The Age of Em is Robin Hanson’s first book. A normal economist might have started with a more popular topic rather than something niche, with the title even containing the short term “em” he coined for emulations and that most people would find meaningless. He actually sent me an advanced version not intended for publication but instead for critique prior to writing a version for a popular audience, but given all the distractions available on the internet I never got around to reading that. He doesn’t seem to have had any shortage of such critique as the book is full of caveats and responses to possible objections. The typical big-idea book tries to get away with impressive boldness and devotes relatively scant attention to possible counter-arguments. This is not a typical book. It’s sort of like a non-fictional version of scifi, as it’s focused on a technology that doesn’t currently exist and may never come into existence, but there are no characters or made up burdensome detail or even a real plot. Hanson has complained that there is so much more history than futurism, so this book represents the thing he thinks there isn’t enough of. I’d say the reason isn’t because the idea hadn’t previously occurred to anyone but him, but rather that a market for reader attention will be inclined that way even if an ideal sort of futurism might be more “useful”. I should note that Hanson is one of the thinkers I most respect, and I think he’s more likely to be correct than Yudkowsky in the AI foom debate over whether emulations will come first, but like the little girl doing a book report on a text concerning penguins, I found there was more than I was eager to know. (more…)

Via Robert Wright, whose Bloggingheads site has many episodes featuring him. Long time readers know I declared him my homeboy years ago, and said everyone in America should read “When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment”. I’m pretty sure I’ve also said something to the effect that Kleiman was the heir to James Q. Wilson, even if he was decidedly liberal while Wilson was a conservative (specifically, an old-school neo-conservative from back in the days when they focused on domestic/urban policy). I’m not sure who the heir to Kleiman is now, which really scuttles my plans for who to put in charge of drug policy after an uprising of bloggers (blogging still exists, right?) places me in charge. I suppose it reflects my ignorance to declare “We shall not see his like again”, but it can feel that way when a giant passes from the scene.

UPDATE: One of Kleiman’s co-bloggers at “The Reality Based Community” (which he founded), Keith Humphreys, responds here. Gabriel Rossman has a thread here on his interactions with Kleiman, starting with his obituary. Jacob Sullum has another obituary here. German Lopez has one at Vox, and Ed Kilgore at NYMag.

UPDATE 2: Harold Pollack, also a contributor to TRBC, has another obituary at The American Prospect.

Robin Hanson responded to a Washington Post article (possibly inspired by Spotted Toad) on the increasing percentage of males 18-29 who report not having sex in the past year with some speculation on whether that was attributed to women of that age group (who reported a smaller increase in celibacy) shifting toward older men or to that subset of 18-29 year old men with more partners. It struck me that since the source of this data was the General Social Survey, which asks respondents their age as well as the number of partners, it should be answerable directly rather than guesses from respondents to a twitter poll. My initial attempt to do so was stymied by a newer GSS interface which generated errors when I tried to construct variables, but an anonymous commenter elsewhere pointed me toward the old interface which was still working. The parameters I used were as follows:
Row: PARTNERS
Column: AGE(r:18-29; 30-39; 40-49; 50-59)
Control(s): YEAR
Selection filter(s): SEX(1), YEAR(2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2016, 2018), NUMMEN(0), PARTNERS(0-8) (more…)

In June of 2018 I came across the paper A Unique, Stand-alone Second Amendment Implies That Both Heller and Mcdonald Were Wrongly Decided by David Weisberg. I found it more interesting than the corpora analysis Neal Goldfarb was doing in the Language Log post which led me to it, and I decided to email him. I forgot about our exchange until reading another Goldfarb post inspired me to go back to it and then turn it into a blog post. My two emails are after the jump (with the addition of links that I didn’t include then but think would be helpful now), his reply will be added if he grants permission. UPDATE: Permission was granted, and they appear below. (more…)

I decided to read Sam Quinones’ Dreamland after coming across Spotted Toad’s post on it (which links to a review by sociologist Gabriel Rossman that people should read for a better overview than mine). Toad characterizes the epidemic as resembling a free-market economist’s dream, and there’s a passage within the book where Quinones writes something similar, which he has repeated in interviews:

And—this is my bigger point—what we are seeing is the end result of 35 years of exalting the free market, exalting the private sector, exalting the consumer and the individual, despising government, despising the public sector, despising the community assets that the public sector can and should provide. The end result of that is heroin—a drug that turns people into narcissistic, self-absorbed, intensely individualistic hyperconsumers. That is the point.

At the time I started this blog I identified as a libertarian who was particularly incensed by the war on drugs. I wasn’t some hippy who wanted to decriminalize soft drugs like pot because I or people I knew used them recreationally (I’m just a boring beer drinker); I knew that the War on Drugs was primarily waged against the dealers of hard drugs. I had heard arguments that the laws were supplements to laws against crimes with real victims (something I reviewed William Stuntz discussing more recently), but rejected the conclusion that the laws should remain on the books. Over the years I have taken my libertarian leanings in a more meta/decentralist direction and decided that identifying with an ideology like libertarianism doesn’t pay epistemic rent and serves as a motivation to selectively evaluate evidence in a way that a more agnostic identity like consequentialist does not (leaving me free to lean libertarian to the extent that the lessons I learned earlier still hold). And as a consequentialist, it’s hard to look at this huge rise in deaths from overdoses and just shrug it off as the result of the free-will of all those individuals, assign them the responsibility (I won’t say “moral blame” because I gave up belief in objective morality even when I was still a libertarian). I still have too many issues with paternalism to embrace it, but I can see that certain drugs are novel enough for us to lack evolutionary adaptations to them (like certain populations with alcohol), and thus for pessimism to be warranted about free access to them.

