Category: Philosophy

My Conversation with Ed Boyden, MIT neuroscientist

Here is the transcript and audio, highly recommended, and for background here is Ed’s Wikipedia page.  Here is one relevant bit for context:

COWEN: You’ve trained in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and neuroscience, correct?

BOYDEN: Yeah, I started college at 14, and I focused on chemistry for two years, and then I transferred to MIT, where then I switched into physics and electrical engineering, and that’s when I worked on quantum computing.

COWEN: Five areas, actually. Maybe more.

BOYDEN: Guess so.

COWEN: Should more people do that? Not the median student, but more people?

BOYDEN: It’s a good question.

And:

COWEN: Are we less creative if all the parts of our mind become allies? Maybe I’m afraid this will happen to me, that I have rebellious parts of my mind, and they force me to do more interesting things, or they introduce randomness or variety into my life.

BOYDEN: This is a question that I think is going to become more and more urgent as neurotechnology advances. Already there are questions about attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall. Maybe they make people more focused, but are you sacrificing some of the wandering and creativity that might exist in the brain and be very important for not only personal productivity but the future of humanity?

I think what we’re realizing is that when you intervene with the brain, even with brain stimulation, you can cause unpredictable side effects. For example, there’s a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s actually an FDA-approved site for stimulation with noninvasive magnetic pulses to treat depression. But patients, when they’re stimulated here . . . People have done studies. It can also change things like trust. It can change things like driving ability.

There’s only so many brain regions, but there’s millions of things we do. Of course, intervening with one region might change many things.

And:

COWEN: What kind of students are you likely to hire that your peers would not hire?

BOYDEN: Well, I really try to get to know people at a deep level over a long period of time, and then to see how their unique background and interests might change the field for the better.

I have people in my group who are professional neurosurgeons, and then, as I mentioned, I have college dropouts, and I have people who . . . We recently published a paper where we ran the brain expansion process in reverse. So take the baby diaper polymer, add water to expand it, and then you can basically laser-print stuff inside of it, and then collapse it down, and you get a piece of nanotechnology.

The co–first author of that paper doesn’t have a scientific laboratory background. He was a professional photographer before he joined my group. But we started talking, and it turns out, if you’re a professional photographer, you know a lot of very practical chemistry. It turns out that our big demo — and why the paper got so much attention — was we made metal nanowires, and the way we did it was using a chemistry not unlike what you do in photography, which is a silver chemistry.

And this:

COWEN: Let’s say you had $10 billion or $20 billion a year, and you would control your own agency, and you were starting all over again, but current institutions stay in place. What would you do with it? How would you structure your grants? You’re in charge. You’re the board. You do it.

Finally:

COWEN: If you’re designing architecture for science, what do you do? What do you change? What would you improve? Because presumably most of it is not designed for science. Maybe none of it is.

BOYDEN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, lately. There are different philosophies, like “We should have open offices so everybody can see and talk to each other.” Or “That’s wrong. You should have closed spaces so people can think and have quiet time.” What I think is actually quite interesting is this concept that maybe neither is the right approach. You might want to think about having sort of an ecosystem of environments.

My group — we’re partly over at the Media Lab, which has a lot of very open environments, and our other part of the group is in a classical sort of neuroscience laboratory with offices and small rooms where we park microscopes and stuff like that. I actually get a lot of productivity out of switching environments in a deliberate way.

There is much more of interest at the link.

Bryan Caplan *Open Borders* launch day

From Bryan:

Dear friends: Monday, April 8 isn’t just my birthday.  It’s also the official launch date for *Open Borders*!

URL for ordering the book: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1250316960/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1250316960&linkCode=as2&tag=bryacaplwebp-20&linkId=1ed2cdfe4a1c0cd2a62e942a39f87b9d

URL for an introductory post on the book: https://www.econlib.org/pre-order-open-borders-the-science-and-ethics-of-immigration/

Is the corporation your friend?

