Category: Philosophy

My excellent Conversation with Shadi Bartsch

She is a Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago, and recently published a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  Here is the audio, visual, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

Shadi joined Tyler to discuss reading the classics as someone who is half-Persian, the difference between Homer and Virgil’s underworlds, the reasons so many women are redefining Virgil’s Aeneid, the best way to learn Latin, why you must be in a room with a native speaker to learn Mandarin, the question of Seneca’s hypocrisy, what it means to “wave the wand of Hermes”, why Lucan begins his epic The Civil War with “fake news”, the line from Henry Purcell’s aria that moves her to tears, her biggest takeaway from being the daughter of an accomplished UN economist, the ancient text she’s most hopeful that new technology will help us discover, the appeal of Strauss to some contemporary Chinese intellectuals, the reasons some consider the history of Athens a better allegory for America than that of Rome, the Thucydides Trap, the magical “presentness” of ancient history she’s found in Italy and Jerusalem, her forthcoming book Plato Goes to China, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: You may not agree with this, but many readers I speak with tend to think that Homer is somehow deeper, more mystical, or just more fun to read than Virgil. What accounts for that perception and how might you challenge it?

BARTSCH: I think they think that because both of Homer’s epics are not, per se, about politics or governments. They don’t offer etiologies of a state. They don’t talk about history. They are stories in the true sense. They are about heroes in the true sense, not about some guy who’s pushed around the world by the gods, constantly getting into trouble, crying, wishing he didn’t have to go found Rome, etcetera.

Achilles — figure larger than life. His pride is everything to him. He stops fighting in the Trojan War because he’s been insulted. The drama is, what compels him to go back into battle after that insult?

Odysseus — a fairy tale of a man wandering from island to island, meeting ever stranger creatures, but eventually making it back home. It’s a great yarn. You don’t have to learn history to read these. You get involved in the psychology of the characters, their tragedies and their triumphs.

Nobody is really interested in getting involved in the psychology of the state and its triumphs. On the one hand, you’ve got a poem that’s an etiology for a particular government. On the other hand, you have two amazing stories. I can see how reading The Aeneid would be considered duller for some.

Excellent throughout, and again here is Shadi’s excellent translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.

How rational was Spock?

[Julia] Galef was curious to see exactly how often these predictions pan out. “I went through all of the Star Trek episodes and movies—all of the transcripts that I could find—and searched for any instance in which Spock is using the words ‘odds,’ ‘probability,’ ‘chance,’ ‘definitely,’ ‘probably,’ etc.,” she says. “I catalogued all instances in which Spock made a prediction and that prediction either came true or didn’t.”

The results, which appear in Galef’s new book The Scout Mindset, are devastating. Not only does Spock have a terrible track record—events he describes as “impossible” happen 83 percent of the time—but his confidence level is actually anti-correlated with reality. “The more confident he says he is that something will happen—that the ship will crash, or that they will find survivors—the less likely it is to happen, and the less confident he is in something, the more likely it is to happen,” Galef says.

Spock’s biggest weakness is his failure to understand that other people don’t always behave “logically.” He also makes no attempt to update his approach, even when his mistakes get his crewmates killed.

Here is the full Wired story, and here you can buy Julia’s new book.  I wonder if he is more rational in the Star Trek movies than in the TV shows, or how about in the fan fiction?  Exactly where is the demand for dramatic irrationality highest, and why?

Where is (non-state capacity) libertarianism evolving?

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one bit:

I would say that the purer forms of libertarianism are evolving: from a set of policy stances on political questions to a series of projects for building entire new political worlds…

Much of the intellectual effort in libertarian circles is concentrated in two ideas in particular: charter cities and cryptocurrency.

Very recently a “charter city” was inaugurated in Honduras, with its own set of laws and constitutions, designed to set off an economic boom. Entrepreneurs are seeking to create such cities around the globe, typically as enclaves within established political units. The expectation is not that these cities would reflect libertarian doctrine in every way, but rather that they would be an improvement over prevailing governance, just as Hong Kong had much better outcomes than did Mao’s China.

A milder version of the charter cities concept is the YIMBY (“Yes In My Backyard”) movement, which is not founding new cities but seeking to transform existing ones by deregulating zoning and construction and thus building them out to a much greater extent.

Another area attracting energetic young talent is cryptocurrency. Bitcoin gets a lot of the attention, but it is a static system. The Ethereum project, led by Vitalik Buterin, is more ambitious. It is trying to create a new currency, legal system, and set of protocols for new economies on blockchains.

Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum can be managed to better suit market demands. Imagine a future in which prediction markets are everywhere, micropayments are easy, self-executing smart contracts are a normal part of business, consumers own their own data and trade it on blockchains, and social media are decentralized and you can’t be canceled. The very foundations of banking and finance might move into this new realm.

