Category: Philosophy

*A Life of Experimental Economics, volume I*, by Vernon Smith

I learned a great deal from this stimulating and highly unorthodox biography.  Here are a few points from the book:

1. It offers a brief but excellent early economic history of Wichita, where Vernon grew up.

2. Vernon, at the time, was very critical of the use of the atomic bombs on Japan, which he considered to be a disproportionate use of force.

3. In the 1940s he became active in CORE and its fight against racial discrimination.

4. In 1948 Vernon was an antiwar pacifist and a supporter of Norman Thomas.

5. At MIT, Paul Samuelson was a show-off lecturer, according to Vernon.

6. The book has plenty of sentences like: “Grandpa Smith and Uncle Norman were always a delight to have around — lots of jokes, wisecracks, and laughs.”

7. pp.163-164: “The details, as we came to know them, were not the least bit complicated…It was at first thought that she had considered using the knife on herself, but apparently the knife was there because she considered cutting a length from a nearby piece of rope.  Instead, she used a chain.  It was so like my mother — a clean job with no mess.  Everyone who knew her knew that she would never have used the butcher knife.  Even the hanging could never have occurred in the house.  No fuss, no mess; a clean job, with no room for error.”

8. On attention-switching: “I have always had what my mind has gradually come to recognize — by comparative observation of others — as a brain task-switching problem.  When I am thinking, writing, or composing, I pass into another world of experience, a world that is isolated from my surroundings…I experience many chaotic but loosely connected thought.  One, then another, rises and there emerges a hint of how they are to come together.”  He notes that interruptions are very costly to him, and he much prefers one-to-one conversations rather than group dialogues.  Furthermore, he argues that his capacity to “hyper-focus” is more valuable than his measured IQ of 130.

9. There are considerable and interesting discussions of autism, Asperger’s and ADHD.

10. The book offers an excellent account of why Purdue was an important economics department in the 1950s and 1960s.

11. In 1957, Vernon considered going to work for a private railroad and leaving Purdue for St. Louis.  He didn’t.

You can buy the book here, vol.II is good too.

Tom Lehrer, man ahead of his time

Ever since I was a young teenager I loved Tom Lehrer (thanks to Ken Regan, by the way), and I thought I would re-listen to some fresh.  I tried the Copenhagen concert, a good overview of his work and with good visuals.  I was struck by the following:

1. Lehrer represented the IDW of his day.  He said (sang) things others couldn’t, and his main enemy or target was political correctness.  It surprised me to hear how little many of the battle lines have changed.  Yet Lehrer, while warring against hypocritical political discourse, was in his day on the Left.  (Shades of Eric Weinstein!)  He worried about the “decline of the liberal consensus,” following the Kennedy era.  In 1982 he wrote that he considered feminism, abortion, and affirmative action “more complicated” than the older liberal causes, so perhaps he simply did not blend into the contemporary Left (the piece is interesting more generally).

2. Lehrer’s songs (repeatedly) indicate he saw nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation as a major problem; in that regard his time probably was wiser than ours.

3. He is very interested in language and the question of how words are used in the public sphere, and how words are used to obfuscate.  Might that be the central theme in his thought?

4. He often sneaks China into the cultural references, for instance: “And I’m learning Chinese, says Werner von Braun.”  He seems to think it is a much more important country than Russia, although this concert was from 1967 and often was drawing on songs which were older yet.

5. He is much more interested in math and science than current comedians, for instance his “Elements” is a classic [22:54], and redone here with an Aristotle coda, mocking The Philosopher.  His audience seems to take this interest in stride.  This song is yet another example of inverting what should be said, or not.

6. Yes I know the tunes sound derivative, but most of them are original.  And as music…they’re a lot catchier than most of the other musical theatre of his time and I think of many of them as minor classics.  I still enjoy hearing them as music.  And other than Sondheim and Dylan, how many better American lyricists were there?

7. When he wants to get really gory, he doubles down on mock sadism (“Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”: “…we’ll murder them all with laughter and merriment…except for the few we take home to experiment…”).  He once said: “If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend, or perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.”