The funny thing is, although it is wrong to think of corporations as people, it is probably also necessary for social cohesion. If the American people are going to support business in the court of public opinion, business must to some extent have a friendly face. Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly, ultimately leading to bad consequences for American private enterprise. Furthermore, consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. Companies know that if they build up a good public image and stick around with a track record of reliable service, consumers will reward them with a kind of emotional loyalty. Overall, that creates a largely positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen anytime soon.

That is from the final chapter of my forthcoming book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Ah, and there is more:

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations—for our food, for our entertainment, for communicating with our friends and loved ones, and for getting around from one place to another. But for all the talk from economists about consumer sovereignty, it’s not clear how much people actually are in control at all. It’s true you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, and the nature of that network shapes so many of our choices and thus our lives.

Of course, it is impossible for customers to ponder these philosophical questions in their deepest and subtlest terms all day long, as that would consume way too much of people’s mental and emotional energies. So instead people translate their rather bizarre, non-hunter-gatherer modern commercial society into terms that their more primeval selves are familiar with. That is, people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople, and of being in a familiar environment in which they are exercising their free will as consumers and also as workers. Given the need to get through each day, it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior.

You can debate exactly how true or untrue our generally held picture of freedom in modern commercial society is, but I can’t help but feel that part of it is a lie. The system offers many formal properties of freedom, such as the immense choice of products and jobs, and the relative lack of imposed coercion on most of these decisions. Still, when you combine pressures for conformity, the scarcity of attention, the stresses of our personal lives, and the need for “ready quick” decision-making heuristics, it’s not exactly a life of true freedom we are living. It is (more or less) close to the freest life a society is capable of providing us, but it isn’t quite free in the metaphysical sense of actually commanding our individual destinies through the exercise of our own free will. At least some of the freedom of contemporary consumer society is an illusion, taken upon ourselves to make our lives feel bearable and to help us feel more in control—precisely because, to some extent, we are not very much in control at all.

Recommended, by your friend, namely me.

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.

And:

COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Why is there so much suspicion of big business?

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”

And:

There is another reason it doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or by-laws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Those are both excerpts from my final chapter “If business is so good, why is it so disliked?”, from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

What is wrong with social justice warriors?

Curious if you’ve read this (has a PDF link):
http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249

Is this paper bad? If it is bad, what is bad about it? How would you describe “what is bad about it” in a way that would connect to a college freshman who finds his/her economics and critical race theory classes to be equally interesting and deserving of further study? This extends to broader questions about “what precisely is undesirable about the state of social-justice-oriented academic study?” I have seen a lot of backhanded stuff from you on this topic, but not a centrally articulated, earnest answer.

That is from my email, and I would broaden the question to be about social justice warriors more generally.  Most of all, I would say I am all for social justice warriors!  Properly construed, that is.  But two points must be made:

1. Many of the people who are called social justice warriors I would not put in charge of a candy shop, much less trust them to lead the next jihad.

2. Many social justice warriors seem more concerned with tearing down, blacklisting, and deplatforming others, or even just whining about them, rather than working hard to actually boost social justice, whatever you might take that to mean.  Most of that struggle requires building things in a positive way, I am sorry to say.

That all said, do not waste too much of your own energies countering the not-so-helpful class of social justice warriors.  It is not worth it.  Perhaps someone needs to play such a role, but surely those neuterers are not, or at least should not be, the most talented amongst us.

No matter what your exact view of the world, or what kind of ornery pessimist or determinist or conservative or even reactionary you may be, you should want to be working toward some kind of emancipation in the world.  No, I am not saying there always is a clear “emancipatory” side of a debate, or that most issues are “us vs. them.”  Rather, if you are not sure you are doing the right thing, ask a simple question: am I building something?  Whether it be a structure, an institution, or simply a positive idea, proposal, or method.

The answer to that building question may not always be obvious, but it stands a pretty good chance of getting you to an even better question for your next round of inquiry.

The third cohort of Emergent Ventures recipients

As always, note that the descriptions are mine and reflect my priorities, as the self-descriptions of the applicants may be broader or slightly different.  Here goes:

Jordan Schneider, for newsletter and podcast and writing work “explaining the rise of Chinese tech and its global ramifications.”

