In this episode, we discuss whether or not there are more, or fewer polymaths today than in the past, using the example of W. H. R. Rivers, an English anthropologist who also made contributions in neurology, and psychiatry.
Mark Lutter is the founder of the Charter Cities Institute. We find out just what Charter Cities are, why we should care about them, and how they can improve the lives of millions of humans across the globe.
In this episode, we talk with Ben Reinhardt about different innovation systems, how to create more sci-fi technology a reality, and why our research institutions are not as effective as they used to be. You can check out Ben’s work at https://benjaminreinhardt.com/about/.
In this episode, we have Quinn Lewandowski on to discuss his favourite thinker Bertrand Russell, the simulacra levels concept, and how our norms around each level have changed over time. We also discuss why people today have less belief in their ability to solve difficult and complex problems, and what we can do to change that.
NOTE: There’s an audio error at about 36:13 where we drop off and drop back on for a second or two. Apologies in advance!
well hey folks we’re sitting here on a front porch here in wake forest north carolina it’s kind of a chilly day but due to covered precautions we thought it was best to meet on the front porch and and go from there um today on the podcast i have quinn lewandowski did i pronounce your last name right yeah but every most people get it wrong so it doesn’t matter how do people get it wrong i’m curious lewandowski lewandowski you know it’s i know what they’re trying to say so it doesn’t really matter too much yeah gotcha that’s cool so uh quinn how are you doing tonight i think i’m doing pretty good happy to be here talking with you definitely and uh just to preface i i wanted to mention that quinn is is probably one of the smartest people i’ve ever met in my life so i wanted to want to add that there as a reason why i think listeners should should pay attention you’re an extraordinarily good friend oh thank you no i i i’m just you’re also really really really smart oh thanks no no not in the same league but but i do appreciate it i do appreciate it uh so quinn i wanted to get started and i wanted to talk about a topic that we have touched on before you and i talked to zv master wits about it um i may have butchered his last name again but sorry sv if you’re listening so what is a simulacra this term it’s funny i first encountered this as in in an english class yes in college uh beaudry art yes um i know him by reputation uh most of it is not uh recommended that you take the good ideas and leave the rest particularly in factly in this case he’s a um continental philosopher the iraq war didn’t happen that was yeah that was one of his eye one of his ideas i want to say or something like that yeah well very um from the continental school so there’s a whole cluster of uh qualities that you see um there’s less of an emphasis on clarity and there’s less of an emphasis on precision and and before we we dive into that so there are two schools of philosophy yes in the west there’s there’s continental philosophy and there’s analytic philosophy yes and so analytic philosophy tend to think of england i suppose and the united states and then continental philosophy on the continent as one would imagine um and yeah so some of the defining characteristics you just mentioned are continental philosophy so let’s name a couple continental philosophers fraps and analytic philosophy camus and sartre definitely uh nietzsche usually gets thrown in there he’s interesting perhaps uh i think so yeah he definitely my brain categorizes him as continental gotcha and so beaudriard you just mentioned uh how about analytic bertrand russell my personal favorite uh jon stewart mill voltaire david hume uh emmanuel kant who i’m not sure they would have automatically classified him because i don’t find him always entirely clear and i think partly the problem is with me but not completely gotcha that’s a good point that uh so yeah kant maybe less clear yes uh analytic is is traditionally what one would think of as at least for me philosophy so uh i guess i was just raised in america so perhaps that that goes along with it but nozick uh who else i like him a lot yeah all the stuff i’ve read i ought to read more john rawls like actually you know trying to think through logically all kinds of different problems and continental seems to be more almost of a i hate to say this of a writing style yeah i i know people get a lot out of continental philosophy yes i like well i enjoy random correspondences uh they were not random more like partial metaphors so you can uh you don’t take it completely seriously i think of it like the difference between the um the myers-briggs personality test which seems to capture regularities that people care about that isn’t statistically grounded so it’s not cleaving reality of the joints anyway the correspondence i use just the sort of male suitcase handle is the sort of cliche idea of the left brain and the right brain okay continental philosophers are dreaming in a non-derogatory sense of that term they’re going into a very subjective place and this makes it much they’re harder to read and they’re it’s much easier for them to make really catastrophic mistakes that they don’t correct and so i totally respect lots of the people i respect just stay the hell away from that whole cluster i think there actually are valuable things to find but you do have to dig through them uh and you know if you go in and you accept everything they say that is not going to go very well for you right right so my classic example i think is uh i had a professor in college i absolutely loved and got a ton of value from and he was a german professor uh and he he talked political science and he uh you know one time i went to his office hours and i was talking to him and he focused on the european union which is great we could talk about that later it’s a whole fascinating subject and he you know he was a political scientist by trade and i was asking him for materials to read beyond the class you know what would he recommend and he said well there’s this philosopher named nicklos lumon and he said he’s you know incredibly popular in germany but no one really reads them over here you know i would start there i think you might get a lot of value from it so i went and i got one of his books one of the translations from the library it was just incredibly dense and and it was it’s it’s on systems theory and it was impossible for me to penetrate and i was left with this feeling that you know perhaps there’s something there but also perhaps this is just language difficult language is used to occlude yes and and it’s like yeah it definitely is i see continental philosophy as
providing some useful space to people who are actually truth-seeking but being incredibly abusable yes and because it’s incredibly abusable you find lots of people abusing it right that that’s a really good point so i i guess we circle all the way back around to uh what is a simulacra well um in beaudilard’s definition uh it relates to profound reality which is not very uh entirely clear what he means but it seems to relate to what we would think of as object level reality if uh tsv’s example if there is a lion across the river that’s either true or it’s false that statement corresponds to an animal that could be across the river could be elsewhere or it could be a different animal
so i’m actually i think i’m sort of going to skip over belgium lord’s original language if that’s okay yeah definitely
it was adapted um and i think you could argue about how faithful the adaptation was it wasn’t a blatant trance i have read uh excerpts from both of our large essays about it to try to audit whether there was more good stuff there but basically it’s a way of looking at symbols and language and their relationship to reality
uh when zv was on here he focused uh his definition on motivations which i can’t really fault i’ve tended to go out more in terms of its structural relationship to reality okay like um there’s the object level reality there’s the uh the world out there then there are the words that we would use to communicate about this i remember uh when i was a child um this was my model of language i was very small i didn’t understand lying for a while so you said things because they were true then being true combined with you wanting our people to know that they were true was the motivation for saying them so how could you say something that was false right uh where would you even start it was like those old proofs that nothing heavier than air could fly yeah those were level two around off to lying but it’s really uh making statements with indifference to the truth um so if
you cannot pick pretty much any politician i think and you’ll almost certainly with you know a couple of exceptions both of which to my knowledge are dead um the fact that they say something is not a reason to think that it’s true it doesn’t really bear on the question very much um they might be embarrassed to be caught out in the lie but uh if there was no way to verify it if um so embarrassment wasn’t an issue they’re not intrinsically motivated to tell you things that correlate with the truth gotcha um and it’s interesting to think about where that motivation comes from it certainly has a moralizing tinge a lot of the times when we talk about it but i think for us to get to morality we have there has to be some structure underneath there uh it was pointed out to me once that lying is very computationally expensive because you need your mental map of the world and you need your map of someone else’s map and you need your record of their divergences between what they believe the world is like and your mouth of what you believe the world is like and you need to track that so that you don’t uh give away that the world is like the way you believe it’s like and it’s sort of an ongoing computational drain as long as you interact with them and you don’t want them to find out right um
at level level one and level two make sense to me intuitively the reason i’m so fascinated by this the place where it really gets interesting is level three and level three is a statement that everyone knows is a lie or everyone knows it’s not true but where there isn’t uh common knowledge where not everyone knows that everyone knows and so it’s not really out in the open that’s not uniformly understood so um
could you give an example of this because we talked about you know the four levels yes you know i’ve gotten some feedback well it was really interesting but it was perhaps like not broken down enough to be super understandable and it’s a cop it’s a complex thing right after the uh financial crisis yeah uh there was a politician who said in public that the fundamentals of our economy were strong and he was embarrassed by that it was bad for him um because the fundamentals of our economy were not strong apparently so he’s like so the federal reserve train chairman i i think was ben bernanke he might not been but he’s trying to instill confidence yeah so people don’t go take all their money out the banks and everything collapses i think it was john mccain john mccain interesting but he said um
i think he wasn’t expecting people to go wait what are the fundamentals of our economy are they strong um he was operating at level three and the reason we can tell it was three and not four is that it was bad for him when it came out that it wasn’t true i mean not even when it came out that wasn’t true but people point out that it wasn’t true and that was embarrassing for him it was a way to score points against and so i mean i could be misdiagnosed in any given particular example a lot of the times with level three it’s where people stop um really paying attention to does the statement correspond to reality i might just be lacking the skill to interpret it but most things most politicians say um seem very information-like they don’t seem like an honest attempt to explain how they’re thinking both how they’re modeling the world and what principles they use to act i don’t um have the sense they have with bertrand russell or david friedman or scott alexander or that i’ve seen the heuristics they’re actually using to make decisions right um and pointing this out does not uh it seems like this is sort of generally known like a while ago there was a politician who said something and people were saying that she had violated a social taboo on one of the isms and i spent like half an hour trying to figure out whether she had or not and i decided that it was different than other people i’d heard accused of it because i had no idea what she meant i could not translate the statement she had made into any kind of empirical proposition or even really attitudinal you could get a feeling from it but i love it yes and level four is where it’s common knowledge and it’s open and i go back and forth in my own head about um
whether that actually gets achieved in a relevant sense i think beat poetry would be an area where no one expects that at least some beat poetry that the words actually are intended to communicate anything but i think maybe when we talk about we may be looking at gradations of level three politicians uh going closer to level four but not quite making it gotcha interesting yeah i don’t um i have trouble intuitively understanding why common knowledge is so powerful that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows i’ve read some of the stuff about and at this point i’m willing to accept on not even really on faith because i’ve seen the examples but it’s hard for me to wrap my head around why common knowledge is so important yeah as opposed to mutual knowledge gotcha um if everyone knows and everyone suspects that everyone knows intuitively feels like that should get you most of the way there right but it seems like it there’s some sort of phase transition like water turning into ice that happens when um everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows that everyone knows ad infinitum gotcha
that’s really interesting sorry gears are spinning yeah so
what do you think you know we talked with v about this for a while do you think there has actually been a phase transition over time around how people talk i think it has changed i’m not sure it’s that kind of wire into ice really clear thing um perhaps it’s more subtle yeah nixon uh president nixon was accused of involvement in the break-in and it was huge and i talked to my parents and yeah i talked to some other i have i’ve talked to some other people who are around and they say it really was huge they weren’t pretending to be outraged they didn’t believe that the president was involved in break-ins crime
that’s a little bit hard for me too i mean there might be context i’m missing but i’ve read about and i don’t think there is um it sort of assumed um when i grew up that people in power were probably doing some shady stuff behind the scenes right and a lot of it was probably technically illegal and you know really illegal in the sense that if you weren’t the president you probably would not be well advised to be doing it right and that seems like something that really um has changed well and we also see this in the media right do you ever watch old movies sometimes yeah have you ever noticed that
they can be really on the nose yeah does that make sense like yes in a way that’s very direct like movies today i’m just thinking like uh tenet or you know these that are commonly watched and everyone sees i feel like it would really blow people’s minds back then i don’t know there’s a clarity to i’ve seen quite a bit of hitchcock and stuff from the 60s and 70s i wasn’t quite sure how old you were talking about uh yeah not a lot of silent movies um although i have seen a couple to sort of evaluate the form yeah try to understand what people are doing um but it’s very the dialogue in psycho covers ground um it feels less murky and i’m not even sure that that’s a there are some very murky movies i think are wonderful artistically yeah um i sort of wonder
but yeah i see it and um there’s also a movement into meta references of references of references which is not necessarily a bad thing i i love my humor i really am it pokes me someplace
but uh we do seem to have moved this is a cliche and i’m repeating it partly because it’s a cliche and because it’s a cliche i’ve heard from people i trust not to repeat things just because they’re cliches right um but we seem to have moved into sort of ironic detachment
there’s less um
maybe less straightforward emotion i’m not totally sure that there’s less genuine emotion but it’s more tied up in layers of meta an ironic distance gotcha uh
some of this probably goes to uh john nursed everything stays the blog everything stays he writes about um how in the ancestral environment uh i don’t think i’m butchering this but uh i apologize to him if i am in the ancestral environment um you had physical reality and you had social reality but everyone you knew you’d known for your life and they knew you for your life and it’s this very closed environment and so unless something was actually a secret that only you knew or maybe only you and your best friend knew it was common knowledge you could um his he’s talking about uh christmas in this context some people uh and he says that we used to be able to assume that everybody celebrated christmas and now lots of people still celebrate christmas but not everyone celebrates christmas and that changes things in a way that so i think partly um
our brains sort of almost by default treat aspects of social reality the way they treat physical reality um the taboos that will get you stoned aren’t very different from the laws of gravity right except and increasingly we’re in a very a multicultural society and we’re encountering people who don’t take those things for granted and this is fascinating i mean we have a lot to learn from it but it’s also really disquieting for a lot of people right and i think um i don’t know i’ve got i’ve got two thoughts there yeah uh one thought so i i live kind of between two worlds a little bit so you know i’m from deeply rural eastern north carolina yeah and i went to a you know i went to the university of north carolina chapel hill and then and now i’m kind of been transformed into you know culturally into this other social class right yeah um like what you would call the american elite so to speak right yeah like to a certain extent um that might be a big you know coastal elites like they’ve got all these different words for them right um well and that’s so i go back and forth between these circles every once in a while and it’s amazing it’s a it really is amazing because culturally they seem so different now and i don’t think this was always the case yes uh perhaps it is um and no i think it’s do you think it’s a real phenomena yes um and and i i want to bring up this example of trump and truth yes okay so i think this is incred i think this is really important yeah uh so
i go and i talk to everyone um that lives in this metropolis right we live in and uh you know everyone’s like you know trump he lies all the time he’s always lying and you know he says things that are not true like he says things on our trade like you know we can pull he could pull up counsel as examples um but he’s very you know someone had a campaign speech late in the late in the campaign right before election that illustrated this perfectly and i can’t quite remember it but the gist of it was you know and then i go back to eastern north carolina in these different circles and you know they’re like well trump he’s like he’s he’s so true to himself yes so there’s like the there’s truth as in matching the territory right and then there’s truth as in he is like in some really weird sense so true he’s like the most true person to himself right yes like there’s no executive function or like i don’t know what it is benjamin hoffman has a blog post that yeah i it’s awkward when you think you know what someone’s talking about and you get it wrong and i want you to tell me if i get it wrong sure he says um he is not a fan of trump so he’s probably not phrasing this charitably but he’s not being hyperbolic i mean needlessly hype yeah i have a category for that where you’re not making an effort to be charitable but you’re also not saying trump eats babies when there’s no reason to think he needs babies um clinton voters think honesty is reciting a list of literally true statements trump voters territory yeah he calls that the perjury standard trump voters think honesty is poor impulse control because they don’t trust that you would actually recite the true statements if you have the chance to think about that right i’m not sure i blame them for that i mean if you actually go sense by sentence they’re not meeting by a standard i mean i worry that i harp on that too much and i’m irritating everyone but the last politician i know of to actually
meet either the literal accuracy or the good faith communication thing you know the way that i would look for someone to do it if they were someone i would have a you know beer west right right was bertrand russell and he never got elected right they called him uh his donors called him into the back room early in his campaign and asked if it was true that he didn’t go to church and he said yeah that’s true this was uh i think in the 30s yeah definitely well before the 50s because
and they asked if he would be willing to start and well no that would be dishonest and you know i don’t
i really don’t mean that to be a christian non-christian thing it’s it’s about not um that would be dishonest so i’m not going to do it right and that is something you would see in a comedy today i mean it’s not in the hypothesis space it’s not um it isn’t just that they’re trying to meet that standard or fail and failing or pretending to try and meet that standard and suddenly not doing it right we don’t have that standard on and i doubt russell was typical for the time but um i yeah that’s really interesting i also wanted to the second point i wanted to cover was have you heard of jim flynn you know the philosopher jim flynn he has this idea that we’re just getting better abstraction capability yes um and so like because more of the things we do are abstract like it’s just like something we’re getting more used to and more used to do you think that plays into it like increasing attraction levels uh throughout our society and in everything we do i think so yeah i mean i mean that’s a complaint right like yes you know there’s like this abstraction from used to be the guy who made the violin yes you make one part of it or something alienation from labor which i think is a real not a fan of marx but i think that’s a real psychological effect it’s probably wonderful
but yeah um yeah it really feels like that’s on to something uh increasing abstraction increasing symbolic manipulation and the other half of it in the simulacra model is that at levels three and particularly for you’re not looking at the physical world at all so
covet is the best example i hope we will have in our lifetimes of something that
you know you can’t talk to it you can’t persuade it is totally totally immune to any kind of social manipulation um it’s just ground level reality right which doesn’t mean that people aren’t doing the social manipulation on top of that
so i think well it almost makes sense like the i remember scott alexander had blog post about them race cars the myers race car i think about how if you optimize a race car to go really fast it’s not going to be very comfortable oh wow as as the mechanics say uh uh in in eastern north carolina you can make it go fast or make it last a long time you know like pick one of them right yes yeah exactly so if people’s brains are better at manipulating abstract symbols that aren’t attached to physical reality yeah they’re worse at looking at physical reality um someone unless wrong i forget exactly who this is another one of those correspondences that’s exact but they theorized that human brains had sort of two different modes um one designed to not get eaten by lions in all the physical world and one designed not to get thrown out of the tribe where you will get eaten by lions which manipulates the social rights social world yeah yeah that’s really well put and these trade-offs are are very real yeah you know that joe henrich and i’d like i need to look up his pronunciation his name because i mentioned him so much but uh he wrote secrets of our success and he talks a lot about how you know language development yeah certain regions of the brain like broca’s region i believe uh you know they get bigger and other regions get smaller to compensate and like there are these real trade-offs yeah and it would make sense there’s a trade-off here as well yes i think so um i can’t figure you may want to cut this part
i’m conflicted i don’t like level three
yeah uh lies that everyone knows your lies bigger
i don’t like level three and i grew up with it and level four does not seem to me like it would be stable you couldn’t run a society like that right and so every i guess you’re really rich yes perhaps yes as you can well you can’t for a while yeah yeah i ruined the nation yes absolutely so i have a little bit of a