It would be hard to pull this off today.  Yet, when I listen to Lehrer, perhaps because I know the historical context, I am not offended.  Plus he is flat-out funny.  He cited losing his “nasty edge,” and starting to see things in shades of grey, as one reason for what appeared to be a quite premature retirement.

8. He wore a white shirt and his tie was tightly knotted.

9. He’s one of America’s great comics, and the material is idea-rich to a remarkable extent.  He hardly ever sung about social themes or person-to-person social interactions.

10. Many of the songs of his that you never hear are in fact commentaries on various folk song movements.  Circa 2018, few can understand their references, but they do showcase Lehrer’s extreme idealism.

11. He was at first a math prodigy and later in the mid-1950s, as a draftee, crunched numbers for the NSA.  He remains alive and turned 90 earlier this year.


Tamara Winter on how to generate compound returns

This is a concordance of responses she received on Twitter, I am not sure she endorses all of these ideas, the rest is her I won’t double indent:

Interpersonal and Mindfulness

  • Wake up early.
  • Spend time in prayer and/or meditation first thing in the morning. Or, if you can’t fit it in then, find time later in the day. I love using Headspace. If you’re Catholic, pray the Rosary daily.
  • Practice gratitude, and be specific when thanking someone.
  • Keep a personal calendar.
  • Write something, anything, everyday.
  • Study a foreign language for 5, 15, or 25 minutes a day. Here’s a list of 10 great options.
  • Eat meals with people you love.
  • Keep in touch with close friends.
  • Read to your children, and take pictures of them frequently.
  • Read for at least 15 minutes daily.
  • Read or watch something new daily. Ideally something you’re curious about.
  • Ask questions often.
  • Don’t slouch.
  • Learn to dance.
  • Call your parents and grandparents.
  • Go on lots of first dates. Law of large numbers.
  • Introduce yourself to new people.
  • Before dinner, write down tomorrow’s priority list.
  • Restrict your tv time. Or substitute tv time for your most potent distraction. For me that’s Twitter. Here are some practical ways to reduce screen time.
  • For young people, ask people you admire in your area for coffee once, twice, or a few times a month. Email is another option. The likelihood of a positive response in both scenarios is probably higher than you expect.


  • Negotiate your salary.
  • Practice making money online. For a fun place to start, try PredictIt.
  • Contribute early and often to your IRA/401(k).
  • Invest as you’re able to. (Would welcome reading suggestions in the comments).
  • Save a predetermined percentage from each paycheck.
  • Pay off your credit cards monthly.


  • Sleep 8 hours or more each night. Limiting your blue light exposure after sunset can also improve your sleep quality.
  • Try not to use your cell phone in bed. You can also go even further, and put away your phone 30 minutes, an hour, or even two hours before bedtime.
  • Increase your water consumption, and whenever possible, drink it to the exclusion of everything else.
  • Reduce your sugar, carb, and processed food intake.
  • One way you can do this is by bringing your lunch from home to work rather than ordering take out. Added bonus: saving money.
  • When you do eat out, choose the healthier options.
  • When grocery shopping, check the ingredients of what you’re buying. Try to avoid processed foods with numerous and complicated ingredients.
  • Take the stairs if and when you can. If you live in a fairly walkable area, walk everywhere within a mile.
  • Don’t overeat — stop just before you’re full.
  • If you can, try intermittent fasting at least once a week.
  • Exercise daily. Try exercises that you enjoy, otherwise it’s unlikely that you’ll stick with them.
  • Incorporate resistance weight-training into your routine.
  • Floss!

TC again: Here is the full Medium essay.

*The Economist* covers *Stubborn Attachments*

Philosophers are accustomed to discussions about how to value lives distant from our own in time and place; economists are not. But in a new book, “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals”, Tyler Cowen of George Mason University argues that the moral status of human lives ought not to be traded off over time in the same way that a bond portfolio might be. He puts the results of discounting in evocative terms: given a 5% rate of discount, one human life today is worth 132 a century hence. Is it really ethically acceptable to save one life now at the expense of so many in the future? The lives of humans born decades from now might be difficult for us to imagine, or to treat as of equal worth to our own. But our own lives were once similarly distant from those taking their turn on Earth; the future, when it comes, will feel as real to those living in it as the present does to us. Economists should treat threats to future lives as just as morally reprehensible as present threats to our own.