Michelle Rorich, for her work in economic development and Africa, to be furthered by a bike trip Cairo to Capetown.

Craig Palsson, Market Power, a new YouTube channel for economics.

Jeffrey C. Huber, to write a book on tech and economic progress from a Christian point of view.

Mayowa Osibodu, building AI programs to preserve endangered languages.

David Forscey, travel grant to look into issues and careers surrounding protection against election fraud.

Jennifer Doleac, Texas A&M, to develop an evidence-based law and economics, crime and punishment podcast.

Fergus McCullough, University of St. Andrews, travel grant to help build a career in law/history/politics/public affairs.

Justin Zheng, a high school student working on biometrics for cryptocurrency.

Matthew Teichman at the University of Chicago, for his work in philosophy podcasting.

Kyle Eschen, comedian and magician and entertainer, to work on an initiative for the concept of “steelmanning” arguments.

Here is the first cohort of winners, and here is the second cohort.  Here is the underlying philosophy behind Emergent Ventures.  Note by the way, if you received an award very recently, you have not been forgotten but rather will show up in the fourth cohort.

Those new service sector jobs is this one in fact torture?

Imagine: For the rest of your life, you are assigned no tasks at work. You can watch movies, read books, work on creative projects or just sleep. In fact, the only thing that you have to do is clock in and out every day. Since the position is permanent, you’ll never need to worry about getting another job again.

Starting in 2026, this will be one lucky (or extremely bored) worker’s everyday reality, thanks to a government-funded conceptual art project in Gothenburg, Sweden. The employee in question will report to Korsvägen, a train station under construction in the city, and will receive a salary of about $2,320 a month in U.S. dollars, plus annual wage increases, vacation time off and a pension for retirement. While the artists behind the project won’t be taking applications until 2025, when the station will be closer to opening, a draft of the help-wanted ad is already available online, as Atlas Obscura reported on Monday.

The job’s requirements couldn’t be simpler: An employee shows up to the train station each morning and punches the time clock. That, in turn, illuminates an extra bank of fluorescent lights over the platform, letting travelers and commuters know that the otherwise functionless employee is on the job. At the end of the day, the worker returns to clock out, and the lights go off. In between, they can do whatever they want, aside from work at another paying job.

That is by Antonia Noori Farzan at WaPo.  The project is called “Eternal Employment.”

For the pointer I thank Peter Sperry.

Toward a theory of random, concentrated breakthroughs

I don’t (yet?) agree with what is to follow, but it is a model of the world I have been trying to flesh out, if only for the sake of curiosity.  Here are the main premises:

1. For a big breakthrough in some area to come, many different favorable inputs had to come together.  So the Florentine Renaissance required the discovery of the right artistic materials at the right time (e.g., good tempera, then oil paint), prosperity in Florence, guilds and nobles interested in competing for status with artistic commissions, relative freedom of expression, and so on.

2. To some extent, but not completely, the arrival of those varied inputs is random.  Big breakthroughs are thus hard to predict and also hard to control.

3. A breakthrough in one area increases the likelihood that further breakthroughs will come in closely related areas.  So if the coming together of the symphony orchestra leads to the work of Mozart and Haydn, that in turn becomes an inspiration and eases the path for later breakthroughs in music, not just Mahler but also The Beatles, compared to say how much it might ease future breakthroughs for painting.

4. Some breakthroughs are very very good for economic growth, such as the Industrial Revolution.  But most breakthroughs do not in any direct way boost gdp very much.  The Axial age led to the creation of significant religions and intellectual traditions, but the (complex) effects on gdp are mostly lagged and were certainly hard to see at the time.

5. Even if Robert Gordon is right that we will never have a new period of material progress comparable to the early 20th century for improving living standards, the next breakthrough eras still might be very important.