Consistent with these developments, the most influential current figures in libertarianism have a strong background as doers: Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Buterin and Balaji Srinivasan, to name a few, though probably none would qualify as a formal libertarian. All of them have strong roots outside the U.S., which perhaps liberated them from the policy debates that preoccupied American libertarians for so long.

The piece is 1200 words or so, 50% beyond the usual, plenty more at the link.

My Conversation with Lex Fridman

2 hours 9 minutes long, Lex is one of the very best interviewers/discussants in the sector.  Here is the video, here is the audio.  Plenty of new topics and avenues, including the political economy of Russia (note this was recorded before the massing of Russian forces on the Ukraine border).  Lex’s tweet described it as follows:

Here’s my conversation with @tylercowen  about economic growth, resisting conformity, the value of being weird, competition and capitalism, UFO sightings, contemporary art, best food in the world, and of course, love, death, and meaning.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Grseeycor4

Recommended.

My Conversation with the excellent Dana Gioia

Here is the audio, transcript, and video.  As I mention in the beginning, Dana is the (only?) CWT guest who can answer all of my questions.  Here is part of the summary:

Dana and Tyler discuss his latest book and more, including how he transformed several businesses as a corporate executive, why going to business school made him a better poet, the only two obscene topics left in American poetry, why narrative is necessary for coping with life’s hardships, how Virgil influenced Catholic traditions, what Augustus understood about the cultural power of art, the reasons most libretti are so bad, the optimism of the Beach Boys, the best art museum you’ve never heard of, the Jungianism of Star Trek, his favorite Tolstoy work, depictions of Catholicism in American pop culture, what he finds fascinating about Houellebecq, why we stopped building cathedrals, how he was able to effectively lead the National Endowment for the Arts, the aesthetic differences between him and his brother Ted, his advice for young people who want to cultivate their minds, and what he wants to learn next.

And here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Why is Olaf Stapledon an important writer?

GIOIA: It’s not a question I expected.

COWEN: How could you not expect that?

GIOIA: Well, first of all, I hope people know who Olaf Stapleton was. Tremendously influential, rather clumsy, visionary, early science fiction writer who wrote novels like Odd John and the First and Last Man. What Olaf Stapleton did was I think he was the first really great science fiction writer to think in absolutely cosmic terms, beyond human conceptions of time and space. That, essentially, created the mature science fiction sensibility. If you go even watch a show like Expanse now, it’s about Stapledonian concerns.

COWEN: He was also a Hegelian philosopher, as you know. My friend Dan Wang thinks Last and First Men is better than Star Maker. Though virtually all critics prefer Star Maker.

GIOIA: Michael Lind, the political writer, and historian, Stapledon is one of his formative writers. Star Maker is kind of an evolution of the Last and First MenOdd John is kind of the odd, the first great mutant novel.

Definitely recommended.  And I am very happy to recommend Dana’s latest book (and indeed all of his books) Studying with Miss Bishop: Memoirs from a Young Writer’s Life.

My Conversation with Sarah Parcak, space archaeologist and Egypt lover

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss what caused the Bronze Age Collapse, how well we understand the level of ancient technologies, what archaeologists may learn from the discovery of more than a hundred coffins at the site of Saqqara, how far the Vikings really traveled, why conservation should be as much of a priority as excavation, the economics of looting networks, the inherently political nature of archaeology, Indiana Jones versus The Dig, her favorite contemporary bluegrass artists, the best archeological sites to visit around the world, the merits of tools like Google Earth and Lidar, the long list of skills needed to be a modern archeologist, which countries produce the best amateur space archeologists, and more.

Lots of talk about data issues and rights as well.  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Here’s something that struck me studying your work. Give me your reaction. It seems to me your job is almost becoming impossible. You have to know stats. You have to know trigonometry. You have to know geometry. In your case, you need to know Egyptian Arabic, possibly some dialect, possibly some classical Arabic, maybe some other languages.

You have to know archaeology, right? You have to know history. You must have to know all kinds of physical techniques for unearthing materials without damaging them too much. You need to know about data storage, and I could go on, and on, and on.

Hasn’t your job evolved to the point where you’re almost . . . You need to know about technologies, right? For finding data from space — we talked about this before. That’s also not easy. Isn’t your job evolving to the point where, literally, no human can do it, and you’re the last in the line?

PARCAK: I am, I guess, jack of all trades, master of a few. But that’s not true either because I have to know the remote sensing programs. I have to know geographic information systems. I have to be up to date on international cultural heritage laws.