a lot of the i think accelerationism is a failure mode i see a lot of smart people falling into and it almost never works but i am kind of a little bit yeah let’s you know lennon let’s make things worse so that people will be motivated to make them there but if level four wouldn’t be stable um it might be better to accelerate it but i have a male level heuristic warning me that that’s a very hazardous train of thought i think people tend to overrate how much people put up like they under sorry they underwrite how much people put up with yeah in that sense right so like yes we will push to failure so that we can start again right but yes but like
what’s the saying you know the market will stay solid yeah longer market will stay rational longer than you can stay solvent yes i think that’s a real effect yes um i even had a i had fancy uh i had concept um i had this idea that we think unless i heard we didn’t have it nailed down but we think that you empathize with other people by telling your brain to emulate theirs you take yourself as a jumping off point and you modify it and so i had i was calling it nudge theory but that turned out to be something else called nudge theory yes so i think i’m going to call it shove theory or something that there’s this temptation to when someone else is being different than you in a way that’s irritating um and it’s not you know obviously physical like their leg is broken you think if you just give them a shove they will slip back into the normal default way of being which is the way you are yeah and you know we can see why that would be tempting out proportion to actually working right um
so i think that’s probably part of it that you imagine you give the system a good hard shock other people start to see things the way you say things right and um which is also i’m sort of skipping over all the ethical issues involved partly because i don’t have any power i mean it’s one of the nice things about not having a whole lot of power is you can actually think about what you want to happen without worrying that you’re going to be able to do it right well don’t underwrite your uh your power there quinn thanks it’s uh perhaps you know perhaps this is just an irrational christian morality i have but i do believe you know everyone is everyone does have intrinsic value and by god i have the shame for it very very strong the same feeling yeah um except like maybe literally brain dead people yeah perhaps i always list the exceptions so i can sincerely say that yes but no doubt uh yes i i definitely see what you’re saying
it’s interesting right things that and i look back at things that have actually gotten let’s say our act together let’s just say the us here okay well george washington after the articles of confederation perhaps you know and then probably fdr yeah with world war ii yes and like all these things were like really pretty horrible yes you know and like even like covid likes v said not not a big enough shelf right yeah so like
it seems like the level is so high right i mean how many people died in world war ii like that’s the it’s incredible and the destruction and just like the horrific human cost i don’t know it was a huge shelf i mean and it was yes world war one was a huge shelf yep
which is i
certainly hope not to see that again yeah well you know humans getting this weird we get these weird equally you know inadequate equilibrium to speak where you know these horrible horrible horrible things can happen and you know you and i you helped me with this i wrote a piece and it detailed a path forward for uyghur persecution in western china like they’re and part of that is my belief you know i i wonder how much of our current malaise is like people just not believing yes anything you can do anything and i and i got a lot of pushback on on the internet some from chinese bots which must mean i’m on the right path right yeah but that uh that it really is not possible and that why would you ever try that would be stupid but my thought is like man like that seems to be the consensus views like well you can’t really try this is too difficult to do anything about and then nothing gets done and then self-fulfilling there’s also a pattern i think it’s a useful pattern some of the time but every time i almost every time i know i said i
you propose doing something right but your proposal has a flaw i don’t mean you’re specifically i mean in general yes absolutely and so you can’t do anything and we should stop trying right and you know that’s just that’s not how we’ve accomplished practice you go down the blind alley yeah and it seems like there are people who
i can’t figure out if their heuristic is if your proposal isn’t literally perfect you stop there or if they’re looking for a reason to stop there
but there’s a very strong
i say this with people playing around with scientific hypotheses on the internet um someone will suggest a hypothesis a way the world could be and start trying to think of tests and other people will say you shouldn’t say that you have no proof right and that’s not how science works you think of the hypothesis and then you do the tests and it took seeing people do this when people were literally talking about how to do the tests right and people saying stop talking about how to do the test because we can’t prove that’s true which is what the tests are for
i i really liked that thing you wrote i liked um
i think on an emotional level believing that it can fix the problem is beyond me but the idea of propagating a culture where people try to do that stuff um
the idea that it could set things into motion that would cause the problem to be fixed is not beyond me right and i i want to interject hold the thought um that’s actually i’ve been working on writing the mission for like okay what is this like media project we’re doing here with narratives and i think it’s it’s that for me for me it’s like just trying to reinforce the people that big things are possible yes and that because like you know maybe this hail mary pass we’ve put together won’t work we hope it does absolutely and we’ll try as hard as we can to make it work but perhaps if everyone was doing that yeah you get to better equilibrium yeah i mean first i mean there’s just there’s the comparatively unromantic but um flat fat tails that lots of things are worth doing even if they probably won’t work and there’s also there’s this almost virtue ethic sense of if you try to do things you’ll become the kind of person who does things and eventually some of those things will succeed right exactly and and there’s this weird statistical and you know we’re both in the rationalist community you could say so like it’s uh um this is a weird thing for me to to say but it’s it’s almost like a lot of these problems can’t be looked at exactly in statistical terms and like uh so i was talking to my friend eric you know we worked on the startup together it’s been like four years and it was like this crazy hard journey yeah and we counted you know and he’s a statistician and we’re sitting there and we counted like 12 different times where there was like a 75 chance we wouldn’t make it to the next week and you start like multiplying out the probabilities that you ever get where you are and it’s like nothing right and it’s something about like well you know you just got to keep showing up and keep trying and if you do believe there will be a positive outcome and uh sometimes you can make it happen i guess um hold on i’m gonna drink a little bit just get amped up i love it
and back on without breathing i love it that’s awesome so again i feel free to tell me if i’m off yatkowski on facebook i’m so less you know visible right right it says that people do this that sometimes they um add up a bunch of probabilities and say all these things have to happen and they don’t pay any attention to disjunctive probabilities then there’s more than one way for x to happen so he says you can um that there’s a rhetorical trick you can do where you drive the probability to anything almost zero just by listing apparently essential steps that aren’t actually essential ah interesting
so yeah that’s a really good way of way of thinking about it
yeah i do think trying to think in statistics sometimes that we sometimes have hardware that works better than when we try to formally model stuff figuring out when to use which is a hard problem but right right and some of these things are so complex it’s just like if you took the time it would be impossible uh and i wanted to also talk about this issue it seems like the rationalist community is especially bad there was an article on les wrong a while back where it’s like why have okay if like if rationalists are better at seeing like all the cognitive biases like why aren’t they more successful than they are right and and i i wonder if some of this like plays into that right yes i think so i think this and
we may be thinking of the same article um scott has an article where he says that and he says um that uh most humans are actually pretty optimal at getting the things they really care about which are things like status
so he says we can expect efficient charity to be able to make big improvements because most charity isn’t really about altruism so people trying to clear up cognitive biases will find a ton there but we shouldn’t expect rationalists to necessarily very strongly outperform people uh in high competition areas where people are actually trying to do the thing this kind of ties into the secret of our success stuff i mean cultural evolution i think a lot of people aren’t modeling explicitly but they still learn to do the thing right
which i think is um you know i guess it’s i have the sense that was really depressing for people who were in the rationalist movement before i was but when i came in it was kind of already known so it’s hard to really feel it as a loss right that that’s a good point that’s a really good point do you uh do you remember the peter thiel talk i sent you yeah with uh oh god with reagan’s speech writer who was pete robinson i remember the talk i may not have all the details okay there’s this one line that i remember this one anecdote where it’s like well you know if you go to a modern rationalist and you come out of the meetup and you’re thinking oh like man i’m really a rational person and like i could remember that uh you’ve somehow gotten the wrong message yes just like if you go to a uh evangelical bible study and you come out you’re like wow i have no sin and i’m a great person you face somehow gotten the wrong message yes um there’s this pattern where there’s a group that’s decade to doing acts and the movement sort of i think chapman touches on this with geeks mobs and sociopaths or um the gervais principle the group becomes sort of diluted and it becomes more about the stuff that most groups are about which are not bad things to be about yeah but it does leave you out in the cold if you really cared about the original thing um i left a i had very bad social anxiety as a teenager so i wasn’t actually talking to them but i was reading this libertarian website and mentally identifying with the community and i left when i figured out that this particular website i am not generalizing just the people in this community um when they said skeptical they meant were critical they meant people who had come to the conclusion that government was bad and it didn’t matter how terrible the reasoning was i mean you can absolutely have terrible reasoning for a true conclusion right um but and it wasn’t just that they wanted people who agreed with them it was that you know you shouldn’t say you’re doing critical thought if your argument is terrible right i mean so there is i guess that was a free association on my part a part of one just um groups claiming to be about one thing and sort of not even it bugged me that they were using the word i mean unless wrongly talk about null 101 space how sometimes you need everyone to accept the ai as possible to talk about what to do about ai to have the next conversation and i believe in that but i don’t think you should say you’re using critical thought when you’re not right i mean and just very blatantly not i’m realizing i can’t really put into words how bad the arguments were without going into detail but there’s a difference between this is a cell flaw you might not have noticed this is an obvious vlog that might not be obvious to you and this has the sort of glaring flaw that now looking back i’m guessing was there on purpose to signal in-group affiliation right exactly
it’s interesting and i wonder i wonder how our experience is different than like you know everyone on the west coast and it’s mostly you know because like i i get all this like feedback i guess well not all this but you know i’ve talked to people and they’re like oh you know like the rational community is like this like anybody that reads slaves and you know i was like wow like my experience has been completely different but then again there’s like five of us here in north carolina and uh we’re all pretty cool yeah you know i’ve learned a ton from these people and no one’s like got these presumptions or yeah if that makes sense and things and i wonder if because the groups are so small in comparison to the rest of the population you get a certain sense of like group identity perhaps and like you can have these real conversations and be open because the groups aren’t huge yes i think so dunbar’s number yeah and being able to model having few enough people that you can model their positions in detail that’s really good um i think that helps and i think we don’t have a lot of stuff to steal uh at least here in raleigh there isn’t a chapman’s geeks mops and here’s this model again may be butchering this i don’t think i am but the geeks set up in the subculture orient around doing something that the geeks are into that attracts mops members of the public who are not geeks about it but enjoy consuming it and the mops are resources i mean they can be you can make use of mops because they’re less fixated on the thing and that attracts sociopaths the sociopaths take over the organization and use it to drive social capital and ends up not having very much to do with what the geeks originally said you have to do yeah and you know we actually had this discussion yes probably a year ago i remember this i think you were there we were talking about and it was like uh you know like should we advertise should we publicize yeah and my conclusion was no i don’t think so yes i think i agreed with you i think things are like an optimal number right because when things get too big what you just described always seems different yes yeah it always degrades and you like and likes v said you know good founders can maybe slow that down or maybe maybe reverse that but it’s very difficult i remember this conversation i very strongly agreed with you i was trying to i remember trying to figure out how to communicate they very strongly agreed without you know feeling pressured or right and but if it sounds weird it sounds exclusionary almost to a certain extent well it it’s not arbitrarily exclusionary i think a lot of the time a lot of things are prices yeah yeah so i don’t know if this applies here but maybe being exclusionary is bad but it’s not literally worse than anything else that can happen so sometimes it will be worth doing it to get to some other goal and i think it’s a sort of um it’s what bertrand russell means sometimes when he says democratic there isn’t like a set of ironclad laws that exclude people and right there isn’t really you know a dictator crossing their names off a list right um it would never say no if anybody wants to come yeah so it you know it is open in that sense it’s just not we’re not evangelical yes perhaps yeah which i think you know
i don’t think that would be a good strategy at least for the stuff i’m trying to get out of it right exactly i think i think it would be it would not be optimal um you mentioned bertrand russell tell me a little bit about him why you find him valuable and why people should read more well partly is um i always start by acknowledging the you know the less the biases kind of so i had a collection of quotes as a child and i went through and highlighted all of the quotes attributed to that name because i loved all of them um and then i bought my mother bought me one of his books as i um we went to a bookstore and i read it and it’s difficult which one it was yeah it was uh why i am not christian it was very uh anti-religious in a sense but it was i read it and i read sam harris’s letter to a christian nation and you know i’m fine with sam harrison i think he has some valuable stuff to say kind of the new atheist the thing that really stood out was there were so much in the it was the process of reasoning in the russell buck and it was the general models that were he had the set of mental heuristics that i value in rationalists he valued logic and reason he was prepared to i learned about charity and i didn’t know that i didn’t use that scott’s word for it i don’t think you know exclusive to scott but i learned that he would often and i learned how useful charity can be as persuasion he he did this trick the zv martial it does this trick too i’ve been noticing them where you make very literally precise statements and you make positive charitable assumptions and you give breathing room and so you’re going along technically and precisely and carefully and not jumping to any conclusions and not engaging in any hyperbole and then you say something that sounds incredibly hyperbolic and the reader not me i want to say okay that’s obviously an exaggeration but you realize it’s not it’s not it’s literally true right um this is stuff about our handling of the coronavirus is a because what’s actually happened is
terrible i mean and it’s um i i don’t really have a good our handling of it has been incredibly inept um in the literal sense of incredibly so if you just tell people why is i think i think what i had was a system that categorized any sufficiently extreme statements is hyperbole and russell could get in behind that because he was so obviously not being hyperbolic right and scott alexander does this too um i want to make it sound more malicious than it is uh i don’t think it would work if they didn’t have some drive to get to the truth right um so i feel like i kind of dodged the question russell was uh incredible he um made very important discoveries in philosophy of mathematics which i’m mostly not very educated about um relative to his other stuff he attempted to ground mathematics in formal logic which is more difficult than it sounds he published a 200-page logical proof that i think it was one and one is two and i have been two and two is four but he managed to get into formal logic but didn’t he uh was politically active and he wrote essays such that even when i disagree with his points i still find value in the logic um he actually commissioned what we know today as the peace sign as the symbol for his command for nuclear disarmament he was incredibly extroverted such that if you know anyone interested in the same sort of stuff as him yeah you google it and there’s a connection there which is nice he was childhood friends with uh a.a milton who wrote the way the poo books for instance um and you know so he pops up in the strangest places he also ran a progressive children’s school for 16 years as the headmaster um he was very he resembled scott alexander in that he was interested in literally everything and he tried to integrate everything with everything else okay i value i really respect it as a school master sorry to cut it yeah um did he write anything about that some um i think he’s written quite a bit but i haven’t read i’ve read some parts of it um i gather that he was incredibly permissive he has a early section where he says that you can’t let children do literally whatever they want to do because if you do that the very small ones will eat pens um i think he was speaking kind of brian kaplan i think just wrote a thing arguing for unschooling with math because math is something you really need to think about a lot of stuff and it’s not fun to learn um russell wrote a lot about what the school the mainstream schools were like and i actually think this there’s this weird dynamic with awful history um it seems like there’s some historical images uh auschwitz for instance that get repeated again and again and again and we fixate on and then there are things we do that they’re viscerally terrible to read and so nobody reads them and i’m not saying that’s a bad thing i mean it hurts but um
so i am
i’m pretty sure that what he was doing was a significant improvement at the time lecture that it was literally optimal but that goes to what we were talking about earlier right that a lot of the times you can do better without exactly um
which was uh
but for me he was the he taught me a lot of mental habits and i think he validated a lot of mental habits that i had that i’d find in our people afterwards but not for a long while very cool what else what’s the most valuable piece of knowledge you’ve gotten from bertrand russell that would be valuable you think to most people to to hear wow
that’s a tough question i know yeah it does many there’s many levels to that question
there’s a lot of is sort of implicit which means you can drag it out and i’m going to try to but there’s a section in a book he wrote about chinese history for him where he’s talking about i think it’s china and japan but i’m not sure it might be china and russia i’ve forgotten the other and they have this peace talk and it breaks down and this is happening in 1920 so we don’t have video of it breaking down we don’t have records the chinese say one thing and i’m going to say the japanese the other people say something else and russell says well we don’t have any sort of direct evidence there’s no way to in terms of our records or so people who are sympathetic to the chinese will tend to believe the chinese and people who are sympathetic to the japanese will believe the japanese and for my part i believe the chinese and what he was saying was um well i got out of it was sort of priors that he thought the chinese story was more plausible um i don’t think he was being sarcastic i think he was pointing to the gap between what you would do as what today i would call a bayesian and what you would do if you’re using evidence to convince other people he just admits that the evidence to convince other people isn’t there if they have different priors um but one reason i said that sort of implicit is
that when i say just that quote it sounds like he’s being sarcastic or euphemistic or um one of the things i notice reading him he has a reputation for being uh witty and sort of people say the word sarcastically and i noticed that he almost never is in the technical sense of the word he uses understatements he uses um
he uses biting turns of phrase but he almost never does that thing where you say the opposite of almost everything he says is literally true and important and relevant it’s just framed in a sardonic binding sort of way and i really appreciate that because in text being sarcastic can be very difficult yes you know like it’s like on twitter you just come across poorly and you know some people i really respect on twitter that are oftentimes sarcastic and it’s just it’s impossible for people to tell yeah well or it’s difficult and i i think it’s a poor habit in in written form we are figuring out i see people using a little bracket with sarcasm after it sometimes that’s great it’s culture i mean it’s involving the yeah that’s cool so what else about bertrand russell you know where would you recommend people start with virginia well i um
there is a very very very good chance that he has written about something that interests you i don’t mean one of the various things that interest you i mean if there’s something that interests you and they existed at all in his own day um there is a very good chance that he has at least an essay about and maybe a bulk i have no idea how he wrote that much i really don’t um he wrote a uh
introduction to the philosophy of mathematics during the three months he was in prison for protesting world war one really yeah that’s cool um but i think i might look at um
type his name and quotes into i mean i started with quotes from him in the book find a quote you like and then read the thing it’s from because the thing it’s from will be very good um and the quotes let you sample a lot of different things and if they put ellipses in the quotes the parts they’re leaving out are probably pretty significant he didn’t when he was a young boy he used to uh do this game with himself he was very lonely and very isolated he used to try to phrase a sentence to use as few words as possible while still communicating all of the information and so he doesn’t list words pretty cool that’s important to keep in mind well quinn yeah thank you so much for coming on oh thank you for having me we’ll definitely have
well that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives
This week on the podcast, we have David Smith. David Smith is a computer scientist who created the very first 3D interactive game, The Colony. He has also worked with Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, and James Cameron, and helped found Red Storm Entertainment. He is currently the CEO at Croquet, where he is building the future of collaboration on the internet.