Here is the full article, on Twitter attributed to Ryan Avent.

Why Brexit is so important

In this dilemma, I think of U.K. citizens as a kind of stand-in for the human race. Per capita income and education in the U.K. are well above the global average and, more important, Great Britain has one of the most firmly established democratic traditions in the world. So if the U.K. cannot get this decision right, it’s pretty gloomy news for all of us. I am reminded of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal,” where the traveling knight has to play a game of chess against the figure of Death, and his life will be spared if he wins…

Paul Krugman opined recently that Brexit would likely cost the U.K. about 2 percent of GDP, a fair estimate in my view. But that is not the only thing at stake here. Humanity is on trial — more specifically, its collective decision-making capacity — and it is the U.K. standing in the dock.

I’ll be glued to my seat, watching.

Recommended!  Here is the full column.

“Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler.”

Portugal has now had two lost decades. Adjusting for inflation, GDP per capita grew 7% between 2000 and 2008. I mean it grew 7% over that whole period, not on a yearly basis. Then it fell during the crisis and only last year did it get back to 2008 levels, so that between 2000 and 2017, total growth was 7%…

The population who lived in Portugal through the last 10 years now get extactic over 2.2% year-on-year growth. After so many years of nothing, mediocre growth feels amazing. Still, if you cross the border into Spain it no longer feels “this is what Portugal will be in 2021”, it feels like a much wealthier, qualititatively different, better economy. Portugal could have been that, but, at least in my lifetime, it probably won’t be. This is a lost opportunity and it brings me sadness.

Maybe it’s not that I am a regional thinker, but a regional feeler. I have a visceral feel for what it means to “grow to the level of Greece and then stop there” that comes from lived experience.

In summary, this is why I recommend you read Stubborn Attachments.

That is from Luis Pedro Coelho, there is more of interest at the link.

My Conversation with Paul Romer

Here is the audio and transcript, Paul was in top form and open throughout.  Yes economic growth, blah blah blah, but we covered many related topics too:

COWEN: And you also think we should simplify the English language. Right?

ROMER: [laughs] Well, there’s two parts to that. One is, in writing and communication, there should be a very high priority on clarity. It’s hard to know what’s the mechanism that enforces that. There are variants on English, like the English used to write the manuals people use to service airplanes, where there’s a very restricted vocabulary. The words are chosen so that you can’t have any ambiguity because you don’t want somebody servicing a plane to get confused. So there are some things you could do on writing, word choice, vocabulary, exposition.

There’s a separate issue, which is that amongst the modern languages, English has the worst orthography, the worst mapping between spelling and sounds of any of the existing languages. And it’s a tragedy because English is becoming the universal second language.

The incidence of people who don’t learn to read is substantially higher in English than in other languages. People have known for a long time, it takes longer to learn to read in English because of the bad orthography. But what hasn’t gotten enough attention is that there’s an effect on the variance as well. There are more people who never get over this hurdle to actually learning to read.

If there were a way to do in English what they’ve done in other languages, which is to clean up the orthography, that could make a huge difference in the variation associated with whether or not people can learn to read English.


COWEN: Can a charter city work if we import good laws from the outside world but not the appropriate matching culture?

ROMER: You’ve zeroed right in on the connection. The real motivation that I had for charter cities was exactly this one that you can see in the US versus New Zealand. You can think of a charter city exercise . . .

This is actually the story of Maryland: We’re going to create laws, and we’re going to guarantee freedom of religion in Maryland, and it’s in the laws; it’s in the institution somehow. That didn’t turn out very well. Maryland had a Catholic elite but then large numbers of Protestant indentured servants or workers. And this kind of commitment to freedom of religion was not stable in Maryland at all.

The case that’s worth trying to copy is Pennsylvania, where William Penn recruited large numbers of people who actually believed in freedom of religion. The word charter comes from the charter that Penn wrote for Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t the document that mattered. What mattered was that there were a bunch of people in the founding population who were committed to this idea of a separation of church and state and religious freedom. And that’s what made it durable in Pennsylvania in a way it wasn’t in Maryland.