I think I’m not special by a long shot. Every archaeologist is a specialist. This archaeologist is a specialist in the pottery of this period of time, or does DNA, or excavates human remains — they’re bioarchaeologists — or they do computation. We all are specialists in a particular thing, but that’s really broad. My unsexy, more academic term is landscape archaeologist, so I’m interested in ancient human-environment interaction, which encompasses a lot of different fields and subfields. I’ve taken many courses in geology.

All of us who study Egyptology — we do a lot of training in art history because, of course, the iconography and the art and the objects that we’re finding. It takes a lot, but I would say most of the knowledge I’ve gotten is experiential. It’s from being in the field, I’ve visited hundreds of museums. I’ve spent countless hours in museum collections learning, touching objects.

Yeah, it’s a lot, but it’s also the field of archaeology. That’s why so many people really love it — because you get to touch on so many different areas. I would never, for example, consider myself a specialist in bioarchaeology. I know a tibia. When I find pitting on a skull, I know what that could potentially mean.

But also, I’m in a position now where I’m a dig director, so that means I’m in charge of a large group of humans, most of whom are far smarter, more capable than I am in whatever they’re doing. They’re specialists in pottery and bone, in rocks — project geologist — and conservation in art. We have project artists. We have specialists in excavation, and of course, there’s my very talented Egyptian team. They’re excavating. I’m probably a lot more of a manager now than I ever expected to be —

COWEN: And fundraiser perhaps, right?

One of my favorite CWTs in some time.  And here is Sarah’s book Archaeology from Space: How the Future Shapes Our Past.

Noah Substack interviews Patrick Collison

Here goes, here is one good excerpt of many:

Isaac Asimov’s New Guide to Science. I read that when I was 13 or 14 and thought it was just amazing. (I was an exchange student in Germany at the time. I didn’t learn much German but I did have my eyes opened to many aspects of science that I previously knew nothing about!) Some of John Gribbin’s books, like In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat, really inspired me. Douglas Hofstadter — especially Metamagical Themas. (I read GEB when I was a teenager but found it a bit of a slog.) But, honestly, I think I was always interested in creating technology to some extent. I spent hours and hours playing with Lego when I was young and then transitioned pretty quickly to programming. I remember being pretty certain that I’d love programming before I’d ever written a line of code and, sure enough, I did. So, maybe it’s just something about how my mind is wired.

And:

Overall, my single biggest science policy suggestion would be to pursue far greater structural diversity in our mechanisms. More different kinds of grant making institutions, more different kinds of research organizations, more different career paths for participants, etc. That’s not easy to do — bureaucracies by their nature seek to standardize which this fosters homogeneity. So, to the extent that the Endless Frontier Act can bring us closer to a more structurally varied world, I’m probably supportive relative to the status quo. My biggest qualm would probably be that it combines regional development policy with scientific policy. While the political merit is easy to see, I’m not sure that that’s a good idea. Talent clusters are real and I think it probably makes more sense to think about how best to improve those clusters than it does to foster underdog competitors.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Sins of omission vs sins of commission

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

To be clear, public health officials are encouraging additional vaccinations. But they don’t seem to realize how much their own ostensibly “careful” rhetoric makes vaccination sound unappealing. “Not talking up the vaccines” is a sin of omission, not a sin of commission, and so it is tolerated and is not a major issue for public debate.

Should public officials be allowed, indeed encouraged, to treat sins of commission and omission so differently, as private citizens (myself included) typically do?

I live near Arlington National Cemetery, where approximately 400,000 veterans (and family members) are buried. I suspect they would not care so much whether their deaths were the result of errors of commission or omission. Did a commanding general order a hill to be charged that should have been left alone? Or did he make the mistake of not charging a hill that could have been taken?

Most citizens care about the total number of military casualties from a battle and are only modestly concerned about the details of the mistakes that caused them. That seems like the right and rational attitude. Perhaps it is also the correct attitude for the war against the coronavirus — that is, an overriding concern with casualties and outcomes, regardless of the kind of error that led to them.

Recommended.

Why will the important thinkers of the future be religious ones?

Tony O’Connor requests I cover this:

A few times you have said that the important thinkers of the future will be the religious ones. It would be interesting to hear more about what led you to this conclusion.

Concretely, I wonder if this would arise because religious populations within liberal polities are expanding over time (due to higher birth rates), or because there could be a shift from the non-religious population into religion. The potential causes of the latter would be interesting to hear about, if that is your belief.

First of all, I was led to the point by example. For instance, Ross Douthat and Peter Thiel are two of the most interesting thinkers as of late and they are both religious and Christian.  I am also struck by the enduring influence of Rene Girard.  I am never quite sure “how intellectually Jewish” are our leading Jewish intellectuals, but somewhat to be sure.  Even if they are atheists, they are usually strongly influenced by Jewish intellectual and theological traditions, which indicates a certain power to those traditions.  In fiction, Orson Scott Card is one of the intellectually most influential writers in the last few decades and he is a Mormon.  Knausgaard is drenched in the tradition of the Christian confessional memoir, and Ferrante is about as Catholic a writer as you will find, again even if “the real Ferrante” is a skeptic.  Houellebecq I don’t even need to get into.

