Reading Notes

4 April 2020

Reading notes for some interesting posts and articles.

The last hollow laugh

What Fukuyama really meant in The End of History and the Last Man: History is the development of ever more rational forms of societal organization. Western liberal democracy is the best possible such organization, so we can never hope to progress past it. This is because humans suffer from megalothymia, the psychological need to be better than everyone else, on which liberal democracy can put a lid by making competition positive for society. Yet liberal democracy frustrates people because it doesn’t allow one to completely dominate others. Combined with a lack of deeper meaning to life since the death of God (Neitzche’s Last Man), people will start feeling discontented, leading to the rise of extremist (and likely far-right, since the left only goes further in curbing megalothymia) political outlets.

Why Botzmann Brains Are Bad

Boltzmann brains (BBs) are brains that appear out of random fluctuations in the vacuum. In an very-long-lived universe where random fluctuations exist, we should expect many BBs to form spontaneously; many more, in fact, than brains formed through thermodynamically consistent processes soon after the Big Bang. A very small portion of these BBs would randomly be created with memories consistent with being born in the thermodynamic decrease phase. What is more, the currently mainstream theory (ΛCDM) probably satisfies these conditions (although some scientists disagree). The key point of the article is to point out the intellectual incoherence of any theory that predicts BBs (and hence of ΛCDM). Indeed, in such a theory, we should expect to be BBs ourselves, since we can’t distinguish between being natural observers in the early universe or BBs with completely fake memories. But if our memories are fake, there is no reason to trust the theories we develop, hence no reason to believe in ΛCDM in the first place.

So a physical theory that predicts Boltzmann Brains will significantly outnumber natural observers could be right, but can never be cognitively stable, and must always be rejected.

Life Got You Down? Time to Read The Master and Margarita

[The Master and Margarita] is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and as a masterpiece of magical realism, but it’s very common even for people who are very well read not to have heard of it

Now I want to read the book, but I don’t feel bad for never having heard of it :p.

Platforms vs Verticals and the Next Great Unbundling

One of the most effective forms of that competition often comes in the form of newcos who aspire to take chunks out of that emergent platform by better addressing the needs of a specific vertical within that platform—by creating a user experience or business model that’s much more tailored to the unique attributes of that vertical.


  • Craigslist became Reddit / Tinder / Zillow / Airbnb / ZipRecruiter / etc.
  • StubHub beat eBay in the ticket sales market
  • Youtube has many competitors serving a small subspace
  • LinkedIn doesn’t work well for many use cases

The moral of the story is this: In all but a few circumstances, the broad horizontal verticals eventually break. They become a victim of their own success. As the platforms grow, their submarkets grow too; their product gets pulled in a million different directions. Users get annoyed with an experience and business that caters to the lowest common denominator.

Startups can move much faster, and that they can’t win if they are trying to attack on all fronts, unless the market is very broken. After all, a classic piece of advice for startups is that they should find some actual customers and aggressively focus on improving their experience. That means they’ll find a submarket, and through sheer power of startup will, will create a better experience than established competitors in that submarket.

I see this as a sign that we are stabilizing: the huge, low-hanging gains of going from no video provider or no way to buy things online are taken, and now we have to focus on the much smaller update of going from one LinkedIn to several LinkedIns that are each slightly more specialized.

However, in many of the cases above, there are clear platform effects that multi-vertical players can benefit from, e.g. subscription services that cover the rest of the ecosystem, or building very complete customer profiles. Large, established companies are also flush with cash, and can easily buy new entrants if they still have enough foresight to see which may succeed, which still results in consolidation. Amazon owns dozens of smaller websites dedicated to other verticals. eBay bought StubHub. This still means it’s a good idea to start a startup dedicated to a new vertical, but I think the large-scale impact on most landscapes will be small.

The Real Problem at Yale Is Not Free Speech

Summary: the upcoming elites see the system is collapsing, so they want to absolve themselves of responsibility and pretend they are on the side of the oppressed. They don’t actually want to yield power, just be well off and left alone. They participate in undermining institutions of power instead of rebuilding them, helped by opportunists who see how they can benefit in the short term. This is happening globally and leaving a large power vacuum in many societies.

What happens when you have power, but you do not take responsibility? You would be in trouble. Resentment would grow. Why do you get to eat so much of our hard-won food? What makes you so special? (…) The elite are expected—by everyone else, and by each other—to use their power to make sure society works properly. That is, they are expected to rule benevolently.

This is a point that has historically been very important; it works in the tribal village example, it worked in feudal societies (noblesse oblige, and when it stops obliging, the nobility gets overthrown). In capitalism however, money is supposed to be self-justified: being rich means you deserve to be rich. You’ve already provided the counterpart to society through whatever you did that makes you rich, otherwise you wouldn’t be. Of course, this doesn’t work with inherited wealth, but inheritance is deeply against the principles of capitalism.

