Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Interesting throughout, so interesting I don’t feel the need to give you an excerpt, here is the audio and transcript.  There is no other conversation with Taleb which places his ideas in the proper context, as far as I am aware.  At the end of the conversation, just keep on scrolling, Taleb starts up with Bryan Caplan for an hour, mostly on education.  Here is the link for the Caplan segment only.

*The Radical Fool of Capitalism*

Bentham…appraised the trophies — dismissively dubbed “baked heads” — as technical innovations and recognized their potential for his own plans.  He enthusiastically praised the “savage ingenuity.”  An 1824 draft of his will was the first to contain the score of his wishes: first, to see the corpse as an inheritance…

According to legend, Behtam carried around the glass eyes intended for the Auto-Icon in his pocket in his final years.  (Supposed) attempts to dehydrating body parts in his home oven are said to have yielded satisfactory results.  Bentham believed the [Maori] mokomokai process would discolor facial traits and produce a parchment- or mummy-like appearance (which could be corrected with paint), while maintaining the physiognomy.

But Southwood Smith botched the job.  He sprinkled sulfuric acid onto the head, and in doing so docked Bentham’s nose.  He used an air pump to aid dehydration, which caused the skin to shrivel.  Bentham’s face appeared melted, the physiognomy destroyed.  In spring 1833, Smith commissioned a replacement head of wax…

That is from the new, excellent, and short The Radical Fool of Capitalism: On Jeremy Bentham, The Panopticon, and the Auto-Icon, by Christian Welzbacher.

Euthanasia and bargaining power within the family

Let’s say more of the world moves to a Netherlands-style euthanasia law.  While euthanasia is at first based on individual consent, it usually evolves into a “in unclear cases your spouse or guardian has the actual say.”

How will this affect bargaining power within the family?  Here are a few options:

1. Family members will be much nicer to each other, ex ante, so they will be kept around for longer if they come down sick.

1b. Because of time consistency problems, family members won’t be much nicer with each other.

1c. You fear that family members aren’t willing enough to pull the plug on you, so you become actively less nice.

2. Family members will be much more anxious with each other, because they will so often be wondering how the others will wish to dispose of them, and when.

3. Some family members will make explicit ex ante deals, such as: “You can send me to my doom when the time comes, with a clear conscience, but on Tuesday nights we’re going to watch my game shows, not your reality TV.”

4. “It stresses me out that you are stressed out over my dying, so I will apply for euthanasia right here and now, even though I still have nine months to live with my cancer.  Except I will tell you that I just don’t want to live any longer, so you don’t feel bad about why I am doing this.”

5. You have no family and given your illness you are a net revenue drain on your nursing home.  If you go back to live out your final days, you’ll end up with the worst room and less spicy food and no private TV.  You agree to euthanasia, granted that they send $20,000 to your favorite charity.  You leave this earth with a warm glow, feeling that 20k probably saved at least one life.  In reality, with p = 0.68 it subsidized someone’s overhead.

What else?

Eric R. Weinstein, as he exists in the observerse

There’s been so much back and forth about Eric Weinstein (Wikipedia here) on Twitter lately, mostly because he was identified by Bari Weiss in the NYT as belonging to an “intellectual dark web.”

I first met Eric at a Victor Niederhoffer Junto event in New York City, and I have kept in touch with him over the years.  I’ve never thought of Eric as “intellectual dark web,” whatever that might mean, and I don’t even much associate him with the web, much less darkness (intellectual, yes).  I would also note that, although I’ve spent a fair number of hours chatting with him, and was interviewed by him once, I could not characterize his political views in any simple way.  And I was surprised to learn that the article described him as having supported Bernie Sanders.

I would say this: if you wish to sit down and chat with someone, and receive new and interesting and original ideas, Eric is one of the most “generative” people I know, easily in the top five or higher yet.  And I know a number of very smart others who would concur in this claim.  Quite simply, that is the source of Eric’s influence and semi-fame.