Second, I see that both secular “left progressive” and “libertarian” traditions — both highly secular in their current forms — are not so innovative right now.  I don’t intend that as criticism, as you might think they are not innovative because they are already essentially correct.  Still, there is lots of recycling going on and their most important thinkers probably lie in the past, not the future.  That opens up room for religious thinkers to have more of an impact.

Third, religious thinkers arguably have more degrees of freedom.  I don’t mean to hurt anybody’s feelings here, but…how shall I put it?  The claims of the religions are not so closely tied to the experimental method and the randomized control trial.  (Narrator: “Neither are the secular claims!”)  It would be too harsh to say “they can just make stuff up,” but…arguably there are fewer constraints.  That might lead to more gross errors and fabrications in the distribution as a whole, but also more creativity in the positive direction.  And right now we seem pretty hungry for some breaks in the previous debates, even if not all of those breaks will be for the better.

Fourth, if you live amongst the intelligentsia, being religious is one active form of rebellion.  Rebelliousness is grossly correlated with intellectual innovation, again even if the variance of quality increases.

Fifth, I have the general impression that religious idea rise in importance during unstable and chaotic times.  Probably the current period is less stable than say 1980-2001 or so, and that will increase the focality of religious ideas, thereby making religious thinkers more important.

Sixth, religious and semi-religious memes are stickier than secular ones.  Maybe not on average, but the most influential religions have shown an incredible reach and endurance.

If you are reading a secular thinker, always ask yourself: “what is this person’s implicit theology?”  No matter who it is.  There are few more useful questions at your disposal.

What should I ask Shadi Bartsch?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, most of all about her forthcoming and very good translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.  She is a professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and here is Wikipedia:

Bartsch has contributed to classical scholarship in the areas of the literature and culture of Julio-Claudian Rome, the ancient novel, Roman stoicism, and the classical tradition.

She is an expert on Lucan, Persius, Seneca, and other writers of the time, most of all the age of Nero, and she is now working on a book on the reception of the classical authors amongst the Chinese intelligentsia.  Here is Shadi on Twitter.

So what should I ask her?

My Conversation with Brian Armstrong

He is the co-founder and CEO of Coinbase, here is the video, audio, and transcript.  Here is part of the CWTeam summary:

Brian joined Tyler to discuss how he prevents Coinbase from being run by its lawyers, the value of having a mission statement, what a world with many more crypto billionaires would look like, why the volatility of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is more feature than bug, the potential for scalability in Ethereum 2.0, his best guess on the real identity of Satoshi, the biggest obstacle facing new charter cities, the meta rules he’d institute for new Martian colony, the importance of bridging the gap between academics and entrepreneurs, the future of crypto regulation, the benefits of stablecoin for the unbanked, his strongest and weakest interpersonal skill, what he hopes to learn from composing electronic music, and more.

And an excerpt:

COWEN: Recently, you cited an estimate that if bitcoin were priced at $200,000, that about half the world’s billionaires would be from crypto. How is that world different? What does it look like? How does it feel different from the world we have?

ARMSTRONG: That’s a big question. I guess the most honest answer is, I don’t know for sure. One thought I’ve had, though, is that if there are more people who generate a lot of wealth with crypto — which I think is already happening, and it will probably keep happening. Most of the people who bought crypto early on — they’re believers in the power of technology to change the world. They’re interested in the ethos of crypto in many cases, and I suspect that they would allocate their capital towards more things in that vein.

You could almost have this — I don’t know if you’d call it a renaissance or a golden age or something, of people who are technology believers. They want to see a better future coming from science and technology, and they’re going to use their capital for good in that direction. That could be one outcome.

There is much more at the link, interesting throughout.

Arnold Kling’s Fantasy Intellectual Teams Draft

Here is his explanation, earlier post here, the point is to pick the undervalued people, not to pick your favorites or “the best” per se.  In essence you are assembling a “team” of public intellectuals to…I am not sure what.  But it might be fun!  Here is my advice for picks:

1. Pick people who have had more than one significant job.

1b. Pick people who have had to manage something, broadly defined.

2. Pick religious thinkers.

3. Pick people who keep on getting better.  Because indeed they will continue to keep on getting better.  That one might sound trivial, but I suspect not so many people follow it.

4. Pick people who do not use the words “Democrat” and “Republican” too often.

5. Pick people who are curious about China.

6. Pick people who experiment with different media and outlets.

7. Pick people who have an interest in seeing through very long-term projects.

8. Don’t pick too many complainers and whiners.

Good luck!