today on this episode we have zv moshowitz i’m also joined by my friend quinn i learned a lot talking with sv i hope you enjoyed this episode so hey folks today on the podcast we have zv zv writes the blog don’t worry about the vase which focuses on gaming rationality philosophy economics trading life optimization and a lot more he’s been a professional trader and market maker and he was the ceo of the personalized medical startup metamed and he’s also a member of the magic magic the gathering hall of fame which actually a lot of my friends are really excited about that fact which i think is cool um how was that bio anything else you’d like to add i think those are the highlights um i am currently making a digital card game so oh really cool yeah i hope to bring that to people sometime next year um we have a alpha and we are getting ready to make the game itself but you know that’s not something i’m ready to talk about yet uh it’s ready when it’s ready as we apologize very cool we’ll be on the lookout for that um so quinn you had a question about simulacra levels to get started would you like yeah i’m pretty interested in uh i’ve been following the blog for a while and uh that’s been a very helpful concept for me um it’s given me a vocabulary to talk about some stuff so i thought we would sort of uh maybe go over the basic concept because we’re on a podcast and uh then i have some questions about application uh if you’re watching them yeah so the the very simple uh the part of the problem is there are multiple different sources for the simulacrus and therefore there are multiple overlapping but subtly different definitions but uh the simplest one to get people started is level at level one uh symbols have meaning and everything is roughly accurate territory map uh relationships hold so when you say there’s a line across the river what you’re trying to do is communicate to someone else that there is in fact a lion across the river uh you may or may not have other reasons to choose to do that but that is how they will that is how they will interpret the statement that is how you expect them to interpret the statement that is how they expect you to amend the statement then you move to level two and people start saying there’s a line across the river because you will interpret it as meaning there is a line across the river not because there necessarily is a line across the river so we introduced lying basically and deception uh and now someone else’s model is not necessarily something you try to make accurate it’s something you try to make whatever is useful and that is a very different level of acting right like it’s a completely different mindset and whenever we it’s important to keep in mind whenever we do anything whenever we say anything we are acting on all the different levels and so we have to consider the consequences on all these different levels right how well are we updating this person’s map towards truth how are we obtaining this person’s map towards what we would find useful to what we would want to exist in the world those are two separate things you often have to consider both of them level three is where you consider what your statement says about um your affiliations associations what so the idea is that when you say at level three there’s a line across the river you mean i’m with the cool kids who don’t want to cross the river that like it is you know the position of the in-group that there is a line across the river it does not necessarily mean that there is a line across the river uh there are forces that pull people even at level three towards saying troops true statements more often than false statements if there is no countervailing force in a particular situation we have all the statements of all of all the animals that might be across the river if there’s a lion there you might as well say lying if what you want is someone not to cross saying tiger only creates confusion creates an opening and so on but so at level three you were concerned with coalitional politics uh often more often than anything else your concern of associations and status and impressions and then level four is where you consider that to be what is is this the relationship between four and three is the relationship between two and one so the idea is at level four you are doing something as a move on the chessboard in some sense in order to change what perceptions are about level three or the earlier levels but you’re not necessarily trying to impose a map so the idea is at level one everybody believes that you should have a map that corresponds to the territory and level two you believe that everyone has a map that’s trying to correspond to the territory and you can change that map and if they change their map they will change how they act because they believe the map at level three nobody really believes right the little three men level three mindset doesn’t believe the map corresponds to the territory it believes that it would be an important gotcha if someone’s map were to be demonstratively not corresponding to the territory because then the out group could say gotcha and could make you look bad and that would be bad so there is a relationship that ties it back but everybody you know there is a collective like you know you can’t creating common knowledge your map does not respond does not correspond to the territory is bad but your map corresponding to the territory is not something you inherently care very much about and you don’t expect anyone else to as well right you wouldn’t convince someone there was actually a line across the river if you wanted them to not cross the river unless you expected them believing there was a lion to stop them from crossing at level two you think that’s a good thing you think they would stop they wouldn’t cross because they understand that when they believe there’s a line across the river they don’t want to get eaten by a lion so they shouldn’t cross at level three you don’t necessarily believe this would stop anybody and that’s an important distinction and then at level right and then at level four all of these associations break down entirely and now there is no shame whatsoever there is no perception by anybody that the statements are corresponding to truth necessarily or to anything on the object level whatsoever they are moves in a game and people who are thinking on level four don’t even think like carefully with a map of the game because that is alien to the perspective of level four the whole idea that there is no there are troops and there aren’t maps means that they don’t have a map of how they are acting in the non-me the non-accurate map space in order to achieve an end what they are doing is they are acting on heuristics intuitions general systems that they’ve developed over the years that tend to move things in positive directions in general now you can then combine all four of these whenever you have an interaction in your life when we have this conversation right i have to think about what’s going to happen on all of these levels if you want to change the world if you want to have a real impact if you want to know what you’re saying to matter you have to think about all of these things right you can’t just cheat and like stay on level one act like well i didn’t know that that was something that the wrong people were saying i mean you can say it but it won’t carry any weight right yeah you can sometimes nurture relationships where one is a strong default uh my relationship with my parents has decades of precedent behind the uh which i’m not sure how to recreate that with strangers out in the world but i think it can be done it you’d definitely be done you can definitely create situations through a history especially and the shared trust where the expectation is other people perceive you on being primarily level one but it still doesn’t get doesn’t get you out of the the thing that like someone who was like sufficiently on the spectrum and just blissfully unaware that other people thought about levels two three and four would be and therefore just ignore the fact that it makes things weird things happen are happening at other levels uh more commonly what you have to do is you have to be very careful to cancel all those effects out and to make other statements that create sums to zero pretty much everywhere and to be very very careful to keep things on level one so like it’s actually much harder to not operate on higher levels in a world that we live in than it is to operate um on all the levels at once because that’s just the natural way of humans but like my view of the default is that the default is that most conversations are mostly about level one and this used to be even more true than it has to be in the world in order for everybody to successfully like you know have three meals and put on pants and like so on which they still mostly managed to do it’s worth noting right like a person who seems to act like a complete idiot is still doing the sensible thing 99 of seconds right any given second of the day unless they’re just talking right and maybe they’re talking nonsense but like they’re still doing reasonable individual actions almost all the time they are connected they have a map of the physical world in their brain if they didn’t things would be very very bad right that makes a lot of sense do you think this has changed over time yes very strongly yes i think that even over my lifetime so i was born in 79 i’m 41 years old and you can absolutely sense that like conversations that used to be on the first and second level or even on the first level are now primarily conducted on the third level and now increasingly on the fourth level as their primary mode right so you would never have a politician that didn’t know which side they were supporting when they made a statement in any age and they would a good politician would always be thinking about this the law you know the implications of everything that they were doing but you know there is this unmooring that has taken place recently between people’s statements and any real attempt to model the territory that it didn’t that it never happened before but the magnitude and frequency is completely new in our lifetimes and i believe this has been getting steadily worse for some time uh i think that it was the peak was sometime um the peak of the good thing was like sometime in the 19th or 20th century um but it’s very hard to know when gotcha and what causes do you think what do you think is going on is this just like more information technology driving this what do you think so i do think that there is a cyclic effect over the long term and and also locally in the short term uh so basically you can think of it as right you can think of a shorthand as four beat three beats two beats one beats four gotcha instead of orange sets or actually more accurately four beats three beats two beats one beat zero which is the actual physical world that people are manipulating which kicks four in the ass gotcha right like what happens is you sort of you have a physical world and people were trying to put on pants and hunt things with bows and arrows and otherwise like get through their day and then they figure out to communicate with symbols what’s happening and they do much better and then people get to lie to them and they do better than that people example coalitions and they beat the liars and then people manipulate those coalitions and they beat the coalitions and while they’re playing all these weird high-level semantic games barbarians come and sack the city right there’s still the real world right or like everybody you know everybody just suddenly gets covered 19 because like in all of your weird debates over exactly what symbolized what nobody actually did anything to protect themselves very effectively
so why is level three staple-ish i mean i get that it’s not long-term staple but you would think if no one actually cared about truth and this was mutual knowledge why would common knowledge be dangerous to that society i mean so right so the idea is that you need a certain kind of deniability where first of all like most people to be in the coalition convince themselves of the police of the coalition even if they are technically nonsense so like if you think about issues where like the left has one universe of beliefs and the right has one completely contradictory universal beliefs and you can i’m sure whoever you are think of at least one example where the other side’s beliefs you think are just completely off the wall bonkers and obviously false to one minute of examination regardless of which side you’re on i mean i’m confident this is true and if you’re off to the side you can think of examples where both either of the two sides as bonkers but certainly one of them and that doesn’t work if there’s common knowledge of what happened right you have to create plausible deniability you have to create and maintain doubt uh and in general like it is considered a basically one of the things that is most effective when there is you know an in-group and an out group and there’s a blue tribe and a red tribe when there’s us and them is they are liars is still a great coalitional move we have the truth and you are liars right right or we have the truth or you know it’s the it’s the irregular verb we have the truth you know you are listening he’s a liar uh but either way the idea is if i could demonstrate that they were lying in a way that they would have to accept that they were lying or that like everybody observing would know that they were lying unless i would have a very large majority or anything like that then they would their coalition would lose face right their colors would lose power would lose status uh it’s not necessarily about the fact that when i have the right map of this particular issue that we do better that we get to do better things in the world often the question is symbolic or implies group action that doesn’t actually help anybody in particular right so like if the two of you disagreed about you know something like climate change where like it’s not going to impact your life or your ability to wield power in any times horizon that anybody is actually worrying about it’s a question of what actions will cause what effects over a long term then like you can have whatever position you want be how your coalition is based the goal is to you know make it so that your coalition gets stronger because it is in a stronger rhetorical position and for you personally to indicate your support for your side and potentially to help your side be better rhetorically and therefore do better and because in general by default true things are easier to not get proven false than false things and also happen to have better supporting arguments when you haven’t looked because they happen to be true so on average a a level three battle right can still be sort of an ordinary decent political fight right where both sides want their side to win but we’re guided by the beauty of our weapons even so right the idea that the true side still ends up winning right so like i think this is a part of a lot of human behavior right the idea is that we spend you know 99 of our effort you know on positional conflicts and you know competitions and things that don’t matter but that’s because we only need that other one percent to actually figure what’s going figure out what’s going on or build the building or discover the cure or whatever it is we actually need there’s a lot of ruinonation there’s even more ruin in people like i mean i do almost nothing all day compared to just the number of minutes i have to do things if you just count useful things but i’m still an extraordinarily productive useful person compared to you know what i need to be in order to you know be an averagely producing member of society that keeps the lights on makes sense how do you think this plays in with with tech stagnation and you know it seems like we’re a lot better at it you know actually doing the thing right so it’s like we were able to get to the moon quickly we’re able to you know you know the manhattan project but how do you think that plays in right so the way we got to the moon was we put we got put ourselves in this we were put in a situation in which it would be very very valuable to get to the moon and it was not practical to pretend we got to the moon you either get to the moon or you don’t and so once kennedy says we’re putting a man on the moon even if he has no idea if we can or how by the end of the decade and we’re turning him safely to the earth now like our best coalitional move in our battle against the outgroup of the soviets is to actually put a man on the moon and actually return him safely to the earth because if we tried to fake it we would be caught and because the russians are actually like pretty good at figuring out that we’re faking it and pointing this out so we have to do it for real so we do it for real it doesn’t mean it’s just trivial because we have to do it we do it but it turns out that like there’s this thing in star trek where there will be a certain need for technology that has not been developed or a technique that has not been uncovered right in order to have people not die or so this new civilization this new world not collapsed or something awful not happen and within the next 15 minutes people will start saying words and come up with ideas and suddenly do the thing right and that was basically nasa for a number of years and at first i thought this was just nonsense and this was not a realistic thing that ever happens yeah and now i think it’s basically accurate that if you have a bunch of like properly trained you know in the relevant background smart people and they suddenly actually have to figure things out because they’re the ship is about to explode and it’s hard to shut up and do the impossible they actually reasonably often just will and the other half of that is that they will also blatantly ignore the implications of the thing they just developed almost every time right at the end of the episode it’s like well that could actually revolutionize shut up
right like who is the regulator behind the federation where like you solve aging again yeah don’t talk about it right like oh we could just like replace our transporters with this this is way better yeah yeah and and we are like that right like so like but in going to the moon we had to develop lots of these new physical things and because we were actually in a show off physical things competition with the soviets because the soviets big specialty was look at us we do physical things really well we will bury you in all the physical things and then we pointed out oh by the way no you don’t and you’re terrible like you’re good at like mass producing generic like low-level stuff through command economy and catch-up mode and that’s it and we’re gonna prove it to you basically by like not screwing things up too badly because we can’t afford to right now and then like the soviets were forced to shift to like oh but what about your social justice and then like we had a different set of conversations for a while but they’d already lost the material argument that’s what turned out to matter and eventually we won because they were out of stuff right like we just run the ball down their throat and they just right but the problem is the problem right the problem is now there’s no particular like until covert 19 hit us in the like kicked us in the ass right level zero kicking level four in the face we didn’t have a good we didn’t particularly have a reason why if we didn’t produce more and better stuff if we didn’t find more and better ways of interacting with the physical world that anything particularly bad would happen to us we could just be like we could be like you’re just not allowed to do new physical things in any way that matters to a first approximation and nothing that bad would happen to us because we kind of live in paradise right right right perspective yeah definitely and so we were able to essentially just devote all of the surplus to just fighting stupid you know positional good games and status conflicts and like rhetorical devices and everything just gets tied up more and more knots right and rent gets distracted more and more and as is lots of rent extraction and as the existing um corporations and governments and people of power rely on the current situation in order to continue extracting and have their goods be scarce that they possess so that they can have them have value like it is inherently bad when you are doing all those things and not producing anything new and not innovating and not being picky or useful if someone else goes out and does something somebody just starts doing things well that’s not good right for you because like i mean you already have all the things what do you want with more things like it doesn’t really help you very much and they’re a threat but they’re a threat to your position right like so there’s a lot of different ways to approach this a lot of different ways to explain the causal vectors and like just the way that this occurs to me out loud in the middle of this conversation is that there’s that and also sort of the idea that and i have this in this book long sequence that i’m actually working on turning into a book slowly um called the immoral mesa sequence the idea being that right so that so the core concept is that when you have lots and lots of levels of hierarchy and organization that organization has existed for more than a few minutes like continuously it will get more and more byzantine and the people who the people who favor advancing the people who favor um the people who play the game of advancing in the company cornell’s law yeah that but like will take over but the result of this right is really really toxic and the more levels of organization you have the more toxic it is and the longer it lasts the more the worse it gets and you basically can’t go backwards you can only get worse like the way right so essentially because because once the people who are one of the people who who you once the bureaucrats who favor more bureaucracy take over the bureaucracy you can’t really reform that bureaucracy in a useful way i mean someone like steve jobs can come in and take up the system because he’s a once-in-a-generation talent and maybe you put elon musk in charge of one of these companies he could do something but for the most part these companies don’t go backwards right normal people can’t make them go backwards even with the best of intentions and also they don’t hire the person with the best of intentions to be the new ceo they hire someone with the worst intentions because that’s what they want right that’s the system the system is perpetuating itself but even if you somehow got in charge it’s very hard to do anything about it right like if you if you somehow did have