And this:

ROMER: …Moses was of this generation that was too enamored of the car, and this is where I think Jacobs had a better intuition. But the challenge, the dichotomy I would pose would be Jane Jacobs versus Gouverneur Morris.

Morris was the guy who drew the grid that laid out the rectangular street map for Manhattan.

We also discussed music, including Hot Tuna, Clarence White, and Paul’s favorite novel, dyslexia, what Paul has learned about management, and much more.  Self-recommending, if there ever was such a thing.

The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice

The excellent Jason Brennan with a short introduction to his new book, When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice:

Imagine a situation in which a civilian commits an injustice, the kind against which you believe it is permissible to use deception, subterfuge or violence to defend yourself or others. For instance, imagine your friend makes an improper stop at a red light, and his dad, in anger, yanks him out of the car, beats the hell out of him, and continues to strike the back of his skull even after your friend lies subdued and prostrate. May you use violence, if it’s necessary to stop the father? Now imagine the same scene, except this time the attacker is a police officer in Ohio, and the victim is Richard Hubbard III, who in 2017 experienced just such an attack as described. Does that change things? Must you let the police officer possibly kill Hubbard rather than intervene?

Most people answer yes, believing that we are forbidden from stopping government agents who violate our rights. I find this puzzling. On this view, my neighbours can eliminate our right of self-defence and our rights to defend others by granting someone an office or passing a bad law. On this view, our rights to life, liberty, due process and security of person can disappear by political fiat – or even when a cop has a bad day. In When All Else Fails: The Ethics of Resistance to State Injustice (2019), I argue instead that we may act defensively against government agents under the same conditions in which we may act defensively against civilians. In my view, civilian and government agents are on a par, and we have identical rights of self-defence (and defence of others) against both. We should presume, by default, that government agents have no special immunity against self-defence, unless we can discover good reason to think otherwise.

I think it helps in answering this question to think of other countries say South Africa under Apartheid or China today among the Uighur in Xinjiang province…then be consistent. Note that resistance to state injustice may be unwise even when it is ethical.

What should I ask Larissa MacFarquhar?

I will be doing a Conversations with Tyler with her, no associated public event.  Here is her New Yorker bio:

Larissa MacFarquhar has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1998. Her Profile subjects have included John Ashbery, Barack Obama, Noam Chomsky, Hilary Mantel, Derek Parfit, David Chang, and Aaron Swartz, among many others. She is the author of “Strangers Drowning: Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Urge to Help” (Penguin Press, 2015). Before joining the magazine, she was a senior editor at Lingua Franca and an advisory editor at The Paris Review, and wrote for ArtforumThe NationThe New Republic, the New York Times Book ReviewSlate, and other publications. She has received two Front Page Awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the Academy Johnson & Johnson Excellence in Media Award. Her writing has appeared in “The Best American Political Writing” (2007 and 2009) and “The Best Food Writing” (2008). She is an Emerson Fellow at New America.

She also wrote famous profiles of Richard Posner and Paul Krugman.

So what should I ask her?

Open questions from Gwern

This is all Gwern, I won’t add another layer of indentation:

Open Questions

Some questions which are not necessarily important, but do puzzle me or where I find standard answers to be unsatisfying (along the lines of Patrick Collison’s list & Alex Guzey; see also my list of project ideas):