Additionally, in democracies, the political power of elites is also supposed to be controlled by the will of the people; elites should be able to do whatever they please within that framework. In an ideally functioning liberal democracy, as long as there exist some benevolent elites, the system will make sure they are in power. The concept of a ruling class is antithetical to liberal democracy.

(Is there something to be said about the relationship between political power and wealth in the US? The more capitalistic a society is, the more the two are actually tied to one another. My impression is that power and wealth are both vastly more heritable in the US than they are in e.g. France.)

What [all these incidents] had in common was an administration and student body coordinated around an ideology that continually mutated to ensure moral entrepreneurship and a continued supply of purges, as new forms of human behavior or commonplace descriptors became off-limits. Some of this energy was genuine, some cynical.

Very minor nit, but

Of course names should be changed if they hint at or honor the wrong ideology. What does preserving history matter if history is racist?

Is a pretty bad argument, depending on what is meant by “preserving”. We shouldn’t be scrubbing history books of any mention of slavery, but we also shouldn’t be glorifying people who supported it, especially if their support was more intense than normal for the time. If Yale’s title of “master” actually referred to slavery, it would have been perfectly acceptable to remove it. If it’s not, then we’re not preserving racist history.

A cynical observer might conclude that this is all just revolution as usual—a small clique of agitators seizing more and more power, and purging their enemies by virtue of their superior internal solidarity, a bold and demanding ideology, lukewarm popular moral support, and no real organized opposition. In some ways, that is what’s going on. They have the bold ideology, the ambient support, and no real opposition.

But importantly, they don’t have internal coordination by any means other than adherence to the ideology itself. Even members of the clique are never really safe. Anyone who contradicts the latest consensus version of the constantly mutating ideology, even if they have worked to its benefit or are otherwise obviously on side, gets purged. If you don’t keep up, you get purged.

That’s a good observation, but I think this is very frequently the case in revolutionary regimes. This, and the following paragraphs, seems to fully apply to e.g. various communist revolutions, or the French revolution.

And this helps explain much of the quagmire American elites are stuck in: being unable to speak outside of the current ideology, the only choice is to double down on a failing paradigm. These failures lead to lower elite morale, resulting in the class identity crisis which afflicts so many at Yale. Ironically, the result is an expression of that ideology which is increasingly rigid on ever more minute points of belief and conduct.

And schools outside of the United States look to elite American universities as role models.

Really not the main point of the article, but I think this is classic Americentrism—the UK has its own very reputable universities and a completely different social model, especially in the elite classes. Elite education looks nothing like, and isn’t moving towards, the US model in France or Germany either.

Our Caesar

Summary: The US is on a path similar to late republican Rome where political polarization increases, democratic norms are progressively forgotten, and an autocratic regime is eventually installed. This takes a long time and starts with each side contributing to an erosion of democratic institutions and attitudes.

We have a welfare state that provides some measure of buffer against popular revolt and a written, formal Constitution far harder to flout brazenly than the unwritten mos maiorum of the Romans.

Not completely untrue, but the US social safety net is extremely thin compared to every other rich country, even though it is geographically and demographically among the most uneven. Constitutional rules are shockingly easy to flout if the people broadly stand behind them, e.g. Korematsu v. United States. One could argue that this case is different, as the two sides want different things, but it is not clear they want different things in restricting the scope of republican institutions.

long-established rules designed for republican compromise, like the filibuster, are being junked as fast as any Roman mos maiorum.

The filibuster is a modern invention, so I wouldn’t place too much weight on it being trashed. “The ability to block a measure through extended debate was an inadvertent side effect of an 1806 rule change, and was infrequently used during much of the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1970, the Senate adopted a “two-track” procedure to prevent filibusters from stopping all other Senate business [which effectively made filibusters easier].”

What defines the American presidency is its individual, unitary nature.

Worthy of note is that Westminster-system countries, as well as others like Germany, have an extremely weak president, and power is really held by the prime minister, who is chosen, responsible to, and can be fired by congress. Of course, this is of limited practical effect as the PM normally runs “through” a legislative campaign—representatives promise to place a given PM in power.

(…) and although the worship of Trump is on a whole different level of fanaticism, if you didn’t see some cultish elements in the Obama movement, you weren’t looking very hard.

No one in the American system at this level has ever behaved like this before, crudely trampling on republican practices, scoffing at the rule of law, targeting individual citizens for calumny, openly demonizing his opponents, calling a free press treasonous, deploying deceit impulsively, skirting the boundaries of mental illness, bragging of sexual assault, delegitimizing his own government when it showed even a flicker of independence — and yet he almost instantly commanded the near-total loyalty of an entire political party, and of 40 percent of the country, and this loyalty has barely wavered.

This could be seen to relate to the previous article, with the elites in the GOP majority having no real political compass and being primarily concerned with keeping their seat. Interesting parallel since the previous article focused on liberal policy.

