-life job so it couldn’t be threatened by doxing, and now his actual last post at Slate Star Codex announces his new location: Astral Codex Ten (although I actually heard about it via Marginal Revolution). He’s got an introduction to the blog, as well as an overview on what happened with the old one. Reading that made me jealous of him, just as the full life of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life” made mine seem pointless by comparison when I watched that film as a kid.

I do have some reservations about him using Substack rather than his own domain: a number of people have left their publications for that, and it does seem to represent the idea of unrestricted expression to many people, but it’s still a third party that has the ability to censor any pages they host. And yeah, if I was hardcore I would be using open-source wordpress.org software rather than having wordpress.com host me, but Scott already had his own domain. Sacrificing autonomy for money & support is exactly the move many of these Substackers made when they transitioned from bloggers to professional journalists. One of those old-school bloggers who never really changed (even if it was very briefly announced that he’d be contributing to the NYT before they reconsidered) is Razib Khan, who made a point of insisting on such control before Substack even existed and who continues to maintain gnxp.com even while he also has a substack. I’ve also found commenting more cumbersome on substacks than at Scott’s old site, so I hope that isn’t too affected.

UPDATE 02/13/2021: And now via Sailer I see that the NYT has finally published the article Scott shut SSC down over. Scott has updated his post at SSC announcing its end (really just striking out the portions irrelevant now and noting as much), but hasn’t posted at AC10 about it. UPDATE: Scott has now responded.

My second post ever on this blog was titled with the internet-age utopian phrase Information Wants To Be Free. Even at that time one of my blog-inspirations (which I cited there) had been shuttered, I think after the professor behind it was found and “cancelled” (before that was a common term, and before the same thing happened to the next anonymous blog he started). Another variant of that phrase was fond of was “information wants to be indestructible“, which might be true in the sense that once loose it’s hard to hunt down every copy, but isn’t quite so true in terms of easy availability.

The most citeable blog to end last year was Scott Alexander’s, and I’ve been rethinking his post Freedom on the Centralized Web. I’m less optimistic now than I used to be now that not only social media companies, but also smartphone companies and AWS hosting have banded together against a politically disfavored app (even though by magnitude the total amount of “harm” done by Facebook by those standards is far greater), well after Cloudflare dropped an even more politically disfavored site in a way even their own CEO was uncomfortable with (which, given how easily DDOS attacks can be mobilized, is equivalent to being kicked off the internet). Karl Kasarda (who had a similarly pessimistic take on the state of computer security in light of SolarWinds) gives the run down on this incident and all the ways in which a similar upstart could be restricted in his mockingly titled The Free Market Solution. He advocates there an internet version of the Bill of Rights for platforms, something I’m still not entirely comfortable with (perhaps we could have a low-rent public option, analogous to the Post Office, required not to engage in content-based discrimination).

You might note there that I linked to Kasarda’s videos on BitChute, rather than Youtube where I first watched them. That was deliberate. I was long a pro-Google anti-Apple partisan because the former didn’t try to lock down their phones as much and I found their numerous free products useful rather than overpriced conspicuous consumption. But I’ve been unable to root my most recent phone from them (meaning I couldn’t download an app they banned from their app store if I actually wanted to), and I’ve lost enough confidence in their original product that I’m now using DuckDuckGo for search instead (unless I’m disappointed in the paltry results, so I do still sometimes use it as a backup). I know some of you might think I’m still under the thumb of software megacorps because the email on my about page here is hosted by Microsoft, but they haven’t been acting like the Evil Empire nearly as much recently. It’s nice to imagine being as idealist as Richard Stallman and refusing to use anything closed-source, but I got my most recent phone because my job required a specific app (I normally try to install as few as possible, using it more like a feature phone except with email alerts), and even Stallman was cancelled recently (while Linus Torvalds had an apology extracted but continued in his same position).

I’ve resisted linking to twitter (where I unfortunately have been having more conversations than on blogs recently) up until now, but Alexey Navalny’s thread (all threads should be posts!) complaining about twitter’s ban though a dissident political lens is worth linking to. I am still refusing to automatically publish my posts here as tweets because I dislike social media and would prefer for people to use RSS. I suppose I nevertheless ought to make an exception by cross-posting this one.

On the topic of tolerating even disfavored speech, I’ve long linked to Scott Alexander’s The Spirit of the First Amendment (along with Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness). To that I should now add Vitalik Buterin’s Credible Neutrality As A Guiding Principle, which generalizes beyond the obviously “political” to the idea of good mechanism design, as does his post linked from there on “central planning” in design.

I haven’t heard any Christmas music this season.

I often point people to William Stuntz’ “The Collapse of American Criminal Justice” via my review. There are a lot of details in that book I regret not being able to include, but I just found this review (which pre-dates mine by years) from Handle (who I mostly remember as a commenter years ago rather than a blogger) which makes up for my deficiencies. He also has his own perspective as a lawyer who once freed a flagrantly guilty person as part of his work via an “Innocence Project” type organization. I had some criticism of Stuntz in my review, while Handle’s review is oriented more as a critique of Stuntz’ project, and I thought I’d note how our views differ. (more…)

Bryan Caplan has been blogging the recent book “Escaping Paternalism” and noted that he wished they had discussed opioids in detail. Jubal Harshaw of the blog GrokInFullness sent him a response, noting a number of posts in which he critiqued “the usual view” that Caplan brought up to contrast with the book. I myself have noted (while reviewing Dreamland) that the scale of deaths due to opioids in recent years has been something of a challenge to a libertarian perspective, which I previously leaned more toward vs consequentialism (I recalled reading Radley Balko railing against the restrictions faced by chronic pain patients), even if I still shy from paternalism. Among the four posts Jubal linked Caplan to, one is this take on Dreamland.

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T. Greer of Scholars Stage, whose writing about the unfortunate decline of the blogosphere in the face of social media I have linked before, notes a reaction to the Harper’s letter which grants no credence to the idea of “good faith debate”. Greer calls this The World That Twitter Made, giving the reasons why it caused that shift vs blogs.

In the same post where I previously linked to him, I also linked to Andrew Gelman on the relative merits of the two mediums, and he’s got his own reaction, but this time to an actual column rather than a tweetstorm. Gerlman often returns to certain “zombies” on his blog who retain their positions despite publishing falsehoods, but he’s not entirely satisfied when someone like Marc Hauser loses their job either as long as other prominent people stick up for them in their other endeavors. For my own part I agree with commenter “gap”, who notes that whatever Brooks’ demerits in not responding to criticism, he hasn’t tried to quash it either, so there’s nothing wrong with him adding his signature. I also think Gelman’s irritation at Pinker overlooks the “social media” part of Pinker’s objection to “social media pileons”, since, as even Gelman himself noted, blogs like Gelman’s are very different from social media.