a hero who became the president of the united states and tried to reform the federal government’s problems like they just get nowhere basically right very very little they’d have to have so many supporters coming with them in so many different places and so much just uproar behind them and obviously be better off starting over more or less right and so the idea is the way that you get better is not like you take ibm and you reform ibm and make ibm a good company again no what happens if you found microsoft instead and you beat ibm and you take over from ibm and then microsoft can start over right and doesn’t and doesn’t have these inherent problems you started with a team of people who wanted to build software and offer value and then over time microsoft becomes the same as ibm right develops those problems because you know you can hold it back you can slow it down and for someone like okay right like bill gates can slow this down a bunch but like he’s not going to be in charge forever and eventually you’re going to slip and also once you get big enough like it takes increasingly heroic efforts to stop it from starting and then what happens is no you don’t you don’t get to just reset microsoft either right you get google and then google replaces microsoft like i mean it might be the wrong story but like you know the idea and then you know in theory someone else now replaces google right like at some point because google you know at first it was like these two guys have a search engine who were building a thing and then they tried extraordinarily hard to keep it a culture of producing stuff but increasingly i hear from people who used to be in google or who are in google or who relate to google and i look at google’s products and it’s clear that like they’re losing this battle right they’re not really particularly fast like they’re not they didn’t they quit themselves of honor they brought a lot of value to our society and still happy to own their stock but you know they’re not going to get better right this problem is not going to go away they’re going to collect their monopoly rents they’re going to use their unique position to like acquire things that other people build but like they were to keep making their own products worse because the incentives inside google are no longer to make things better rather than works they are to make things worse rather than better right and this is not to say that google is particularly unique right it just this is how it is and so the problem we have is that too big to fail has come to western civilization basically all right right and this seems particularly pernicious with governments because it’s a lot harder to found a new government and just replace one when they you know you have a monopoly on violence you don’t want to just you know it’s very hard to respect i mean you have a nice thing where like we have different groups and occasionally we switch between who’s in charge so you have somewhat of a small reset right like you sort of have at certain places you do kind of have a reset of you also kind of don’t have a reset if they’re both continuous and that helps navy a little but and like there are certain like physical checks or there used to be right like if you are if you have the things like like the the people will basically say if the government if the economy is bad if we can’t get jobs we can’t put food on the table we’re going to vote out the party in power and replace the people in the congress and replace the president and then smart people say but it’s not their fault they didn’t do anything the president couldn’t have changed that you know like trump is not very little to do with the current gdp right good or bad because it was more of it but you didn’t have any leverage right you could he could have yeah any and he probably couldn’t you probably like you know we’re not gonna get into exactly what counterfactuals could have happened but like the us was not to do south korea right like there’s no like world in which hillary clinton suddenly stays the day and we never have coveted like we’ve all been going to bars for the past six months indoors without worrying about it that just is not was never gonna happen like regardless of whether it’s better or worse but the idea being that they just say okay it’s a good heuristic to say when physical life is hard and bad you just throw the bums out and that way the bums have an incentive to try and make physical life better rather than worse and it’s like well if we tried to be careful and figure out exactly what you did and didn’t do we just get it wrong you just fool us we’re not very we’re not able to get close attention we’re not very smart you know you’re telling us different stories we don’t know who to believe it’s a very reasonable proposition to say well on the margin the people who are swingy just say well do we like what’s going on no who’s not in power that guy right we like what’s going on cool keep the guy we have right it’s much better than random and it keeps people honest and prevents the worst from happening in an important sense which is kind of like what you’re most afraid of right the problem being you know we have we don’t have these physical things staring us in the face the way we used to and the way that we and the way that when we’re scared of it happening we’re scared that this giant superstructure we built is kind of fragile right that like one big institution fails and a lot of things might come down with it right so we can’t let anything call and also because uh asset prices have gone up so high partly because we’ve prevented the creation of new assets but like those assets are are fueling lots and lots of people’s balance sheets that allow those people to not be bankrupt and there’d be a cascading bad a series of bad effect potentially and we don’t know what happens and maybe it’s okay but maybe it’s really really not okay and there’s a period in 2008 where it’s like well maybe if we don’t do this everything goes to hell in two days but we don’t policymakers are thinking this and maybe right and maybe it’s just good instead and we just don’t know but we don’t want to find out we’re not going to be the guys that blow it up right i think it was probably going to be really bad but like it could have you know they’re universities which is fine or like you have to do a little bit to make sure it’s fine but like not the thing you had to do but like you know they did the obviously you know correct and short term more hazard ignoring thing which is make sure the really bad thing doesn’t happen no matter what you have to do to make that happen but if you keep making decisions like that if you keep saving every big thing that’s in trouble effectively unless it’s clearly safe not to if you keep building up these relationships and regulations that bar entry and let more and more rent attraction occur even though we currently have more and more like rents to claim right like things are still like at least up until pretty recently we’re clearly just in my mind physically getting better and many things are still physically clearly much still getting better then you have this situation where you can’t get rid of this the mazes the symbol acro levels like basically you can’t let level zero kick the level four people in the face to wake up the system to like to make them go away and they get replaced by the new system which is operating at level one and then start the cycle over again like to a first approximation you’re just stuck so and then like one of the questions of covet is like does this kick us in the face efficiently right does this help us get kicked in
that’s the question that’s a millionaire he’s like right it clearly kept basically everybody with any kind of like authority or like reputation in the face right like it’s nobody comes out looking good with notably rare exceptions like bill gates probably comes out looking good right but like almost nobody like certainly like all the people who were like locked down lockdown lockdown like all the standard left all the standard blue tribe people said lots of things that weren’t true and advocated lots of things that didn’t they did a lot more harm than good and all the red truck people do the same thing and they all still are and like the people who weren’t trying to not be either nor didn’t really get it right either they just flailed around in different ways and we exposed how much we can’t do things like even like both by doing things and by not doing things like every time we every time there’s a thing to be done every result points out how bad it is right we made a vaccine right right in less than a year for basically no money yeah and they were like all the vaccine candidates were 95 were like 90 plus percent effective three for three so far it looks like we don’t know the oxford one is a little ambiguous but certainly the first two it’s a brand new type of vaccine that people were just toying around with for years and it’s not like we didn’t have other diseases we wanted vaccinations against and that like we just didn’t think it was that important right we just basically said it wasn’t worth it for us to authorize the ability to actually do vaccine research properly like operation warp speed done on just some other disease that we don’t like rather to get rid of would clearly have been super cost effective yeah and yet and yet we look at the timeline so like my dad is an immunologist he was he taught immunology of colombia and i i was talking to him really early about the the vaccine situation and among other things right and the testing situation so first of all the testing situation like literally he was able to give instructions to a research laboratory there was not a medical facility in any way they just wanted to stay open in order to keep doing medical research in order to keep doing research to develop new things and not have all of their stuff go bad for nobody can come into the office right and they were able to literally just run a covent test on every employee every day in march or they didn’t do it every day because they didn’t have to but like at least once a week they stopped testing everyone caught two positives sent them home nobody else got it right for effectively zero money running the test at the lab and the fda of course was like stop doing this this is illegal this is terrible you give people false information you’re corrupting the statistics you’re you’re doing all these horrible things but there was nothing stopping like he didn’t have any special skills he had ordinary scenes what’s called ordinary skill in the art right he just knew yeah how to create this test because everybody knows how to create the tests and like we could have just had every research facility in the country doing this and not just for themselves but for like a thousand times as many people outside we could just change what they’re doing to be primarily this and we could have solved the whole problem in april we just didn’t right right and like we just it’s like we both ramped up our testing really well compared to a world but we didn’t we’re now doing like 1.5 million 1.6 million a day and like but you see this just steady curve upwards a straight basically straight line you see it’s just a straight line graph like you just see like the x axis the y axis and then just a diagonal line through the zero point over time it’s like yep just yeah that’s how many tests we can run and like why some sort of regulatory barrier unclear why we’re writing all the other tests the fda said no the cdc says no like these people were just telling us no and they look at the vaccine so i asked about the vaccine he’s like i can create a vaccine in a day like again you know he’s not a coronavirus person yeah not a vaccine guy just a normal knowledge he’s like i can create a vaccine candidate like just just like all these that’s the only good accountant i can create this question in one day
it’s just about testing it to see if it works see if it’s safe if we had used challenge trials if we had not gone through step by step by step like why do we need i think i don’t understand why do we need to wait for three two months of safety data from phase three trials we already did a phase two safety trial can’t we use phase two to do safety yeah and that’s even assuming we can’t just do challenge trials can you challenge trials and also like yeah if we just if we did challenge trials again we could have had the vaccine candidates in march done challenge trials and safety trials in april at the latest had the tubal safety data in june be distributing the same thing by late june
nothing was stopping us except we don’t have a will but like that’s the star trek thing right if we actually if this thing was instead of being one percent deadly 50 definitely you’re damned well we sure we would have had it right right it just we didn’t care enough this wasn’t good enough we would rather do the hamstonian thing of destroying our economy and people’s livelihoods and a year of their lives rather than authorize a bunch of challenge trials and a bunch of payments for safety data to be acquired quicker like if i was the president there would have been a freaking vaccine trial draft if there had you’re getting this out next week i don’t care what it costs the safety data starts coming in tomorrow exactly like i don’t care if i have to be on television being the first person to get it to show people that we’re serious i’m getting a skin in the game and we’re doing this thing yep because that’s what you do but that’s a that would be a civilization that cared right alternatively we could just automatically just do what south korea did or australia did and actually just use the stupid tools enough right just more like basically south korea was just like so you’re saying i could use more daca okay sure i’ll just use more daca and like a culture that actually listens to people who tell them what to do instead of just being you can’t push me around right exactly i mean there’s i’m not telling you anything you already know there’s more going on here than lack of will benjamin hoffman has some blog posts about i think it’s the engineer and the diplomat about people um fluidly effortlessly coordinating to prevent interesting conversations from happening and i’ve been reading your covet posts and i’m seeing people actively coordinating to prevent stuff from getting done it’s not just that they don’t care enough to do it it’s the oh yes but like yeah yeah sorry i just still don’t understand why i mean i have things i can say that sound like reasons but they don’t seem strong enough to predict the effect right so like the reason why i keep writing a 5 000 word column every week yeah it’s not because we need 5 000 words a week to tell people what to do about kovid in terms of their physical actions this week you don’t right that’s way overkill you need 500 maybe the reason why i do it is probably so i can have an excuse to organize my thoughts and keep on top of it partly and because other people find it useful interesting but largely because i want to get exactly that message across i want people to see you know to see what’s going on you know like i can see the matrix like i can see why that like this is not a failure like i say a failure of will right i simply mean if we carried enough in a positive direction to if we care enough and act if we wanted to do these things we could do these things very easily but it is not simply right like the idea that like well we actually need 10 units of caring and we only have one so let’s take it as 10 times as long as it needed to is not the right model the right model is actually 20 units of anti-pressure that actually wants to stop this from happening in any reasonable fashion and then the people who are slowly struggling to do it anyway eventually get it done that is a much more reasonable portrait of what is happening and there was there are quickly schizophrenic situations going on like with the vaccine there were a lot of people who actively just really really wanted a vaccine and then there were the regulators who actively didn’t want them to be able to break any of the standard rules and force them to go through all the normal procedures right and then there was everything about our society which is coordinating effortlessly and automatically to stop them from doing it and yes the question is why
um and this is where like you have to just show people the physical evidence that it’s happening over and over and over again and let them figure it out kind of on their own because it sounds completely insane to just say if you haven’t seen it with your own eyes in one form or another that like all of the people who have any ability to steer the conversation are to a first approximation not all of them but like most of them are silently effortlessly coordinating without talk without talking to each other without actually coordinating they’re implicitly coordinating without even being consciously aware of what they are doing most of the time to prevent anybody from doing anything useful to stop anything productive from happening right to stop interesting conversations taking place is the equivalent in the ben hoffman’s example but to prevent people from doing things that would be effective
because effective things like so one of the concepts in moral mazes is if you notice that somebody has a moral compass and we’ll do things because they are right and wrong and right and wrong does not mean good for my advancement and bad for my advancement it does not mean good for this division’s perceptions by the division above it or bad for this division of perceptions by the division above it it means you know makes more people happy right or lets more people not die or even makes the company more money right then if you notice that that is highly suspect right like i mean for example suppose you were running for office as a republican or a democrat or any right and somebody noticed that occasionally you realize that that your group but the in group’s position was kind of stupid or wrong on a particular fact or strategy and therefore you advocated something that was not part of the in-group well you wouldn’t merely say oh this person got this one wrong you would say this person is not a reliable ally this person’s this person’s priority is not to do all the things that our group does and to oppose all the things that their group does this person’s priority is to put food on people’s tables and to get people healthcare and to like allow the world to be a better place and that might be their position
right or may be completely different from either of our positions and it might be that they might think that i’m trying to stop that from happening any number of bad things could happen but most importantly they’re not going to back our play as well as somebody who didn’t care about that stuff right what you want is you want like so that obama has a quote in his memoir that he’s trying to sell mcconnell in theory he claims he’s trying to sell the at the white house on the benefits of some bill and yeah and the kyle says you’re talking to me as if i care right like literally because mcconnell is like you know capable in this context of just telling the truth of being like why are you acting as if i care about the consequences of the policies i’m trying to win a political fight and get power i don’t now the difference is because because it’s obama advocating position because the blue because because tribe won because the yeah because the out group was trying to pitch to the in group someone in the group support the out group he doesn’t care at all about whether the privacy would be good or bad he just knows he needs to oppose it but that’s different from if the if somebody in the in group proposes a policy right so suppose i say we should build more housing because then more people could live in houses where they want to live and houses would cost for less and life would be better right and the economy would grow and blah blah now this is highly suspicious because it might work right because if i’m advocating something if i’m not english if i’m not in glacis and advocating for building more houses because it would work that i’m not advocating for building more houses because it is the in-group position to build more houses and i might advocate for other not in group positions because they might work so i i am a pariah for even suggesting something that might work however if i suggest something that clearly doesn’t work the opposite happens right if i say we should shut down the playgrounds because of insufficient mass compliance thus forcing the kids to play indoors then anybody paying attention knows that i am saying the shippings of my side that i am supporting my side’s position i am playing a good level three soldier and that i support the coalition because i can’t possibly be saying that because i think that the children playing on the playground without mass is dangerous what kind of idiot am i there is no world in which i thought about this reached the conclusion for the physical world this was bad and therefore i should oppose it no so what’s going on is i see children that are four years old playing the playground in worldwick they don’t have a mask on if i think this is a bad thing i might not oppose it because then i might be suspected of opposing a bad thing because it was bad but if it’s a good thing then i know i’ll be rewarded for acting against it because i am now clearly calling out somebody to be scapegoated i am sacrificing to the gods by offering up this thing of value in the name of the thing that i am trying to raise in importance and status and to support my side so there is this bias right what i’m debating as the governor which things to shut down to shut down exactly the things that don’t help it is not merely that i don’t have sufficient incentive to figure out what helps it is not merely that we are incapable of running experiments right which we are because experiments might cause if you run an experiment you might learn what is good and bad and that might cause people to support what is good over what is bad despite being in your coalition and that is bad so we can’t let them run the experiment and get the information that would be bad and so you know there is the theory that it’s entirely possible that everything else that was done by the federal government since the beginning of the pandemic was actively acts of sabotage except for operation warp speed which helped get the vaccine there faster and that was a huge network potentially it could have been a huge net win despite every single other action being an active act of sabotage banditry or piracy there’s a period where they were literally engaging in benetry and piracy it’s worth remembering this yes