I don’t pretend any comprehensive knowledge of Eric’s views, and I don’t doubt he might believe many things I would diagree with, starting with claims about Bernie Sanders.  But the third paragraph of this post is the most fundamental intellectual fact about Eric, and if one does not know that, one does not know Eric.

Addendum: Eric also has research in mathematics and physics which I am not close to being able to assess: “Weinstein claimed in his dissertation research that the self-dual Yang–Mills equations on which Donaldson theory was built were not unique as was believed at the time, putting forward two sets of alternate equations based on spinorial constructions.”

Is China moving back toward Marx?

And should we celebrate along with Xi Jinping?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, with plenty on the debates within socialist thought, here is the close:

Do I expect those future political reforms to take a Marxian path of the dictatorship of the proletariat? Probably not. But when it comes to China, Marx is the one theorist who has not yet been refuted. It’s the Western liberals and the Maoists who both have egg on their faces.

If you think of Western liberalism as the relevant alternative, you might feel discomfort at the Chinese revival of Marx. But if you think a bit longer on Maoism, its role in Chinese history and its strong nativist roots, you too might join in the Marx celebrations.

Do read the whole thing.

How do people actually behave when faced with trolley problems?

The poor mice!:

Scholars have been using hypothetical dilemmas to investigate moral decision making for decades. However, whether people’s responses to these dilemmas truly reflect the decisions they would make in real life is unclear. In the current study, participants had to make the real-life decision to administer an electroshock (that they did not know was bogus) to a single mouse or allow five other mice to receive the shock. Our results indicate that responses to hypothetical dilemmas are not predictive of real-life dilemma behavior, but they are predictive of affective and cognitive aspects of the real-life decision. Furthermore, participants were twice as likely to refrain from shocking the single mouse when confronted with a hypothetical versus the real version of the dilemma. We argue that hypothetical-dilemma research, while valuable for understanding moral cognition, has little predictive value for actual behavior and that future studies should investigate actual moral behavior along with the hypothetical scenarios dominating the field.

Here is the paper by Dries H. Bostyn, Sybren Sevenhant, and Arne Roets.

It seems to me that Kant lived a life in accord with his actual doctrines, as did Socrates.  But most philosophers?  Most economists for that matter?  It would be interesting if there was an app that recorded your life, and then wrote up the corresponding moral doctrine in book form.  Or in the case of the economists, it could write out your utility function and adherence to the principle of maximizing expected utility.  Or not.

Hat tip goes to Dina Pomeranz.

My Conversation with Bryan Caplan

Bryan was in top form, I can’t recall hearing him being more interesting or persuasive.  Here is the audio and text.  We talked about whether any single paper is good enough, the autodidact’s curse, the philosopher who most influenced Bryan, the case against education, the Straussian reading of Bryan, effective altruism, Socrates, Larry David, where to live in 527 A.D., the charm of Richard Wagner, and much more.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You love Tolstoy, right?

CAPLAN: Yeah. You love Tolstoy because here’s a guy who not only has this encyclopedic knowledge of human beings — you say he knows human nature. Tolstoy knows human natures. He realizes that there are hundreds of kinds of people, and like an entomologist, he has the patience to study each kind on its own terms.

Tolstoy, you read it: “There are 17 kinds of little old ladies. This was the 13th kind. This was the kind that’s very interested in what you’re eating but doesn’t wish to hear about your romance, which will be contrasted with the seventh kind which has exactly the opposite preferences.” That’s what’s to me so great about Tolstoy.

Here is one of my questions:

What’s the fundamental feature in Bryan Caplan–think that has made you, unlike most other nerds, so much more interested in Stalin than science fiction?

Here is another exchange:

COWEN: You think, in our society in general, this action bias infests everything? Or is there some reason why it’s drawn like a magnet to education?

CAPLAN: Action bias primarily drives government. For individuals, I think even there there’s some action bias. But nevertheless, for the individual, there is the cost of just going and trying something that’s not very likely to succeed, and the connection with the failure and disappointment, and a lot of things don’t work out.