All this throat-clearing aside about my own views, I should address the actual contents of the book: (more…)

Via Steve Pinker. His work is better known, but I thought “The Nurture Assumption” had the best writing of any popular science text I’d come across. It was enough for me to suggest it to my mom, who did not care for its central message. As far as I know, Harris wasn’t writing much in her later years, but it is still sad when such a person passes.

William Stuntz died in 2011, before this book could be published. Since then, the high rates of incarceration & crime for which he indicts our criminal justice policy continued to decline (there was a brief uptick attributed to “the Ferguson effect”, but it’s gone back down since then). Many of the fundamental defects he points to remain though, and as with Mark Kleiman’s “When Brute Force Fails” it suggests that we could have much less of both. (more…)

The sub-title of Jim Manzi’s “Uncontrolled” is “The Surprising Payoff of Trial-and-Error for Business, Politics, and Society”, but multiple passages of the book actually consists of caution how small such payoffs can be. The sociologist Peter Rossi formulated the “Iron Law of Evaluation“: The expected value of any net impact assessment of any large scale social program is zero. Manzi’s background is in consulting for business rather than social policy, but the same logic applies in that there are abundant ideas undertaken because they sounded good when an evaluation would show them to have little effect. Manzi phrases things differently: he says questions of human behavior are plagued by high “causal density“, in contrast to the simplicity of questions in physics which can be controlled in a lab. Mencius Moldbug would claim this is why one must then rely on “wisdom” rather than the “cargo cult science” found in academia, but I find Manzi more persuasive. Reality is one and our methods of obtaining knowledge can work in other fields, even if it is more difficult (as Manzi phrases it: “The experimental revolution is like a huge wave that has lost power as it moved uphill through topics of increasing complexity and holism”). This book isn’t an in-depth introduction to epistemology & the philosophy of science, but it does provide a bit of an intro so a layman can understand that such issues exist. (more…)

Agnostic has a post up in which he uses the GSS to look into some stats on gun-ownership, which inspired me to do the same to investigate some questions he might be interested in. The variables are OWNGUN and MARRIED, with SEX as the control variable. (more…)

There’s an unfinished draft of a post I last updated in 2010 intended to be a review of Karl Polanyi’s “The Great Transformation”. Reading Mark Koyama today made it concrete that I’m certainly never going to bother converting the notes I wrote into something coherent or checking the book out again to revisit anything, since I can just link to others. A book by a certain Irish farmer/economist is another story since it’s obscure enough I still feel some sense of obligation and probably won’t find anything worth just linking to instead. Pseudoerasmus might be the best person to link to, but he’s more occupied critiquing Polanyi’s descendants.

I don’t normally review fiction on this blog, but Starship Troopers is enough of a “novel of ideas” that this seemed the best venue to discuss it. Set aside all the scifi trappings, and the core of the book can be found in a later speech he gave which is sometimes reprinted under the title “The Pragmatics of Patriotism“. Because that speech was made much later when civilian-military relations were at a different point, the tone was more defensive, whereas a book published in the 50s might share Hans Morgenthau’s sense that WW2 vindicated cynical “realism” about the persistence of war over idealist pacifism. I noted when reviewing Morgenthau that the modern world actually does bear a lot of resemblance to that hoped for by idealists. Perhaps some kind of small military on the part of an economically dominant first-world will always be necessary to prevent anyone else from fulfilling a power-vacuum, but war between states (whether due to “dirt theory” or something else) seems to be on decline. (more…)

Jared Diamond framed “Guns, Germs & Steel” around “Yali’s question”: why “cargo” came from the West and not places like New Guinea. In response Diamond is only able to make an argument about Eurasia vs the rest of the world, but Eurasia is the largest landmass and has the highest population. In “After Tamerlane” John Darwin (who brings up GG&S at the end in comparison) talks about the divergence of western Europe from the rest of Eurasia, already home to civilizations in the near & far east. As the title suggests, he begins around 1405, when (he argues) there were few indications that western Europeans would soon explode outward and politically dominate most of the world. He doesn’t give any simple answer, and there’s a sense in which his whole approach is to go against that by de-emphasizing any sense of historical inevitability which can come with hindsight. This could be frustrating for those who want a simple thesis rather than history as “one damned thing after another” (even if these things all accumulate to a known endpoint before dissipating), but if you’re not an expert on all of Eurasian history over that stretch of centuries, you will probably find it enlightening. It’s organized by chronology, with each chapter going over a certain period of time, each time bouncing around various parts of Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, China & Japan, which can get a little repetitive.
(more…)

I’ve previously blogged Broadberry’s critique of Acemoglu & Johnson’s “Why Nations Fail”. The discussion at Greg Cochran’s review of Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs & Steel” got me googling, which is how I found this more formal writeup from Broadberry.

I was planning on reading this years ago, but it was in too much demand for the local library system to have many available copies, and my reading habits drastically dropped after I stalled on blogging about one book. Perhaps over that time I continued reading enough of the “heuristics & biases” literature that too much of it was already familiar. Or worse: I came in knowing that the “replication crisis” had already devastated much of the priming literature which Kahneman declares we “have no choice” but to believe. (more…)

Cochran’s post is here, the direct link is here although this file may be more listenable.