Making what Harvard is about transparent

Summary: Harvard doesn’t care about diversity at all, its primary concern is being rich and influential. It needs to limit the number of students that are smart but less likely to be or become rich or influential (i.e. Asians). White people still represent the bulk of political power in the country, and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans also need to be represented. However, even if this representation is achieved, it remains superficial—correct in terms of race, but not in terms of ideology. This represents a long-term problem for Harvard and other elite universities.

The art of butchery

A little too narrative to be summarizable, but I think the main point is that small-scale animal slaughter is both more humane, as people who only occasionally slaughter animals will be more careful, and paradoxically less guilt-inducing, as there is more certainty about the entire process. I think I agree with this assessment, but I don’t think there’s anything actionable to do about it.

When this regular exposure to sex and death diminished in the US with the rise of industrial agriculture, Bulliet claims that in order to find another outlet for these curiosities, the US and other Western, postdomestic societies have developed a fascination with sex and blood. The 1960s was the era of free love, and the 1970s – the beginning of postdomesticity – saw an exploding porn industry. The 1970s and ’80s brought slasher flicks such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, then A Nightmare on Elm Street. It doesn’t have so much to do with our degrading morals, but rather that fantasy has replaced our closeness to the visceral, the bloody. In short, our craving for meat is related to our craving for sex and gore.

While that’s an interesting theory, I don’t think the timeline really lines up (plenty of people were far removed from farm animals way before the 70s), and there are other explanatory factors, e.g. the apparition of contraception.

I don’t think my experience with the squirrel filled a primitive desire to get my hands bloody. Instead, the task involved me in death, in meat, in food. The way I see it, it’s not that there’s a desire for the blood and gore, but rather we’re hardwired to deal with the blood and gore, and when that innate machinery goes unused – as it does in a postdomestic society – humans are left with a gap, with something missing.

I still love Kierkegaard

Religious apologists today might mumble about the power of faith and the limits of reason, yet they are the first to protest when it is suggested that faith and reason might be in tension. Far from seeing religious faith as a special, bold kind of trust, religious apologists are now more likely to see atheism as requiring as much faith as religion. Kierkegaard saw clearly that that faith is not a kind of epistemic Polyfilla that closes the small cracks left by reason, but a mad leap across a chasm devoid of all reason.

Too many Christians defend what happens to pass for Christianity in the culture at the time, when they should be far more sceptical that their churches really represent the teachings of their founder.

I think most smart Christians are keenly aware of this question and spend a fair amount of time pondering it. The fact that many Christians are conservative may be an explanation for why the question doesn’t have a big impact: preserving the local version of Christianity is a goal in itself. In fact, many Catholics I know disagree or refuse to apply recent church doctrine developments that they know may be more in line with Jesus’ original teachings, but diverge from tradition.

Kierkegaard insisted on going beyond this objective/subjective choice, recognising that honest intellectual work requires a sincere attempt to see things as they are and an authentic recognition of how one’s own nature, beliefs and biases inevitably shape one’s perceptions.

I think the subjective side is being strawmanned here and in the following paragraphs; modern philosophy focuses to a large extent on recognizing bias and the perceptual filters, not just claiming that absolutely all viewpoints are equal.

Biodeterminist’s Guide to Parenting, by Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex (2012-Dec-15)


Factors that determine a child’s “general outcome”:

  • parenting style, probably little effect beyond obvious things
  • Biological environment and genetic factors (biodeterminism)
  • Nonshared environment

Many studies are debatable with lots of confounding factors. Focus on IQ because it’s easily quantifiable, and because even with all its flaws it’s a decent proxy, at least at either end of the spectrum.

Before conception

  • Parental age: some effect on birth defects, IQ effect partly explained by more educated parents having kids older. Paternal age actually seems worse.
  • Hybrid vigor (aka mixed-race individuals are healthier): probably no actual effect.
  • Epigenetics: cool studies but nothing reliable yet.
  • Month of conception: pretty unclear. Being born in the fall is associated with positive outcomes at school, probably because of age factors. Some other data favors winter / spring babies.

During pregnancy

  • Drinking: probably don’t but if you’re dependent then a little is probably better than none.
  • Smoking: weak effect but don’t do it
  • Iodine: it’s a problem if you’re super deficient but this is essentially impossible if you eat iodized salt, which is to say basically all salt.
  • Maternal stress: don’t
  • Licorice: also don’t, because of glycyrrhizins
  • Pesticides: still don’t
  • Chemicals: avoid phtalates and PCBs.
  • Birth method: no significant effect, BUT C-sections might be influencing evolution, which makes a lot of sense:

After birth

  • Location:
  • Breastfeeding: lots of old studies were debunked, but still increases growth and immune function and probably IQ.
  • Fluoride: seems bad but the effect is small
  • Feeding schedule: weak evidence you should feed your baby when they want
  • Lead: don’t. Also don’t live in a house with lead paint. Pick a recent house, it’ll have larger windows and light is love.
  • Vitamins, exercise, diet: seems good but the effect is small.