There’s a lot of people who would like to start their own business, but they don’t try because they have some sense that it’s really hard.

What I see in government is, there isn’t the same kind of filter, which is a big part of my work in general in politics. You don’t have the same kind of personal disincentives against doing things that sound good but actually don’t work out very well in practice.

Probably even bigger than action bias is actually what psychologists call social desirability bias: just doing things that sound good whether or not they actually work very well and not really asking hard questions about whether things that sound good will work out very well in practice.

I also present what I think are the three strongest arguments against Bryan’s “education is mostly signaling” argument — decide for yourself how good his answers are.

And:

COWEN: …Parenting and schooling in your take don’t matter so much. Something is changing these [norms] that is mostly not parenting and not schooling. And they are changing quite a bit, right?

CAPLAN: Yes.

COWEN: Is it like all technology? Is the secret reading of Bryan Caplan that you’re a technological determinist?

CAPLAN: I don’t think so. In general, not a determinist of any kind.

COWEN: I was teasing about that.

And last but not least:

CAPLAN: …When someone gets angry at Robin, this is what actually outrages me. I just want to say, “Look, to get angry at Robin is like getting angry at baby Jesus.” He’s just a symbol and embodiment of innocence and decency. For someone to get angry at someone who just wants to learn . . .

COWEN: And when they get mad at me?

CAPLAN: Eh, I understand that.

Hail Bryan Caplan!  Again here is the link, and of course you should buy his book The Case Against Education.

What to make of Robert Aumann’s “agreement theorem”?

Here is my 2004 paper with Robin, if you need the background, or try this recent Scott Aaronson post.  Recently I was sent a question somewhat along these lines:

If someone blithely continues to disagree with their (apparent) epistemic peers, how much should we downgrade the rationality and/or intelligence and/or integrity of that person.  My answer was:

We can take a dimmer view of them, and should, but also have to take a dimmer view of ourselves, I think. I don’t think the “they” get downgraded relative to “us.”

…let’s say we agree with it [Aumann’s construction] completely. Then it would be true and non-operationalizable, keeping in mind that the smartest people I know — by whatever metric — do not themselves internalize the argument. There is some kind of semi-rational back and forth estimation process, where in part you judge [peer] expertise by the actual views people hold, and iterate accordingly. There is probably no fixed point theorem here, and no single obviously best way to proceed. Maybe we should downgrade those who do not know that. But I don’t know by how much. Maybe not by a lot, since knowing all those complications doesn’t improve one’s own rationality by a whole lot, as far as I can tell.

With a bit more thought, I have come up with a further and more specific answer.

Let’s say you are staying at a hotel, and everyone agrees that the hotel offers room service.  There is also a very good restaurant one hour away, but people strongly disagree on how to find the place.  Half of the people think the restaurant is to the West, and you strongly agree with this group; the other half strongly believe the restaurant is to the East.  If you choose the wrong direction, you will have wasted two hours driving and will have to settle for the room service in any case.

If you buy into Aumann, you should be more likely to start with the room service, even though you strongly believe the restaurant is to the West.

You will note that is a purely self-regarding choice only.  For choices in that category, accepting Aumann means you should be more willing to focus on what everyone agrees is good, possible, beneficial, etc. — you might call this common sense morality.

Alternatively, let’s say it is a choice for all of society, and many other people are pitching in their efforts to some kind of common enterprise — let’s call it politics.

You then have to ask what kind of stupidity you are most likely to expect from the contributing others.  If the relevant bias is excess conformism, I see no special case to take greater care to converge upon what others think is best.  In fact, there might be external benefits from doubling down on your own stubbornness.  You might be wrong a lot of the time, but still it will be truly rare when lots of people are really quite right, and it is important that your voice shine through and be heard in those cases.

So in a nutshell, the implications of Aumann are “common sense morality for yourself, but political orneriness remains on the table.”

From the comments, on reverence for asceticism

…[the] US for instance…worships sex, and…celibates are viewed as “losers”. A Hollywood film that describes this social mindset is “40 year old virgin” that came out a decade or so ago.