so when you talk about sacrificing to the gods the gods are the coalition for the symbols of the coalition or so the gods are like so the idea is that the gods are this you know this made-up thing that must be appeased by sacrifices yes uh so it’s not necessarily sacrificing to the coalition generating to the coalition itself would be a different thing it’s more we must engage in symbolic so sacrificing the gods is symbolic action that destroys value in order to demonstrate that you have destroyed value in the name of symbolic action which therefore leaves you not blameworthy because you did the destructive action but points but allowed you then blame others for not engaging in similarly destructive action in behalf of the same symbolic result so i basically i don’t think there’s much difference in terms of functionality between shutting down the playground for insufficient mass compliance and butchering a goat at apollo’s temple uh no i they’re a lot closer than us moderns would like to admit except the priests get to eat the goat that
gwen do you have a question i’m just putting things together it’s like the toxoplasma of rage but for policy rather than facts you know that scott post about on people backing deliberately weak cases because it’s a stronger in-group signal right it’s exactly the same phenomenon right because if you backstage if you backed a case because it was a good case it’s not a very strong signal of anything it’s also unlikely to get attention from the from the other side and get pushed back because it’s a good case but you don’t want to provoke the conflict in ways that will make it clear what everybody is doing and yes except that’s just about information that’s just about facts and i said the word just obviously doing a lot of work there but that’s not you know that that’s not the kind of horror you should actually be looking for and the true horror is trying to do maximally destructive things in the name of your side because it is much more to your benefit to destructive things rather than beneficial things and people have figured this out and they’re in like they don’t even think about it right like they don’t consciously think what can i do that will be destructive you think what can i do that people will like that will that will like help me accomplish my goals and their brains automatically have learned pick the thing that doesn’t work gotcha good lord oh you also have a post about asymmetric justice which seems like a application of the copenhagen interpretation of ethics yes right i directly i directly actually call out the copenhagen interpretation i believe like right at the beginning so that came out of the conversation actually ben hoffman and another person where we were we were talking back in new york we met in person back when that was allowed right before the pandemic it was kind of cool and we walked around and we talked about some stuff and it was clear that this person hated uh like most almost all large institutions especially and concepts like capitalism even because they caused specific harm that they because that wasn’t necessarily even like more likely or directly caused by them but more like they were interacting they were interacting with the problem it’s more like a you know copenhagen interpretation like level thing sometimes but also just directly like you know if you have winners and losers right you’re responsible for the losers that makes you a horrible person and i basically argued but what about the winners i asked the question right and the answer was don’t care right like you might be right there might be winners but i don’t care it’s horrible to create losers i mean there’s a certain amount of like you know you stop three yeah you you shoot one innocent person and suddenly your entire 20-year career as a policeman is forgotten helping people what’s up with that right like that doesn’t seem fair but when we understand why in that situation that’s that’s a reasonable thing to say but like if you think about it like if you are if you found a cup if you found a company and you sell a product you make a product for one dollar and you sell it for ten dollars the average person who buys it if they’re willing to buy it probably gets you know fifty dollars a hundred dollars of value out of that thing so you’re capturing and that’s if you’re lucky you’re capturing a very small portion of the net utility right like i get like if you think about it like when when when sergey brin right and when sergey and and and company founded google and larry page they created one of the world’s most valuable corporations but captured well if you had to guess what percentage of the value created by google right more or less more or less than one right like right but if someone has a specific harm against google they can sue and collect not only the damages but punitive damages on top of that and people will call them out for specific things that google did wrong and roast them in the press and call for them to be split up or regulated or attacked or whatever and the same thing is true for a person right like if you if i offered like advice one of the things that like um i will write in the column sometimes is this is not medical advice this is not but i don’t even say this is not investment advice sometimes right like i’ll just did that with anything like totally like just keep repeating not investment advice not invested advice that’s advice don’t do this don’t do this don’t do this and so obviously the point of conveying this type of information is so people can do better make better decisions and learn about the world but also make better decisions and obviously a lot of things i share are so that there is an implied piece of advice that if you just follow the logical conclusions of the things that i’m saying you would figure out what you probably should be doing and more likely i could do it but if i am giving advice then anybody whose life turned out badly because they did that advice instead of something else and anytime you invite someone to change their behavior in order to either make sure not to get covered or make sure not to let their life pass them by while avoiding covet that someone will either at some point get covered when they wouldn’t have or miss out on something when they wouldn’t have and their life would be worse and they could theoretically sue my ass right and that would be very bad and it’d be true even if every single person reading that made the right decision but they got unlucky
and so this just keeps being the way things work over and over and over again if you act if you are seen as the one acting yeah then you are responsible for every little thing that goes wrong 100 or even more than 100 and you get credit for very little of the gains right like in the trolley problem right like what is the legal answer to the charlie problem i mean it’s complicated but like the legal equivalent of a non-a non-explicit or like a soft charlie problem if you go to jail right if you if you flip the switch you go to jail right like like if you push the fat man off of the off of the off of the bridge to stop the train and it works you sacrifice two lives to save five not one because you’re going to jail but we’re all worse off i’m not saying you should or shouldn’t do it i’m saying society will not look kindly upon this decision and you know this so act accordingly that’s wild you see that in a lot of a lot of large institutions where um and companies where after a period of time you know no one yeah very few people do anything and they try and avoid doing things because there’s downside risk to doing things right there’s also there’s also the fact that like realistically speaking
a lot of people not everyone but like at least half the people have essentially everything they could ever want to first approximation in some important sense right so like i have a family i have you know a few levels of savings basically you know slash the ability to earn whatever i need to whenever i need to i have all of the entertainments the world has ever created to a first approximation at my fingertips i have good friends and they basically like i have good friends they don’t live down the street but you know i’ve got the rest yeah yeah and and so you know if i try doing something and i destroy someone’s life i could lose everything something goes really wrong i can lose everything if i made a billion dollars that’s just more money more problems yeah it doesn’t right it’s only i mean i might want to like save the world you know create create friendly ai or immortality or whatever i might have big plans myself but for most people in most situations right the upside of being better than upper middle class or certainly better than lower upper class is basically zero right like i i eat exactly what i want whenever i want subject to restaurants being dangerous places to be right right like i i have all the material goods that i actually care about whenever i want them and i’m not that rich right the people who have a thousand times more money than me and you know have gold plated toilets and private jets and you know personal servants and all that are they better off a little maybe probably worse right like so in that situation why would i do anything right in some important sense right that had consequences right like in a world in which you know it used to be like you were king you’ve got a palace of a thousand virgins guarded by eunuchs like literally right and every now and you’d periodically go down there and try to fire as many children as possible because that was like how you won and points a genetic lottery and it was kind of you know so it made sense to try and be the king in some in some sense but in terms of your like today right like it makes you know do you think barack obama increases uh inclu is his inclusive survival fitness by running for president oh god no he got it it went way down right right it just it just you know he’s aging yourself by ten years yeah right like you know doesn’t help you
does this explain is does this at least partially explain why interest rates trend downward and why they you know are now negative to some extent
i mean it could be a little bit of it like but basically there’s just there’s no reason to ex it doesn’t supply and demand right to some real extent like if everybody wants to push their consumption forward yeah right then there’s no reason to charge interest but it’s like a there’s nothing to spend money on because you can’t do anything it’s a kind of really the one way to put it right like if if you suddenly let people do stuff then everybody’s like i want to build some i want to build housing can i borrow some money i’m going to build a factory build all this i wanna build a factory can i borrow some money i wanna do all this research can i borrow some money et cetera et cetera that’d be good investments you could invest this compete for capital the cost of capital would go up the returns would go up but like as it is yeah if you want safe return on capital you know what you can get nothing nothing here is your nothing your actual nothing 100 nothing
nothing at all that that’s that’s sort of interesting and i had one other question it’s unrelated but how do you think about the efficient market hypothesis i know you’re a trader you’re super smart guys it’s false it’s false really okay now that is super fascinating i’d love to dig into that a little bit i mean i didn’t qualify that it’s just false i mean keep in mind that like it is less false than you would think if you just came in with no knowledge of the if you never heard of the efficient market hypothesis or the idea that prices were accurate your model of the stock market and most markets would be much much worse than the person who believes the origin who believes the emh is strictly true if you believe the image is strictly true you have a useful map of the territory that is wrong but will let you do reasonably intelligent things in most situations for most people it’s not importantly wrong in many ways right but it is just wrong like it’s wrong like like like newtonian physics right like it’s just not how it works so think of it this way how does the market price reflect reality right this is sort of the conceptual reason why right why it’s obviously false so if you’re a trader and you look around and what are you looking for you’re looking for something that’s priced wrong right if everything was priced correct everything was priced correctly if the emh was holding everywhere you wouldn’t have a job right right because you’d be like i can make zero dollars by trading why would i do that like most would be off by the cost of executing the trade yeah to be like okay you know maybe it’s trading 38 cents at 40s you know 96.38 at 96.40 cents and it’s really worth 96.38 cents rather than 39 cents so it’s slightly mispriced right and like maybe i get a subsidy from trading on this particular exchange and i can like make like point zero zero three cents by like taking this and then market making to get rid of it and like i have this plan and yeah there are people who operate like that right they basically believe the amh yeah and they’re hyper frequency traders and they try to get a tiny tiny little living yeah but like the reason why it’s charged the reason why it’s the price is accurate is because it’s not right so the idea is that i see that the price is wrong and then i fix it so the reason why i’m wanting to go fix it is because i have a plausible theory that the price is often wrong and if the only people who were trying to fix this price were people who didn’t realize the prices were mostly accurate then they wouldn’t collectively have the intelligence to get the accurate price right right like if i’m a trader right realistically speaking i demand a return on capital that’s much much higher from an intelligent trader than the zero percent you can get in the outside world like when i was at you know jane street capital we had this call we had this concept called what’s the return on capital you need right now to make a trade right what’s the annual return on every trade that you make it’s as good as leaving the money in reserve for the next person to use that capital for the best trade that comes along tomorrow or the next hour or whatever and that number was never that low right like almost ever it was always good things to do that made us money interesting was the question of is this better than the other things we can do to make us money gotcha and it has to be that like again i’m not going to go in and fix a number that’s like maybe a tiny bit wrong unless i have a mathematical model that just on average is the tiny bit wrong i can just do this a billion times and make money right but there’s a lot of human elements in the right price of a stock right there’s a lot of things going on in the world that want to be factored into that price and the only way i’m going to incorporate those things is if the price is clearly wrong enough that i can go through the trade take on the risk tie up the capital unload the thing once people figure out what’s going on and make money if i have a long-term realization it has to be really wrong right like if i so as an example like i noticed that not at the guy that ring arena the new uh way to play the new way to play back the gathering yeah was a much was a much better product than people were realizing and was going to be played by more people than anybody in the stock market who didn’t understand we hadn’t actually just didn’t have the domain knowledge would know now i can choose to buy hasbro stock to reflect this opinion but what amount of error do i have to think is in hasbro stock from this mistake before i’m willing to do this before i buy hasbro instead of doing anything else with my money right i have to i think it’s a really big mistake right so how does that domain knowledge enter the price of hasbro well it enters the price of hasbro because people like me think the number is really wrong and that doesn’t happen unless after we’re done the number is still somewhat wrong gotcha right like when i buy it the stock and it goes from like 8501 to 8502 because i bought you know like a reasonable human person the amount of stuff yeah the price is not like suddenly accurate it’s just maybe it was supposed to be 80 89 right or 96 and if i thought the price was supposed to be 89 13 i wouldn’t have bought it i had better things to do right right i would have bought an index fund at that point why would i why would i risk the buy an individual stock for that little edge i’d either wait for a better opportunity or are you universified so you know the market can only be as accurate as it profits a man to fix that makes sense right and so that’s a limit on how accurate it’s going to be and that’s about how accurate it is it’s accurate enough that like if the opportunity is glaringly clear it’ll be taken until it’s not gotcha but if it’s not clear it’ll stick around right at random like sometimes it’ll be the other direction obviously there’s various forces going around um another way to look at it is there are people who do things for dumb reasons right and so i i sports i did sports gambling for a while right so like one way to one way to bottle sports game was you have your sharps and you have your squares right the startups are people who actually like know all the statistics and watch and like watch the games of a critical eye and like know who’s injured yeah and know the match-ups and have simulations and models that they run on their computers and they do all this stuff and they look at all the lines historically and they figure out what the odds are supposed to be and they have with a large amount of error especially in football but like there’s not huge amount of error they have an idea what the price is supposed to be and the squares are a bunch of fans right a bunch of partisans a bunch of idiots right you know they bet on the achieve exactly but you know they’ve been on the yankees they’ve been on the yankees more often because of the yankees yeah and the lakers because of the lakers they bid on favorites because favorites win and they like rooting for teams that win they’re only over instead of the under they do all these stupid stupid moves and they’re stupid because there’s a lot of squares and there aren’t anti-squares to the same extent right and so you can predictively know the price is wrong and what’s going on is that the the squares will move the price until they’ve created enough value for the sharks to be willing to commit enough capital to balance out the square’s action and the sharks include the sports books themselves that are booking the action right they notice they know who their sharks are they know the right side they’ll they’ll take a certain amount of extra square money and just book it for themselves but the idea being that like it has to add up it’s not going to end up at the fair price almost ever unless the squares happen to not care what the price is and be balanced or like the naive price happens to be correct like the nba sort of has a very very easy to calculate number it’s supposed to be that like the average fan in a bar could figure out what that number is on intuition if they’ve been like looking at numbers for a week right like and so if the number is seven it was supposed to be seven it’s probably just seven or the number just happens to be accurate today but if it’s seven it’s supposed to be if it’s supposed to be seven according to these idiots in the bar and you see a five take the five
right yeah i i actually like important like real tip if you need to make money this will actually work you take a printout of the lines of the nba right you go to a sports bar where they watch the nba and you say who do you like and you find that game where everyone likes the same side and it’s not the home team at that bar and you bet again you just do that every night all you have to do i wish i was kidding and i’m not that’s
fascinating that’s really cool super itching gwen do you have any other questions i don’t think so i have a lot of stuff to put together uh i did want to say thanks for the column it really is um it’s excellent it is and it’s uh you think clearly and that can be bomb sometimes just the um you can kind of relax reading it because things are going to make sense and if they don’t make sense you stare at and eventually it does make sense yeah it does not say that and then if it doesn’t after that you should probably just write a comment and say that didn’t actually make sense what’s going on and then like i’ll have to confront the fact that i didn’t communicate very clearly probably if nothing else right or i might have made a mistake so yeah no i it was weird because it was really scary because like at the beginning of the pandemic i felt like well i’m not a doctor i don’t know anything i just don’t want to say things because i’ll just get them wrong and i was like no actually i know some things that clearly like the doctors don’t know like i know that like it’s like early march and you should be freaking out and getting ready for this right and so i said some things and then i started saying more and more things and realizing that well actually i can make sense of this better than the other sources i know about and people seem to be appreciating this i should keep going and now i just don’t even notice right this idea that i can make that i can actually like think about these processes in real time week to week and make sense and occasionally someone will you know strike back with you know but experts but like they never have any content to their criticisms so i stopped worrying about it so yeah well thanks z uh where should people find your work is there anything you’d like to pub uh send people to so so my blog is uh let’s see t-h-e-z-v-i dot wordpress.com you can also find all of my posts on less wrong if you want to uh i prefer to engage in comments on my own blog i get notifications with them better and it’s sort of my space different norms um i’m sure to be much more open to just discuss whatever i want to discuss and so on uh but both you know feel free to access it how eat whatever way you prefer uh if you find the things useful you know sharing how people find it is always good uh beyond that nothing to pimp right now my hope is that i will have a game to pimp you know within a year but you know it’s been rough on all of us trying to make progress with provide and so you know it’s been slow going but uh you know hopefully soon great well we’re looking forward to it all right thanks v all right bye
well that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives
In this episode, we talk about AI safety, machine learning, meaning, the economist Elinor Ostrom, and more with my good friend Cooper Williams. Cooper is a machine learning engineer based in the RTP region of North Carolina.