  • What is personal productivity and why does it vary from day to day so strikingly, and yet not correlate with environmental variables like weather or sleep quality nor appear as the usual kind of latent variable in my factor analyses? Is it something much weirder than the usual kind of latent variable, like a set of zero-sum measurements drawing on a generic pool of energy or mana?
  • Does listening to music while working serve as a distraction, or motivation?
  • What, algorithmicly, are mathematicians doing when they do math which explains how their proofs can usually be wrong but their results usually right?Is it equivalent to a kind of tree search like MCTS or something else? They wouldn’t seem to be doing a literal tree search because then there would almost never be mistakes in the proof (as the built-up tree of theorems only explores valid inferential steps), but if they’re not, then how are they handling logical uncertainty? Are they doing something like MCTS’s random playouts where lemmas are not proven but simply heuristically given a truth value to shortcut exploration and the heuristic is accurate enough to usually guess correctly and this is why the proofs are wrong but the results are right?
  • Why did Jean Calment live so many more years than other centenarians, breaking all records and setting a life expectancy record which decades later has not just not been broken, but not even approached? Which is extraordinary considering that she smoked, medicine has continuously advanced, the global population has increased, life expectancy in general has increased, and the Gompertz curve implies that, with mortality rates approaching 50%, centenarians should die like flies and ever closer in age to each other and not have occasional enormous permanent 3 year gaps between the record setter (Calment) and everyone since then.
  • Why do humans, pets, and even lab animals of many species kept in controlled lab conditions on standardized diets appear to be increasingly obese over the 20th century? What could possibly explain all of them simultaneously becoming obese?
  • What happened to the famous genome sequencing cost curve after late 2012, which stopped price decreases, damaged genetics, and delayed the advent of whole-genome sequencing by perhaps a decade? Was it really just the Illuminati’s fault?
  • Why do humans have such a large mutation load on common genetic variants? Common SNPs make up a large fraction of variance, even for traits which must be fitness-affecting. Culture or technology slow evolution doesn’t wash when human fitness differentials are so large and so many people died young or as infants, and how did the many deleterious variants get pushed up to such high frequencies in the first place?
  • Why does the immune system so often surface as a genetic correlation or tissue enrichment in GWASes for many things not generally believed to be infectious? Are we missing an enormous range of infections directly causing bad things (or indirectly through autoimmune mechanisms), or the immune system just sort of like intelligence in being a general health trait?
  • Why does catnip response vary so much across countries in domestic cats, and also across feline species, with no apparent phylogenetic or environmental pattern? It is so heritable in domestic cats that a genetic reason is plausible, but if it’s adaptive, what is it doing when catnip doesn’t exist in the ranges of most tested cats, and if it’s neutral why can so many closely-different different animals respond to it in different ways?

TC again: There is much more at the link.  If you don’t know Gwern, you should know Gwern.

Thanks a Thousand

For Thanksgiving I read a book about giving thanks, A. J. Jacobs’s, Thanks a Thousand. It begins like I, Pencil (which Jacobs discovers half-way through his book) and I, Rose:

It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the presence of one of the most mind-boggling accomplishments in human history. This thing is so astounding in its complexity and scope, it makes the Panama canal look like a third grader’s craft project.

This marvel I see before me is the result of thousands of human beings collaborating across dozens of countries.

It took the combined labor of artists, chemists, politicians, mechanics, biologists, miners, packagers, smugglers and goatherds.

It required airplanes, boats trucks, motorcycles, vans, pallets and shoulders.

It needed hundreds of materials–steel, wood, nitrogen, rubber, silicon, ultraviolet light, explosives, and bat guano.

It has caused great joy but also great poverty and oppression.

It relied upon ancient wisdom and space-age technology, freezing temperature and scorching heat, high mountains and deep water.

It is my morning coffee.

Jacobs then sets out to thank everyone–which he soon finds is impossible, so he limits to a thousand people–who contributed to getting him his morning miracle. From the obvious, the barista and the coffee growers to the less obvious, the manufacturers and designers of the coffee lid and the NY water department, Jacobs sets out to offer thanks, giving the reader some interesting background along the way (“New York water is tested 2.2 million times a year.” “According to one estimate, pallets account for more than 46 percent of US hardwood lumber production.”).

Jacobs is also good on the importance of gratitude. Being mindful of and thankful for the things we ordinarily take for granted can make for a better life. He asks philosopher Will MacAskill what he is grateful for. “Sometimes I’m just thankful I have arms.” Yes.

Jacobs sometimes forgets, however, that the value of gratitude is more in the giving than in the receiving. He thus confuses gratitude with charity. But gratitude is neither payment nor alms. It’s nice to be recognized and thanked but thanks don’t make the world go round.

I ask Andy whether it feels good that the coffee in his warehouse brings joy to millions of people. Andy looks at me, his eyebrows knit. It’s as if I just asked him if he enjoys being a Buddhist monk who mediates ten hours a day.