India makes an interesting contrast. Though the life of the “married householder” is an ideal in India, celibates are viewed with respect and admired for their self-restraint. This is actually one important contributor to the charm and charisma of Narendra Modi – a celibate man, a teetotaller among other things. He is viewed as someone who has “conquered his senses” and is incorruptible.

This streak of anti-sensuality, very much a part of Indian culture, is not to be found in US.

More westernized Indians on the cultural Left, back in India, mock at the public’s fascination with Modi’s celibacy and his puritanism. There are jokes in this group that Modi is probably gay or asexual. No wonder he can stay single.

Again this highlights the large chasm between the attitudes of the modern western mind which does not choose to view sensual restraint as a virtue, versus more traditional societies where self denial and austerity command a certain awe.

That is from Shrikanthk.

Equality is a mediocre goal, aim for progress

That is the title of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Take this all a step further and imagine that the next 30 years brings an enormous blossoming of medical innovation, outpacing the general rate of economic growth. Government revenue then might not grow rapidly enough to cover all or even most of these new medical miracles, some of which will be quite expensive, especially in their early stages. Governments will decline to cover more and more care.

This fiscal crunch is all the more likely if people live much longer but cannot work enough longer to fund their newly extended retirement spans.

To date, so much of the health care debate has been about whom to cover. Over time, it may be more and more about what to cover. It could be that all the citizens will have nominally the same insurance coverage, whether subsidized or guaranteed, but many medical and mental-health conditions will fall outside this coverage —  leading to rampant inequalities in access.

It’s the best problem to have. It means that medical innovation has arrived at a very high rate. If we enter the future being able to cover most medical treatments with reasonable equality, that would be a sign we failed at the task of progress. In other words, successful futures are likely to be highly unequal futures, again because medical innovation will have outpaced government revenue. (Innovations that extend working years would ameliorate this effect by adding to government revenue.)

Do read the whole thing.

Derek Parfit’s photographs are going on display in London

Most of the paragraphs in this Jonathan Derbyshire FT article are excellent, here is one of them:

Sokolsky-Tifft recalls Parfit quoting a line from Homer in the middle of a talk. “He started to weep because he found it so beautiful. That was when I first started to get the idea that this was a man with a strange heart, for whom art was always bubbling beneath the surface of these logical arguments.”

And:

Parfit attributed his obsession with a handful of places — he once said that there were only 10 things in the world he wanted to photograph — to a condition called aphantasia, the inability to form mental images. He was unable to visualise things familiar to him, even his wife’s face when they weren’t together.

Recommended, the work is first-rate, as is the article, and subscribe to the FT if you must.

*The Mind is Flat*

The author is Nick Chater and the subtitle is The Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind.  I found this to be one of the most interesting books on the mind I have read.  Overall the message is that your hidden inner life ain’t what you think:

According to our common-sense view, the senses map the outer world into some kind of inner copy, so that, when perceiving a book, table or coffee cup, our minds are conjuring up a shadowy ‘mental’ book, table or coffee cup.  The mind is a ‘mirror’ of nature.  But this can’t be right.  There can’t be a 3D ‘mental copy’ of these objects — because they don’t make sense in 3D.  They are like 3D jigsaw puzzles whose pieces simply don’t fit together.  The mind-as-mirror metaphor can’t possibly be right; we need a very different viewpoint — that perception requires inference.

Take that Thomas Reid!  By the way:

This perspective has a further, intriguing and direct prediction: that we can only count colours slowly and laboriously…the apparent richness of colour is itself a trick — that our brains seem to be able to encode no more than one colour (or shape, or orientation) at a time.  But this is what the data tell us.

Here is perhaps the clincher:

…all of us perceive the world through a remarkably narrow channel — roughly a single word, object, pattern or property at a time.

So much of the rest is the top-down processing function of our minds filling in the gaps.