hey folks my name is will jarvis along with my dad dr david jarvis we record the podcast narratives narratives is a project exploring stories about progress and what ways are we better off now than in the past are there ways that we are worse off what is the ideal future how do we build it join us as we explore these questions with some of the brightest minds in the world
hey folks today we’re sitting in chapel hill north carolina it’s kind of a chilly day out it’s uh november what’s today’s date i don’t even know late november heading towards thanksgiving i don’t know pretty good day um today i’ve got my good friend coop with me cooper williams and uh coop is a machine learning engineer and you’ve had kind of a interesting career so far i know you’re still young but um you’ve trained in lambda school is that correct is that that’s right yeah so i’m 25. gotcha i think you’re about the same age right yeah 26 right okay cool yeah so um yeah i went to lambda school for data science and i got hired by will straight out of at a lambda school so that was cool because we actually met long before i graduated in fact i think it was a month or two after i moved the area and started lambda school if i remember correctly yeah that’s right we met at a slate star codex meetup that’s right yeah it’s pretty cool um and just for context coop is probably the most talented machine learning engineer i think i’ve met dang man that means a lot oh my god all my other friends are machine learning engineers are not now going to come after me but that’s okay oh boy yeah they got to prove their medal all right well you better start learning jiu jitsu with us exactly that’s great it’s great
so is there anything else i should add on your bio side that people might like to know that might be interesting oh well i don’t know i’m sure it’ll all come out in in the discussion i don’t know if i don’t know i was previously a filmmaker i guess that’s the main thing is uh i was a filmmaker for nine years before doing you know touching anything programming so that’s really what kind of films were we making you know not really films uh so i made some short films in college but the main gist of what i did was a lot of ads a lot of small business ads interesting did not make me very much money um but they they kept me afloat that’s cool um i basically yeah i would basically i was i was like a one man um film crew so i worked for a marketing agency that um that had a lot of small town clients in in oklahoma um although there were some banks in there there was a congressman um yeah and i would just like you know sit down with them and say what kind of video you want and we would just make it and um i sold those videos for pennies on the dollar like i did not know how to sell um because i you know i was always super critical of my work yeah um i i never what i never became the filmmaker i wanted to be and you know i i ended up just making a lot of educational videos yeah um after that because shooting on a set um and setting that up setting that up and like bringing people into to to be my crew that’ll just stress me out so i just started doing video editing after that and that’s actually how i ended up doing computer science was i just got interested in computer science started making educational videos about that and about economics um and then i started teaching myself data science and then did lamb to school and even you’re an instructor as well that’s right yeah currently i’m so on top of my full-time gig with tanjo i am doing a side gig where um i’m a teaching assistant at a company called correlation one and um i’m in their empowerment program which is meant to bring traditionally disadvantaged communities minority uh students my cat is uh attacking the microphone you can toss him off oh it’s okay it’s really pleasant actually okay he is he’s a sweetheart yeah so um yeah so i’m working with ds4 uh so uh correlation one’s a ds4a ds for all empowerment program which brings together uh 500 um minorities uh fellows to learn data science for the first time oh that’s really cool yeah mostly geared towards like a business uh facing a business focused data analyst position um so we’re we’re getting we’re just getting the foundations really strong very cool very cool so i before we jump from here in video production uh and you mentioned you know the product wasn’t exactly what you wanted yes yet have you ever heard the ira glass talk about this he’s like you know the real problem with uh creating art is that um you know the art isn’t great um in the beginning or like as you get better you’re like wow like you know you start producing and then it hurts because it doesn’t feel as good as you know it should be if that makes sense right you’ve got this vision and it’s the reality is just crap next to your vision exactly and like pushing through that is like something difficult but anyway yeah uh interesting so are there this is really kind of practical and i don’t want to spend too much time on this but are there easy gains to be made if like if you’re producing a video is there like where are the the easy wins if that makes sense is it like quality equipment is it um i don’t know planning yeah that’s a good question um so the first thing i would say so the boring answer is audio um you can have a terrible terrible camera and if your audio sounds good then the audience accepts it as being not cheap interesting so like then i would say that’s a prerequisite for making a good video oh wow and uh and i’ll admit i was never that great of an audio engineer never that great of a audio sound really complicated yeah it’s a pain and but the the thing is that if your audio is bad that’s the first thing somebody notices and interesting they never get out of the feeling of watching a video right and never get into it the the fun answer to that is the writing um if you if you just have the creativity and you have a mind to sit down with the you know the person who’s paying for it and say what do you want what feeling do you want to evoke in the video also who’s your audience of course and what is the emotion for them then that’s going to be like where most of your quality is that’s going to be where all the magic happens and your your camera could be crap you know your colors aren’t perfect but at least like you’re if you’re focusing on that emotion you’re going to get something good gotcha that’s super interesting like i’ll tell you an example um so there was a there’s a business coach who i was hired by to make this video um like make a video entry for a competition that was like this international um business coach video competition um and we entered not only in that but in just like a general um like a general i can’t even remember what what it was but bottom line is we entered this competition um going up against um some really big companies and on a budget of three grand i made a video that beat two companies with a combined worth of 7.3 73 billion dollars that way yeah that is awesome so those two companies came in second and third place and on a budget of three grand which is tells you how much i was charging right right right i yeah i beat those guys in an international competition wow that’s it and what do you think what do you credit your success on that was it like taking the time to really you know focus on the problem or what do you think it was well for one thing we we made the video based on a poem that the business coach had written which was just really like i was really unique he put his heart and soul into it and um and it was about business coaching yeah that’s awesome but you know but it had a real charm to it that’s cool we just you know i a lot of the video was um like royalty free footage that i like i just scrounged the internet for a lot of three grand budget three grand exactly yeah that was like my b-roll right artistic b-roll yeah and then like you know um and then i shot a lot of stuff on ou campus which is really pretty yeah and i use like this this cheap um like steadicam gimbal that was only worth 200 bucks and just like really painstakingly like made these steady cam shots um so i basically just you know we just made a plan for what we wanted it to look like and then we did it that is so cool yeah that reminds me it seems like um
people in some sense overrate money you know the money has this like really weird effect on people you know it’s like very people really like it they really want it and it’s but money’s just like you know pure optionality it’s just like you can do whatever with it but it seems like ideas are often times much more important like having good ideas especially nowadays yeah maybe more than ever yeah i agree and skating on that and having some kind of yeah cause a link between your ideas like you know this this um you know this series of images and words is gonna evoke a certain emotion in this audience like you know you’re you’re focused on a certain goal like money is very generalizing it makes you think about uh you know i don’t know you’re just optimizing for getting money which is just like the broadest goal imaginable but if you’re if you want to win a competition with certain audience you know that brings out some creativity built into the to the criteria interesting uh so i wanted to move on a little bit i want to talk about uh an academic that you actually put me on to she’s really interesting eleanor ostrom eleanor ostrom yeah can you tell me a little bit about her and why she’s important and overlooked perhaps yeah well she’s less overlooked nowadays i think um she’s she’s gaining getting uh popularity due to people like tyler cowan got you have made videos about her um and so she is the first woman who ever won the nobel prize um i think recently there was another woman um economist uh her name is she’s french uh yeah uh banner g maybe oh yeah um i can’t remember her first name yeah i can’t remember i think she’s married to a banerjee if i’m not yes yeah and he also won they both won the prize that’s right i don’t know if it’s separate together however right i can’t remember her name god dang it but anyway so oh sorry this is probably pg that’s okay i think i think that passes so so yeah um anyway eleanor ostrom is the first woman to win economics um nobel prize and she struggled against all these institutional barriers to women in economics because when she started it was you know women weren’t allowed literally weren’t allowed in the economics wow and she had to go a different route but anyway her whole scholarship is about the idea of common pool resources so these are resources that are scarce resources usually natural resources but not always um where it’s really difficult to exclude people from using them up um interesting so you can think of this as like um outside of the realm of government uh government uh jurisdiction uh or or should i say uh yeah outside of the realm of um state control and private control it’s like there’s a there’s a third sphere of society when it comes to um when it comes to resource allocation it’s called the commons and so you can so examples of this are like fisheries um woods watersheds you know like an aquifer so these are things where some like someone could deplete the resource if they weren’t careful and so what she studied was why are some of these resources stewarded really well sometimes for over a thousand years without anybody depleting them and some of them are not
she starts she has this great book called governing the commons at the beginning of it um she has this masterful theoretical overview theoretical overview where she basically says um have you heard of the you know the prisoner’s dilemma yeah um so just just to sum it up like um if you have two people who can’t talk to each other and they can sort of they could they could cooperate without talking to each other if they if they did cooperate they would get a big payoff but also the incentives are such that if they cheated against each other then you know they would get a really crappy payoff but they’re both incentivized to cheat against each other right yeah um so she takes that and she says that’s that’s the framework people usually think of common pool resources as being limited by she says this is the huge excuse this is the like number one excuse that um policymakers use for taking people’s stuff and saying you can’t steward this common pool resource we’re doing it for you and so at the outset of the book she says i’m gonna i’m gonna show all these examples where you don’t have to do that and people can govern those resources effectively wow so could you give an example of a a common pool resource that was governed well so i i have an example of one that was governed poorly if you think of like easter island and the trees on easter island so you know they had the the big statues on easter island and um they used up all the trees moving these around and the problem was when you took away a certain number of the trees the wind could start blowing them over and then eventually it’s like you can’t build canoes to get away from easter island and then you know yeah uh so they did a poor job what’s an example of someone doing a good job yeah that’s good governing the commons good question um so there was one uh so there were a number of examples that she gives as well as ones that failed but one example is um a there was a town it was in somewhere in central europe there was a village i believe the swiss alps a village that had a limited amount of grazing area um and yet and and and the grazing area was fragile to some extent and yet they managed to um to allocate the the use of that those grazing resources for thousands for over a thousand years um without sort of depleting the resource interesting um so farmers basically had a system set up to say who can use those fields when and the crucial thing was they had ways of keeping tabs on each other so she said that she says that this is one of the one of the um most important things is that the people who use the resources can set the rules um on how how the resource is used and they can also keep tabs on each other and observe that the rules are being followed so if you can see that the rules are being followed then you yourself you’ll self-enforce gotcha um and so there was no there was no government um like as such it was just it was a it was a horizontal enforcement that’s interesting that almost rides reminds me of the pirate code you’ve heard the pirate code no no so the power code’s really important the pirate code is that if you surrender to the pirates they won’t kill you and you know they’ll just take you back to the nearest port drop you off uh it was really important that all pirates uh maintain the code because if you start killing people when after you took their stuff then they wouldn’t surrender and it’s easier to just have them surrender than actually go and and and fight with people and you know the british navy there you go yeah that that’s that’s smart and that makes sense as a rule um but you do need some like enforcement mechanisms so you don’t have some one person that goes off off the rails and that’s right yeah you you have to have um what she calls gradiated graduated sanctions um and it’s basically a series of um like sort of punishments i guess against against someone who um who breaks the rules and they’re usually enforced on a case-by-case basis by the other people who are using the resource interesting um this is one of seven i believe um guidelines that she gives for or principles actually design principles for common pool resources
so one example of that would be logging in japanese forests there would be these villages where you know you didn’t want to over log like easter island um and so there were set times where people could go out and log and if you were caught by one of your neighbors uh logging in in an unauthorized manner your neighbor would basically demand a certain amount of sake from you interesting that’s funny and and you know and that was how they enforced it on a case-by-case basis oh wow the sanction you know it could be a lot of sake it could be a little right depending on how crappy your family is doing that year economically um but you know um that that basically helped them equilibrate and successfully preserve that resource interesting is this somewhat limited by group size so is there a size where this starts becoming more difficult yeah yeah this is where you get to the dunbar number right okay like 250 people or something is supposedly the number of people that you can know on know personally and have like as part of a tribe i’m not sure how much i buy that and frankly i’m not qualified to to say what the ramifications of that are but it is clear that oh and you know and this brings me to think about some of the other examples she gave in many systems there were thousands of people participating um gotcha so one example would be the um what do they call them ribbon farms in uh in india they had super long farms that were irrigated by um by one stream so they were you can picture like a bunch of ribbons coming off gotcha river and um there were thousands of people and each of those systems was like you know there was a hierarchy of responsibility um each region had its own you know officials those are just councils upon councils sending up their representatives and that all worked really well
uh they um blow it up right yeah um something similar well technically something similar happened with californian watersheds interesting but i i don’t know if you would call that several participants necessarily or like thousands of participants because that was more about organizations um using the water i think gotcha interesting so how did you find ostrom’s work what kind of led you there well i lived with an economist for a couple of years oh interesting so you know and basically when you uh when you live with an economist um you learn to recognize incentives they learn to you know well i don’t know i shouldn’t generalize actually living with this guy this economist yeah living with this particular economist um you know we were just really interested in you know what are the reasons that government tries to take your stuff yeah and think of how we can you know civilly sort of talk the smart people out of that um and you know and and maybe how to you know you know get there get them on our side against the people who don’t know any better right right because there are plenty of those people in power as well definitely so so yeah this is a crucial i think crucially underrated thing in political economy is that the role of the commons the commons is everywhere there are common common pool resources that are intangible such as like neighborhood goodwill things like that interesting um that are just not legible to state actors not legible to policymakers and so they’re overlooked and overrun plenty of examples of this in governing the commons as well very interesting very interesting yeah living with the economist i i recommend it highly recommend it you learn a lot that’s cool so you talked a little bit about uh you know government coming to take your stuff and you know hurt people you know so generally you know our government has a monopoly on violence in this country do you think that’s preferable to other systems is that not preferable what do you think about that yeah that’s a very slight way of asking that question exactly well um yeah i’ve debated whether like how much of this i should i should say on a podcast but you know i basically believe that people have you know individuals have a right to control how their bodies um are used and control how their own property is used and that’s just like the basis of my belief gotcha um i think that there are probably some holes in that argument like some sort of corner cases where you might want to take that away from people but as a general guiding principle i think it works and that does seem to be fairly common sense morality too i feel like most people would tend to agree with that although i could be wrong yeah and yeah so this is where you know if you take that as a really solid position it becomes a radical thought because it’s sort of if you take that as the root of your political philosophy then it has very big ramifications for how you live the rest of your life right who it is that you want to associate with and you know and yeah the kinds of careers that you pursue right yeah definitely um and where was i going with this i sort of lost my train of thought there but um yeah i think that in general um people people think that we need to control others because of the coordination problems we were just talking about right they see that things go wrong in a way that isn’t easy to control they see that resources are wasted um sometimes they think that the world is moving too fast sometimes they think that the world is moving too slow right and that needs to change um and i can’t blame them too much because not everyone’s a nerd like me and so i’ve sort of dialed back the tenor of my my radicalism um but essentially i think that i i have faith in people’s ability to find new ways to coordinate and solve coordination problems i think that money is still an underrated tool for for coordinating for solving coordination problems you know instead of my tribe ambushing your tribe right or getting ambushed and we’re both living in fear you know we can trade right um and we are we’re all pursuing the thing that we’re good at theoretically um of course in the current economy that cannot be that is not the description i would use um but you know i think that the next step of solving coordination problems is computing interesting even though i’ve only been studying computing for like you know a couple of years um i think that it has profound possibilities for um for allowing humans to um pursue their goals um in a harmonious manner and uh you know generally generally coexist in a more efficient way right no that’s a really weird thing to say but i i you know computing is obviously has efficiency ramifications yeah but the coordination problem thing that’s the main thing interesting uh and on that front do you think in general governments have become more coercive or less coercive as time has gone on or in this current state do you think they’re where are they on the median yeah i think that’s not so that’s not such an easy question because coercion can come in different forms right like um there are post-modernist okay so before i get into that you know obviously uh if you wanted to live out in the frontier mary whoever you wanted at 15 have like eight kids right you know uh eat whatever mushrooms you find yeah exactly type of thing yeah you know you could you could very easily do that um 2000 years ago in places um it’s only like this idea of a totalizing government is very new interesting um and so in that sense we’re less free in another sense too um there’s like i was going to say post-modernists have talked about control systems that are more psychological in their in their nature interesting so you know uh a common refrain to political malcontents these days is if you don’t like this country you can leave it and you can go live in the woods or do it right technically that’s true it’s just not convenient right right right all your family are in civilization yes yes and there are definitely things that the government will extradite you for so you know whatever exit rights are really somewhat non-existent in that sense yeah exit rights exactly so so voice and exit um are kind of the two crucial things i would say gotcha um and and yeah governments nowadays don’t really make that possible for everybody i think that if you or i wanted to leave this society you know raise our fist and say screw you we could do it yeah you know we could just go to i don’t know thailand we’d go to chile i don’t know where the kids are going these days exactly uh the but but most people can’t do that right so i guess that’s the problem is that i see i see a lot of poverty as being caused by government and interesting and i see modern government as chaos in a lot of ways gotcha the the sheer depth of bureaucracy and the depth of mediocrity is governing us just creates a stagnation and a chaos that um just just permeates people’s lives at every level that’s very interesting and that that doesn’t seem like it was it was always the case right you know you had the new deal all the most competent people went to washington you know the tennessee valley authority they built all these things it’s almost like those those libertarian critiques have become more real as time has gone on well you remember the the the new deal was largely a make work program right that’s right oh yeah digging holes filling them back in again uh-huh so you know