“Well let me ask you this,” I say, “What are you thankful for?”

“My paycheck,” he says, laughing.

I like Andy. Andy understands that working solely for the sake of others can be demeaning and degrading. Andy is working for himself and his loved ones and more power to him. Beyond a few special relationships, to make doing for others one’s primary motive is undignified and subservient. Humans are not worker ants eager to die for love of their Queen. Each person’s life is their own.

The true marvel is that despite the fact that most people are not living for others we can still all live together harmoniously. As I like to put it:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the coffee brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

My Conversation with John Nye

John is one of the smartest people I know, and one of my favorite people to talk to, here is the transcript and audio.  Here is the opening summary:

Raised in the Philippines and taught to be a well-rounded Catholic gentleman, John Nye learned the importance of a rigorous education from a young age. Indeed, according to Tyler he may very well be the best educated among his colleagues, having studying physics and literature as an undergraduate before earning a master’s and PhD in economics. And his education continues, as he’s now hard at work mastering his fourth language.

On this episode of Conversations with Tyler, Nye explains why it took longer for the French to urbanize than the British, the origins of the myth of free-trade Britain, why Vertigo is one of the greatest movies of all time, why John Stuart Mill is overrated, raising kids in a bilingual household, and much more.

Here is one bit:

NYE: In fact, one of the things I do know about the 19th century is that there’s no evidence that either unilateral free trade or multilateral did very much.

Almost all the free trade in Europe in the 19th century was a product of, initially, the bilateral trade agreement between Britain and France, sometimes known as the Anglo-French Treaty of Commerce of 1860, in which they each agreed to much more liberalized trade on a most-favored-nation basis. Once they accepted this, then what happened is, anyone who signed on to either Britain or France on the most-favored-nation basis then bought into, in some sense, this system.

Here is another:

COWEN: Particular mistakes aside, what were the systemic mistakes the Western world was making in, say, 1910, 1912?

NYE: I think the systemic mistake really boils down to how do you deal with the problem of power? How do you deal with the problem of different groups, different cultures wanting their place at the table? It’s clear that, if you look, a lot of the fight of imperialism was great-power competition.

If you look in the Far East, for example, some people may know that the United States took the Philippines from Spain at the end of the period of Spanish control of the Philippines in 1898, and partly this was due to Perry’s decision to sail into Manila Bay.

One of the things that’s not discussed — most people are unaware of — is that the German and British fleets were waiting in Hong Kong. They were waiting to see what the Americans did. And it’s quite likely that, had the Americans not steamed into Manila Bay, that the Germans or British would have intervened in the Philippines once the Spanish collapsed.


COWEN: And if there’s an underlying political subtext or import of Hitchcock, what do you think that would be? Not what he necessarily intended as his politics, but what’s in the movies in terms of human nature and political man?

NYE: Well, I think there’s this question of suspicion and the tendency to not appreciate how much is going on under the surface. I think people tend to see these things narrowly in terms of Cold War paranoia. But Hitchcock was a political conservative, and he was much more of the very old British conservative view that one should be wary in times of —

COWEN: Suspicion is metaphysical, right?

Definitely recommended, I am very honored to have had the chance to do this with John.

Coleman Hughes reviews *Stubborn Attachments*

Excellent review, in Quillette, here is part of the closing sequence:

Ultimately, absorbing the thesis of Stubborn Attachments would entail a radical loss of purpose for the politically-minded among us. The small, short-term policy fights that energize us most are precisely the ones from which, on Cowen’s account, we should abstain entirely. Even the smartest among us don’t know what net effect small policies will have; plus very little well-being turns on such policies to begin with. Growth maximization, on Cowen’s view, becomes a moral black hole from which no partisan skirmish, no matter how seemingly important, can escape.

In a cultural landscape where partisan skirmishes regularly induce something approaching bloodlust on both sides of the political aisle, it’s safe to say that most Americans are roundly rejecting Cowen’s thesis at the moment. But perhaps that means the message of Stubborn Attachments is needed now more than ever.

Recommended, here is the link.