6. One possibility is that the next breakthrough will be some form of brain engineering.  People might be much happier and better adjusted, but arguably that could lower measured gdp by boosting “household production” in lieu of market activity.  At the very least, gdp figures may not reflect the value of those gains.

7. Another candidate for the next breakthrough would be institutional changes that make ongoing international peace much more likely.  That would have some positive effects on gdp in the short run, but its major effects would be in the much longer run, namely the prevention of a very destructive war.

8. Judged by the standards of the last breakthrough, the current/next breakthrough is typically hard to see and understand.  It almost always feels like we are failing at progress.

9. When a breakthrough comes, you need to ride it for all it is worth.  Arguably you also should embrace the excesses of that breakthrough, not seek to limit them.  It is perhaps your only real chance to mine that mother lode of inspiration.  So let us hope that Baroque music was “overproduced” in the early to mid 18th century, because after that production opportunities go away.  For that reason, “overuse” of the internet and social media today may not be such a bad thing.  It is our primary way of exploring all of the potential of that cultural mode, and that mode will at some point be tamed and neutered, just as Baroque music composition is now dormant.

10. Progress in (many forms of) science may be more like progress in Baroque music composition than we comfortably like to think.  But I hope not.

My Conversation with Sam Altman

Yes, the Sam Altman of Y Combinator and Open AI.  We even got around to Harry Potter, James Bond (and Q), Spiderman, Antarctica, and Napoleon, what is wrong with San Francisco, in addition to venture capital and the hunt for talent.  Here is the transcript and audio.  Here is one excerpt:

ALTMAN: I think our greatest differentiator is not how we identify talent, although I will answer that question, but the fact that we treat our own business — we run Y Combinator in the way that we tell our startups to run as a successful startup, which almost no venture capital firm does.

Almost every venture capital firm gives advice they never follow themselves. They don’t build differentiated products. They are not network-affected businesses. They don’t try to build a brand and a community. And they don’t try to make something that gets better the bigger it gets and have the scale effects that anyone would tell you they want in a business.

We at Y Combinator always say we want to get a lot bigger because this is a network effect, this is a network that matters. Most venture capital firms will say out of one side of their mouth, “Oh no, smaller is better,” because they don’t want to work more. Then they’ll tell all their businesses, “The network effect is the only thing that matters.”

Many people are as smart as we are, think about the world in similar ways. But I think we have internalized that we run our firm the same way we tell our startups to operate, and we view the most important thing that we do is to build a network and a network effect.

And:

COWEN: Let me play venture capital skeptic, and you can talk me back into optimism.

ALTMAN: I might not.

COWEN: Let’s say I say, tech has had a stream of big hits: personal computer, internet, cell phone, mobile. You’ve had a lot of rapidly scalable innovations become possible in a short period of time. We’re now in a slight lull. We’re not sure what the next big thing is or when it will come. Without that next big thing, won’t the current equilibrium require a higher rate of picking the right talent than venture capitalists are, in fact, able to do?

ALTMAN: I will talk you out of that one, happily. The most expensive investing mistake in the world to make is to be a pessimist, and it’s a common one. I think that’s actually the most common mistake to make in life. It is true that we are in a lull right now, but it is absolutely, categorically false that — unless the world gets destroyed in a very short term — that we will not have a bigger technological wave then we’ve ever had before.

COWEN: Why can’t I be an optimist but not an optimist about VC? I think new ideas will come through established companies. They’ll be funded by private equity. They’ll happen in China. But the exact formula where you can afford to make so many mistakes because the hits are so big — to what extent does VC rely on that kind of rapid scalability that may not come back?

And:

COWEN: Young Napoleon shows up. What do you think after 5 minutes?

ALTMAN: How young? Like 18-year-old Napoleon or 5-year-old?

COWEN: Before he’s famous, 21-year-old Napoleon.

ALTMAN: From everything I’ve read that would be a definite yes. In fact, the best book I read last year is called The Mind of Napoleon, which is a book of quotes about his views on everything. Just that thick on Napoleon quotes. Obviously deeply flawed human, but man, impressive.

Definitely recommended.