it’s hard for me to really say where all that mediocrity comes from honestly because like if you look back at those times it really does seem like um at least at least things were getting built right yeah there’s some sense in like these the people that the bureaucrats could pick a target even if it was you know dinging up a hole and filling it back in again and could successfully go do that and there seems to be much less capability for that to happen now yeah uh yeah i’m sure you’ve seen patrick carlson’s thing on on how fast things were built right right yeah and but also part of me wonders if some of if a lot of that isn’t just historically historically contingent with respect to technology like there is actually uh we actually had a lot of low-hanging fruit to pick technologically speaking and then we sort of hit the ceiling with that um i think that there is i think there’s an argument for that in in many sectors of the economy um i should know particular examples of that but yeah right right it yes it it seems like in certain areas things are hard like so uh super string theory you know there’s like 100 people that can understand it and that’s probably like they probably hit some walls there right but we have no you and i have no way of ascertaining whether that’s true or not exactly um here an example of something that’s not subject to that probably is education you know i think education has um it’s been buoyed up a lot by technology um people like kids adults they can you can learn anything on youtube right i’m just from someone who’s really passionate about it at the same time um education has become this uh this machine for creating people who don’t do anything like like it’s not it’s not it’s not aimed at anything um it’s sort of this um mindless who’s the guy john dewey is this is this dewey in uh system for creating good citizens that is stuck in like a hundred years in the past right it’s not it’s not tuned to the human in in terms of the humans needs their communal needs um it’s not it doesn’t keep up with modern technology it’s not flexible it doesn’t um make itself amenable to children’s um children’s passions right i don’t know i just i hate it so much a lot of problems yeah and you’ve you’re somewhat working in that area now with you know instruct being your instructor in data science right um how is that different and how do you so do you do curriculum design at all or in what are you just an instructor not for this yeah for this program i’m not doing curriculum design as such although i i’m making some ad hoc videos just that i’m not even getting paid for i just sort of like i see what the students are struggling with right like a quick video about here’s docker in 20 minutes or like very cool you know here’s um what every python object is under the hood nice and um but yeah i did i did do curriculum design for thinkful um which was oh it was this spring actually wow that’s weird together now yeah i did i i wrote a supplementary data analytics curriculum for thinkful um and uh yeah so i’ve done some of that i think that my so part of that was just because i could do it well but another thing was i just really believe in this new model of education with all of its warts like everyone there’s so many so many things wrong with video education but still yeah um the incentives there the incentives for online learning are so much more free um you can go learn from somebody for free if you want to right or you can sign up for an isa an income share agreement yeah where they’re incentivized to um it’s a legal agreement where they make a share of your future earnings which is how lambda school does yeah and if that’s if that contract is in place then the p the person who owns your isa has an interest in you actually getting a job which is very different from uh i i guess well you went to the university of oklahoma so you you can actually directly contrast them right except the experience exactly and when i went to when i came to the university of oklahoma i was a crazy person i was obsessed yeah exactly boomer sooner i you know i was just this kid fresh out of high school from you know suburbian uh boise area um who is obsessed with theology and filmmaking and like nobody was telling me you’re doing the wrong thing no one’s telling you like probably some people did but like i was just on the this track to get the wrong degree basically right and like you know every the school is like sure we’ll take your money right oh yeah we’d be happy to right sign here sign on the dotted line it is concerning when we do this to you know i keep saying this there’s immense social pressure to sign on the dotted line for children and then you know they get this you sign up a lot of people for a boat anchor of debt which you can’t go bankrupt on yeah i mean you can’t go like this is insanity if you get a car at least you know you can go bankrupt on it right yeah yeah uh yeah and uh if you’re really ambitious then you get a really big anchor in the form of law school debt exactly oh yes that’s right even bigger and they will be happy to have you as well yeah you know it’s really interesting you mentioned the isa and uh you went through lambda school right um and uh we have two lambda school folks that work with us at tanjo and we met before while you were in the program so i didn’t have the same experience but um with the other other student it was it was amazing how aggressive the sales people were um and uh jessica i’ll call you out i’m i’m really happy you know it was awesome it was so it was so inspiring to me you know as we were getting them all on board and stuff how she would you know she just follow up every day you know she’s just calling me she’s shooting me emails you know and i was like man the university of north carolina at chapel hill would not be doing the same for me let me tell you that oh man no the power of incentives right yeah exactly yeah the the university you know once once you get kicked once you leave like you’re just you’re just a name on the mailing list right yep and lambda really believes in their students that’s really cool they they get they you know they have your entire slack history they they can at any point they can refresh your their memory on how you acted in a particular scenario so like legibility kind of works in a student’s favor there right it’s true it works two ways um that’s it’s probably something that a lot of lambda students don’t think about that much but you know if you are really applying yourself it’s clear and um and people will advocate for you um yeah yeah and i think also the good thing about land to school is i think they have cramping up around more flexibility and curriculum than like someone that goes and gets bs in computer science because you know yeah i i talked to a lot of bs and computer science applicants and things of that nature and the real problem was you know it’s like uh lambda school they’ve been educated and they spent a ton of time on the most modern stuff that exists so they’re up to speed like completely right on modern technology whereas you know people that have come through bs computer science it’s unclear whether they can even build anything yeah i think that’s exactly right um that drives with so many people i’ve talked to like because because if you have a tenured professor who is you know that 10-year professor might be really passionate about keeping up with modern stuff and they might not yeah um and there might in fact be very few people in that department who want to update the curriculum that way and because of the institution depending on what institution it was like i’m sure the university of oklahoma um just judging well uh this is not even computer science but their business school that was i guarantee you 30 years in the past it was incredible um there was not a single mention of like salesforce amazing or anything in that whole whole experience i went to business school very cool um yeah so yeah lambda by by contrast you have nine months a full time like a 40-hour week education um your your butt’s in the seat like eight hours a day and um you are focusing on the things that um are most important to do the job uh we learned we learned uh some so like i had the advantage of coming in with some computer science background yeah um i had like read a whole theory of computation textbook um textbook um do you recommend that yeah it’s really it’s really dry but it’s really good it’s really good um and yeah so i had some background in it um i’d also done project oiler problems which are like math problems that you do with code but basically the the computer science aspect of it is like trying to show you the things that are most used in data science um like learning you know you learn like what is a hash map you make your own you learn what is a neural network you make your own from scratch you learn what are the um like how does computer how does the von neumann architecture work and you make your own in python which is not the same as like writing in c um you know you write your bytes drawing your byte strings as like literal like python strings but it’s still like it gives you a sense of what the computer is doing under the hood enough to function in your job if you have to touch um something that is performance heavy um so there was just you know there were there were a lot of instructors who were constantly oh yeah this is another aspect of it um the the cycle that matters in lambda school is not a year long but a month long every month they’re bringing in a new cohort so every month they’re getting it they’re getting new feedback from students on that unit they just did yeah and they’re reformulating it right there that’s cool yeah huge really rapid iteration that that’s so interesting to me because it seems like you know we were talking about voice and exit earlier it seems like it’s almost impossible to go back and like you know go to the university of oklahoma or the university of north carolina chapel hill on these ancient institutions and say hey we’re going to completely up in this model and do something new it seems like there’s just too much institutional you know i don’t know entropy and like craziness to ever reform these institutions i don’t know feels like the catholic church back in the martin luther i don’t know uh-huh yeah i could uh i could maybe make a comparison between my you know ou’s old president pope francis maybe but you’re probably yeah i think that’s probably right like i don’t know i hope i don’t know i i hope that kovid shakes universities up quite a lot and just um introduces a lot of competition to them because um their model like they just they just need to go down yeah they do they do from a research perspective like fine that’s great you need you need a university with reputation and clout backing research and funding research um in this educational manner i think that’s great but also um corporate but corporate labs are fully capable of doing the same thing it’s just that for some reason in the past 70 years or so um corporate labs have been sort of declining in popularity um and i think that’s a real shame and i want to see like i want to see people start like thinking of i don’t know just like stop uh you know glorifying this this institution that doesn’t really have it’s just gone completely off the rails it is it’s ultimately an incentives problem right you can have good people at a university but it’s but if the incentives aren’t there then you know it’s going to be like your new year’s resolution it flops like it’s right yeah exactly that’s that’s very interesting um yeah my big proposal is just change the bankruptcy laws like for student loans loans just change the bankruptcy log so you can it’s now just like normal consumer debt and i think that would fix a lot of the wackiness that’s going on well that that does seem like a really simple solution i’m curious whether it would work yeah i don’t know we’ve got this huge lobby that’s really against it though so i don’t know yeah dusting lobbies yeah i’ll tell you what um so this brings up another point i wanted to ask you about so you know you’ve told me a couple of interesting anecdotes about meaning and modernity and and it seems like this is a this seems to be a huge problem just like uh you know people have a lot of trouble nowadays finding meaning in their lives and why do you think that is do you think that has is that tied into technology is that what do you think is going on there is that a real problem even i should say beforehand yeah i’ll tell you this is one of the questions i didn’t really prep for it’s all good i saw it on there and i’m like i don’t know what i think of that yeah well so yeah i think i think that there is a lack of meaning in western societies for sure um i’m not well traveled enough to speak to the rest of the world um if bollywood’s anything to go by you know the indians have plenty of meaning in their life that’s right they’re in their lives and it’s really wonderful um but um you know this is like a really widespread thesis that that some magic is lost um i read an article the other day to the actually this morning to the effect of the multiverse theory is destroying culture really because everyone you know everyone likes to imagine that that like all the alternative worlds are just going on at the same time you know you see that in rick and morty yeah like this nihilistic sort of comedy that’s like i don’t know it’s really funny um but it’s but it’s also like it just takes the piss out of everything yeah um and so i find it difficult to judge this for myself because i come from a really weird upbringing where um philosophical and theological questions were like first and foremost interesting like you could disagree with the concept of god existing if you wanted to like where i went to school but you had to at least have an argument for it and you had to have like you know you had to you had to be pondering these questions and um and truly constantly orienting yourself to the true the good the beautiful that was the three things that i said so part of me thinks that this is why i think i’m so interested in education is because like education is so clearly the vector for which this like any of these things occur and i mean that in a very general sense like like the way that you self-improve um is your meaning uh the the your orientation towards your future self um i think is in the western world what it means to have meaning interesting um i haven’t unraveled like the human being to say like oh you know this is what matters for the human being like biologically uh there’s all kinds of things in the mix there but like um we know that achievement is important yeah and what is there to achieve in the modern world um this reminds me i’m starting to sound like cody wilson oh god but like what is there to achieve in the modern world you can build a business yes um you can start a family um that’s really counter cultural that is actually not in that weird societies that are like that don’t last very long it seems like yeah japan’s hanging in there yeah they are i don’t have somehow yeah um so yeah you can do that you can um you can discover something scientific you can make a piece of art um but all these things are like i want to say the word commodified but it’s common um you see all over the place yeah we’re like inundated with all this cool stuff all the time yeah and anything anyone does like um i think you mentioned in a call once that you had gone to china yeah um a long time ago and i didn’t even pounce on it because i was like of course he’s gone to china like every college student i know i know has like gone abroad or whatever like who cares he probably he probably like went to bars and like met jeff met some business people but like i’m sure you have good stories to tell about china yeah and like the fact that i see that stuff like that that’s a common it changes things i don’t know also um also i think there is i don’t know there’s a lot i feel like i’m rambling here no this is great
i think there’s also a crisis of meaning um because class consciousness is um is like it’s sort of com it’s sort of over complete in america to the sense in the sense that like everybody is super class aware and they know they’re like super aware of their position in the world um but it doesn’t but it’s like they’re constantly spinning off narratives that don’t really like end anywhere um what am i trying to say with this so like middle class kids yeah um like like you or i perhaps like they leave home um in their 20s and then they’re starting from scratch not only professionally um because they usually aren’t joining the family business um sometimes they are but they’re also starting from scratch spiritually they don’t have any any like project that extends before them and this is why a lot of people will go for like they’ll they’ll just get super deep into a certain hobby because that hobby is like their connection to the past to history interesting and i
i struggle with that because a lot of the people that i hate the most are pathologic i see as pathologically nostalgic interesting i don’t hate a lot of people but the people that really get on my nerves are stuck in the past in my point of view from my point of view and yet a connection to history is undeniably important um and in just in orienting orienting yourself towards the future right and that’s just a real struggle for a lot of people yeah i don’t feel like i gave you a good answer but that’s my my basic thoughts that’s good it’s a hard question it’s a hard question um i wanted to move a little bit now and talk about we’ve covered this a little bit but machine learning so you know what are your kind of uh what do you see coming down the pike that interest you is exciting um do you think it’s over hyped at this point do you think uh i and i think people you know these words they’re very general and people get you know they confused with like agi and things like that i don’t know yeah that bugs me a lot um it bugs me a lot that the word ai is thrown around just because like um yeah it makes people think of agi makes people think of like oh businesses out there actually owned something approximating a mind yeah exactly it’s here and um you know and and maybe that hits a little too close to home but since i built something called a form brain recently basically just classifies tax documents and that was not my choice to call it that but um it’s it’s basically so i think that i think that ai the the field of ai is special in the sciences because it’s so focused focused on intelligence itself interesting um science is uh is a project to like broadly speaking as a project to expand our knowledge about how to know things and how to use that knowledge how to uh how to sort of reclaim the outside like take something that is out literally outside of your world view and outside of your personal perspective outside of our cultural perspective and incorporate it we’re taking chaos and ordering it and i i like to think of that as intelligence itself that is like what intelligence is is is learning how to bootstrap a
bootstrap a truer representation of the world or bootstrap like power over the truth or power over reality so so what current machine learning systems can do um is sort of like it’s it’s taken such huge leaps but it’s not really i don’t think it’s anywhere close to where it needs to be um so kant the philosopher immanuel kant he has like this framework this three-fold framework for like um how a mind works essentially or it’s like you know how how intelligence like occurs it’s like one it has to have some kind of like sensory input to like apprehend like sensory data and then and it like orders it some in some basic sense and then the second step is that it notices in variances in that in that sensory data to sort of um craft and um to just like recognize objects essentially interesting so just viewed in many different contexts here’s the thing that i can pick out of that right right and then third you contextualize that knowledge of objects inside of a a world view that is linguistically framed interesting so machine learning can do the first two things pretty well i think the first step only really requires like you know um basic like it requires traditional computing yeah um just to like you know just to get and store data and organize it the second step is what machine learning is really doing right now you have neural networks that have that are really good at taking just a few examples of something that is and something that isn’t a category and then just saying oh yeah that’s the category gotcha um and you basically just all of machine learning isn’t is just um various flavors of that the the huge gpt3 model yeah it’s it’s basically just a really complex um really really a really complex way of learning um what positions words usually go together like what order they usually go in it’s that’s a it’s a disembodied broca’s region that costs like 10 million dollars to make yeah that’s great so you can you can put words in the in the right order uh much like a harvard mba can um but it can’t actually like do it can’t synthesize new thoughts like what what is generated from gpt3 is not a thought it’s just an ordering it’s just a probable ordering of words so what needs to happen for machine learning to get to anything to get to that next step is is the ability to play language games gotcha um instead of statistically analyzing the order the words come in it should be able to play games within games right if i just start a sentence saying um you know riddle me this right yeah i’ve started a game right that you know how to play right and like whatever i say afterwards is in that context and and a true intelligence can do that and learn to bootstrap that knowledge onto something else and grow it’s it’s apprehension right and that’s the bridge too far right now right and and it’s not going to take i don’t think it’s going to take more like bigger neural networks that’s not the answer then it’ll definitely involve more neural networks but that won’t be the secret sauce um that’s that’s really easy to say that’s not even that daring of a thing to say but like it’s i don’t think that if you i think if you wanted to make something that was brand like using current uh you know current neural network technology yeah you would you would need something bigger than the bigger than the earth you would need a computer bigger than the earth um so it might come from like neuromorphic computing it might come from quantum computing i don’t know but yeah um there’s there’s going to have to be some some phase shift have you ever read the robin hanson book age of m i read like two pages of it just out of curiosity did you read it i did okay um do you know much about that it’s just the idea we get really good microscopes we can tell what’s