By the way, if you are told to shake your head up and down, nodding in agreement, while reciting a plausible argument, you will assign a higher truth value to that claim.  And emotion is more a “creation of the moment” rather than “an inner revelation.”  If you cross a dangerous bridge to meet up with a woman, thus raising your adrenalin levels, you are more likely to develop a crush on her, that sort of thing.

I cannot evaluate all of the claims in this book, and indeed I am partly skeptical in light of the rather scanty treatment given to cross-sectional variation across heterogeneous individuals.  Still, the author cites evidence for his major claims and applies reasonable and scientific arguments throughout.  I can definitely recommend this book to those interested in serious popular science treatments of the mind, and it is not simply a rehash of other popular science books on the mind.

The top link above is for U.S. Amazon orders, due out in August, I was very happy to have ordered from AmazonUK.

I believe this book was first recommended to me by Tim Harford.

My Conversation with Balaji Srinivasan

Here is the transcript and audio, and this is the intro:

Marc Andreessen has described Balaji as the man who has more good ideas per minute than anyone else in the Bay Area. He is the CEO of Earn.com, where we’re sitting right now, a board partner at Andreessen Horowitz, formerly a general partner. He has cofounded the company Counsyl in addition to many other achievements.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is the venture capital model so geographically clustered? So much of it is out here in the Bay Area. It’s spreading to other parts of the country. Around the world, you see Israel, in some ways, as being number two, per capita number one. But that’s a very small country. Why is it so hard to get venture capital off the ground in so many areas?

SRINIVASAN: That’s actually now changed with the advent of ICOs and Ethereum and crypto. Historically, the reason for it was companies would come to Sand Hill Road. One maybe slightly less appreciated aspect is, if you come to Sand Hill Road and you get VC financing, the VC who invests in your company typically takes a board seat. A VC does not want to fly 6,000 miles for every board seat if they’ve got 10 board seats and four board meetings a year per company.

What a VC would like in general, all else being equal, is for you to be within driving distance. Not only does that VC like it, so does the next VC in the B round and the next VC in the C round. That factor is actually one of the big things that constrains people to the Bay Area, is VC driving distance, [laughs] because VCs don’t want to do investments that are an entire world away.

With the advent of Ethereum and ICOs, we have finally begun to decentralize the last piece, which was funding. Now, that regulatory environment needs to be worked out. It’s going to be worked out in different ways in different countries.

But the old era where you had to come to Sand Hill to get your company funded and then go to Wall Street to exit is over. That’s something where it’s going to increasingly decentralize. It already has decentralized worldwide, and that’s going to continue.

COWEN: With or without a board seat, doesn’t funding require a face-to-face relationship? It’s common for VC companies to even want the people they’re funding to move their endeavor to the Bay Area in some way, not only for the board meeting. They want to spend time with those people.

We’re doing this podcast face to face. We could have done it over Skype. There’s something significant about actually having an emotionally vivid connection with someone right there in the room. How much can we get around that as a basic constraint?

And here is another:

COWEN: Right now, I pay financial fees to my mutual funds, to Merrill Lynch, all over. Anytime I save money, I’m paying a fee to someone. Which of those fees will go away?

SRINIVASAN: Good question. Maybe all of them.

And:

COWEN: Drones?

SRINIVASAN: Underrated.

COWEN: Why? What will they do that we haven’t thought of?

SRINIVASAN: Construction. There’s different kinds of drones. They’re not just flying drones. There’s swimming drones and there’s walking drones and so on.

Like the example I mentioned where you can teleport into a robot and then control that, Skype into a robot and control that on other side of the world. That’s going to be something where maybe you’re going to have it in drone mode so it walks to the destination. You’ll be asleep and then you wake up and it’s at the destination.

Drones are going to be a very big deal. There’s this interesting movie called Surrogates, which actually talks about what a really big drone/telepresence future would look like. People never leave their homes because, instead, they just Skype into a really good-looking drone/telepresent version of themselves, and they walk around in that.

If they’re hit by a car, it doesn’t matter because they can just rejuvenate and create a new one. I think drones are very, very underrated in terms of what they’re going to do. 

Do read or listen to the whole thing.