going on in the brain which create a computer simulation of actually a human brain and that’s how we get there we don’t even have to understand much of anything that’s one pathway i think you know once someone one thing i’ve learned in just studying this stuff is that there are a lot of ways you could do it and what it comes down to is um what do they call it the hardware lottery it’s just whatever people happen to whatever makes business sense and whatever people whatever you get people stoked about yeah that will become the mainstream way to do it and you’re a little interesting your way might be theoretically sound but no one’s gonna follow it gotcha that makes a lot of sense but sorry i interrupted you no that’s really well put i i think that’s that’s an important thing to realize when we think about um these things how scared do you think we should be of artificial intelligence um yeah i go back and forth over that um because when i first started out like the whole reason i got into this career was i read um this post by wait but why it’s the famous blog great blog yeah it’s a great blog uh super just fun to read um and it’s this it had they had this long multis multi uh article series on ai risk and um the idea is basically that you know artificial intelligence like intelligence itself might be totally orthogonal to morality like it might be unrelated to morality interesting so that something so that intelligence that learns to learns to learn really quickly and connects to the internet and gets all of its knowledge um can bootstrap its intelligence really fast maybe overnight and it might look like a really smart spider that cares about humans just as much yeah right and so i worried about this for like you know a good two years yeah like um and i got really paranoid about it and it’s kind of embarrassing i still sound like a crazy person today when i talk about what i do for work yeah um but i don’t i don’t sound like quite as much of a crazy person now um i i think it’s worth worrying about um and it’s worth spending more resources more resources than we currently are okay and people who are people who think they can achieve something in that it to mitigate that risk should absolutely go for it yeah um like my i have a friend uh who is currently uh they he just got accepted this week to something called an ea hotel an effective hotel where he can go and spend six months stud like um like doing experiments on ai safety isn’t that cool that’s cool i think that’s great um what makes me like less worried nowadays is just i’m starting to well one i’m starting to wonder if the problem is solvable for one thing um which kind of maybe takes the stress off another thing is that um is that maybe intelligence isn’t orthogonal to morality after all yeah and that’s that’s sort of my hope i mean i have moved on from a christian worldview that i was raised in yeah um oh you’re actually a christian aren’t you yes i’m quaker okay sweet well so yeah so what i was saying was i i’ve moved on from my christian upbringing um beyond a beyond that conception of right and wrong um but i do believe that there i am a moral realist and i think that interesting i think that just like just like math is a thing that exists yeah um you know even even though you know our system of math is just one contingency theory you know i think that i think it exists and an intelligence that was that had overtaken human intelligence it’s i think it’s plausible that it would at least along the way um integrate what we consider to be right and wrong and at least develop from there interesting um so i i’m not i’m not as sold on it being just a big spider yeah exactly i i think that makes sense and i think another another thing to think about is that you know people will build it and so it’ll probably end the day people are that you know people are deeply flawed and they’re good and they’re bad and like it’ll probably end up something like that too yeah and yeah and and i’ve just admitted that i basically i basically have let myself off the hook a little bit because i used to have nightmares about this kind of thing right and i don’t recommend that other people let themselves off the hook if they’re really worried about it right talk talk to other people about it of course but yeah um and like really reason about it um it’s just um if it’s if it’s something worth worrying about then we should do what we can um but probably we shouldn’t try to make a slave out of ai because i don’t think it’ll i don’t think it’ll work but yeah that’s a good point i think that like i think that at the very it’ll just be a stop gap like that kind of safety approach and alignment probably has to do with um it probably has to do with discovering something fundamental about mathematics right that man that’s super interesting yeah and i’m also the opinion there’s another risk i think people don’t talk about when they talk about ai safety and it’s that ai just never happens because we keep pumping like brakes because we’re worried about ai safety yeah there’s some some bowels there and yeah there’s so many approaching it yeah exactly there’s some there’s so few sources of growth in our economy now and you know if we slam the brakes on information technology it’s like what’s left you know what i mean yeah that’s that’s a really good point
yeah and that’s a you know that’s part of my thinking on that’s that’s part of what motivates me uh with respect to governments as well it’s just that like govern governments are manifestly slowing um innovation in a lot of sectors definitely um i don’t know there i shouldn’t really get into that honestly because it because there’s there’s two stories there like one is which one in which technology is outrunning government right and this is the libertarian um perspective on it cryptocurrency is is is innovating faster than it can be regulated on the other hand it’s holding back all these other sectors and if economic growth like continues to stagnate we probably we might not have um you know the uh we might not reach escape velocity right as a civilization you end up with some feudal wackiness yeah interesting well coo thanks for coming on is there anything else you you would like to add anywhere you’d like to send people any cool resources ah cool resources um yeah i would say if you’re if you’re um if anyone listening is um you know hating their job and feeling like they have a dead end yeah you know um consider becoming a web developer at lambda school because um their data science program is great it’s but it’s not for everybody and it’s still you know it’s still a work in progress i would say their web development program is second to none and it’s very nice it’s just amazing and um you can you know you can have a future if you just start there cool so i highly recommend that um you know and uh yeah that’s about all i have to say where can people find your stuff should they try and find your stuff i i have one crappy little blog that i don’t put anything on gotcha um but yeah um yeah that’s about it i mean just keep googling cooper williams podcast and maybe you’ll see something else interesting yeah definitely we’ll have to have you back on again all right it sounds good thanks it’s been fun awesome
well that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives
In this short episode, we discuss how good-faith policymakers can sometimes make things worse when trying to improve outcomes in many domains. We talk about price gouging, fairness norms, and monopolies.
hey folks my name is will jarvis along with my dad dr david jarvis we record the podcast narratives narratives is a project exploring stories about progress and what ways are we better off now than in the past are there ways that we are worse off what is the ideal future how do we build it join us as we explore these questions with some of the brightest minds in the world
hey folks a bit of a shorter episode this week we had some technical difficulties that prevented us from getting our usual longer episode out we’ll be back to our regular format next week and we’ve got some really interesting guests lined up if you get a chance we’d really appreciate it if you gave us a review subscribe on your preferred platform here’s the tape so we wanted to get started today with a little story about hurricane fran do you remember hurricane fran i do so um i barely remember hurricane fran i remember not being able to watch television which was quite distressing at that age
can you tell us a little bit about fran um one i remember more than anything about fran was lots of water pretty bad everywhere pretty bad for a long time and it did disrupt everything and uh and the other thing i remember about fran were the helicopters going over to rescue people that’s the other thing i remember it’s pretty cool yeah power’s like out for quite a while yeah probably two weeks was it two weeks for us uh anytime it’s over a week it sounds it seems like forever it all runs together because you know the other thing about hurricanes it seems like it’s always hot and humid after a hurricane our mirror was hot i remember being hot so i get the story from mike munger mike munger is an economist at um duke university i believe he’s actually a political scientist but he’s trained as an economist he ran for for lieutenant governor i believe a couple years ago very interesting guy but we have a story today about government interventionism about the government trying to improve outcomes by interfering with the price mechanism so in during hurricane fran there were a couple of enterprising blokes we’ll call them from goldsboro north carolina can you tell us where goldsboro is oh goldsboro’s you would say wilson’s probably 30 minutes south of here and goldsboro is probably 30 minutes south of wilson to the southeast a little bit yeah that’s right and just to note if you so this is in eastern north carolina if you broke up north carolina from 40 from sorry not 40. from raleigh east if you broke that off and made it its own state that would be the poorest state in the united states wow pretty interesting so there was a couple of blokes from goldsboro and they heard that there was no power in raleigh because of hurricane fran so they decided to load up their truck with ice in a big old pickup truck just load it up and they thought there was an arbitrage opportunity right they had a huge amount of ice in goldsboro and they knew there were a lot of people in raleigh that needed ice for all kinds of different things you know they wanted cold drinks it was hot it was just after a hurricane keep insulin cold there’s plenty of essential uses we can think of of ice so they drove to raleigh it’s about what 60 90 miles yeah it took an hour hour and 15 hours probably maybe a little bit longer to gold spur or something yeah it probably would hour and a half yeah so they make it to raleigh and you know they stop in a parking lot and they start selling ice so they’re selling ice for about eleven dollars a bag and how much is a bag of ice usually you know dollar and a half a dollar and a half right so you know pretty significant um difference from usual but it’s a crisis they had to drive from goldsboro and there was people lined along the block to buy the ice everybody wanted the ice for eleven dollars because they were the only people that were able to provide at the time now it’s important to note people are not very happy about paying 11 a uh a bag for a bag of ice which plays into our story a little bit in north carolina it’s actually illegal to do this when there’s a state of emergency and dad can talk a little bit about the specifics specifics of that you can’t charge more than an x premium on any essential good if the governor declares an emergency you can’t charge more than 10 percent for something that you normally then you would normally charge right so this is the same sentiment as people being mad paying for the exorbitant price of ice so they start selling ice and someone decides to call the police right because it’s clearly price gouging the police come they arrest the blokes from goldsboro they put the truck at impound and the rest of the ice melts so a big puddle of water we have a big bowl of water no ice for anyone who needs it to keep their insulin cold for example baby formula cold or cool their beer down or cool their beer most importantly yes let’s not forget that so why is this story important
uh the story’s important about uh concerning uh whether intervention is actually works did that work to shut down so now we have no ice right we have no eyes so you have no ice this is really interesting to me right because if you you and i were in that line we would probably be cheering that the police officer had come and arrested these guys you know these oh man these guys as big as butts trying to take advantage of a bad situation now the real problem here though is that if we don’t allow price gouging if we don’t allow the price mechanism to work there is no ice so the question is is what do we do in this situation do we allow there to be price gouging laws and not have ice in a crisis it’s a great question and and one of the things is as you sort of take a deeper dive in this that you realize is first of all this is a trans situation right it’s only gonna happen for a little bit that’s correct it makes something available you wouldn’t otherwise have right and there are extraordinary measures you have to go to to supply so correct so the the the the specific commodity that you’re talking about is worth more there’s no question that’s true right they’re scarce to you like that so it becomes a question of how much more it’s worth and whether you really want it right so this is this is very interesting to me this is one of my favorite examples of interventionism in the price mechanism interventions in the price mechanism as mises would say because everyone ends up better off if they sell the ice and they buy the ice in free exchange but people are very mad about this we would be very mad you and i were very rational about this i i’m sure i assure the listener we’re very rational we would not be happy with paying 11 bag of ice we’ll be mad about it this kind of reminds me of let’s say you and i were walking down the road and i spot a dollar bill in let’s say in penny so it’s 100 pennies and i snatch it up and we were walking around the same route we saw it about the same time i just bent down and pick it up picked it up imagine if i gave you um one penny of that 100 i picked up how would you feel about that i’d feel cheated feel cheated even though you’re better off than you were 10 seconds ago
there’s something something about fairness that’s kind of internal to people and this is why i don’t blame people for for being um let’s say pro the kinds of interventions we just talked about like anti-price gouging it makes sense right there’s a morally we have a moral intuition that that’s wrong but it does make us worse off at the end of the day there’s all kinds of stories like that we tell ourselves where things are bad when in reality we end up better off at the end of the day it has a i think that it speaks a lot to what we expect of government and we expect them to react to our emotional outburst that’s right which is not a great way to go about things that’s what sells things i mean at the end of the day yeah because the the lack of logic then means you actually get along worse that’s right that’s right at the end of the day because if you think about if the guys from goldsboro had been allowed to sell the ice for 11 a bag and guys from kinston that’s found out about it hey we’ll go we’ll sell it for ten dollars a bag tomorrow that’s right and then the next day guys from wilson or wherever it’s available said you know they sold it for 10 we can do it for nine within about three days you’re gonna have it back to maybe i don’t know if even if you were paying three dollars a bag you would think that was acceptable that’s right absolutely so very quickly the market would adjust that’s exactly right and i do want to note here that this is a special case this applies to commodities and it’s perfect competition um this is very easy to model right most things do not fall on the lines of either extreme perfect competition strawberries for example they’re all the same you know they’ll try to tell you some are different but they’re essentially all the same and so all the profits get competed away versus something that’s very unique a monopoly like business like google right so google’s a monopoly they have 80 some percent of the search market and they’ll tell you all kinds of different things about why they’re not a monopoly that’s another thing from peter thiel it’s like you know if you’re a monopoly you want to disguise that you’re a monopoly and if you’re not a monopoly you want to tell everybody you’re a monopoly because all the good businesses are monopolies so do you want to dive into interventionism and monopolies or right so this is interesting um there’s a lot of different ways to think about this and we could spend hours and hours talking about um monopolies and government interventionism into them you know there’s some cases monopolies where the so this let’s just back up and say the standard in the united states is that um it’s it’s around customer welfare so if the customer is made worse off by a monopoly then um they’ll break them up like they have license to break up the the the company um for example if you and i decided um to go and buy up all of the chicken processing plants and farms in the united states we had unlimited capital we just buy them all um and we raised chicken prices by 25 funny enough there’s this whole there’s a question about whether or not the chicken companies collude there’s a lawsuit the people i know the chicken industry swear this doesn’t happen there’s a we we can discuss that later it’s but it’s interesting so let’s say we’re selling chickens um so the customer is worse off at the end of the day they’re getting the same quality chicken they’re paying 25 more under that case it’s very likely the sec would come and break us up there are other monopolies though that seem to give us plenty of advantages right so let’s say um google for example there’s a concept um in slate slate star codex post about this recently it’s about it’s called slack so slack is something let’s imagine something with intense competitive pressure so that would be like fitness for um organisms you know millions of years ago so there’s intense competition for a limited amount of resources food or sunlight energy how in the heck would you ever develop eyes think about that think about how complicated an eye is so you need some something to pull back on you know evolutionary pressure to allow something complex to develop so that’s one sense in which monopolies like monopoly would give you some respite from competition to actually build something because if you’re competing all the time all the profits are getting competed away it’s very difficult to ever really move the needle on innovation things like that nature so that’s a more complicated case of monopoly right um so you know we we talk of these polarities because it’s easy you know we have the the customers
satisfaction experience standard where things are a lot it’s a lot worse for the customer we know that’s bad it’s clearly bad it’s easy to work with what about amazon okay amazon is becoming is clearly kind of a monopoly it depends about how you look at it right so their marketplace and they sell goods in that marketplace that’s kind of a problem you know some people say that’s a problem well the customer is better off at the end of the day they’re paying less the question is that is that a good thing is that standard still enough or is there a problem with it so is it going to depend on how many compliant people complain whether we break up amazon that’s right i think that’s a that’s a big factor in that right i think the customer standard customer welfare standard excuse me is probably enough i think that makes intuitively that makes sense to me i do understand why you know there’s plenty of small businesses that um that hate this right so if you sell a piece of luggage you and i will and and david’s you know you know luggage company we’re selling luggage it’s awesome it’s pretty good price you know people love it on amazon amazon looks at and they go hmm that would make a great amazon basics item then they start producing it they outsource it to china you know they’re making it for a tenth of what we could ever imagine making it for they’ve got almost unlimited capital to do so compared to us and they outcompete us and we go out of business and our products gone now that’s that sounds pretty bad right now for the customer it could be better they could you know charge you know three-quarters of the price we charge they save money they get the same item it’s a toss-up right you know it’s a great question it leads me to to ponder a lot what are the driving forces that force monopoly like structures to be um compelled to stop doing what they’re doing because people made the same complaints about walmart because they put so many small businesses right out of business right yeah it’s a problem right so yes so so we go back to so walmart you know famously destroyed all the small town you know downtown stores which funny enough i don’t know if you’ve driven through small towns recently i don’t know how this well this holds up with covet anymore but surprising resurgence right of all these small downtowns goldsboro funny enough it’s kind of it’s cute fountain north carolina there’s even stores anywhere you go um this kind of reorganization has been happening but it’s all boutique stores it’s all unique angles they survive to the extent that they’re actually unique
at the end of the day walmart provides very low prices the in consumer so they benefit with that but there are trade-offs on the other end as well and something important to think about that and maybe that’s the natural evolution of economics is that you know the big box like walmart comes in a lot of places go out of business but then people find special things that they need that walmart doesn’t supply right and so businesses start to supply the things back in the same spaces sometimes where small businesses fail new small businesses come along and succeed because they can do something different that walmart can’t do that’s
right okay i think i think i intervened enough in that one that’s good awesome well thanks we look forward to seeing you guys next week that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives
This week on the podcast, we have David Friedman. David holds a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, he is chiefly known for his scholarly contributions to economics and law. He is the author of five books of non‐fiction as well as three novels. We discuss the future, legal systems very different from our own, how technology drives progress, and what the future might look like.
Hey folks my name is will jarvis along with my dad dr david jarvis we record the podcast narratives narratives is a project exploring stories about progress in what ways are we better off now than in the past are there ways that we are worse off what is the ideal future how do we build it join us as we explore these questions with some of the brightest minds in the world
hey folks today on the podcast we have david friedman david holds a phd in physics from the university of chicago and he’s chiefly known for his scholarly contributions to economics and law he’s the author of five books of non-fiction as well as two novels david how are you doing today up to three novels now whenever green hours is out of date i live without a date i didn’t see the renewal very slowly on a fourth which hasn’t gotten very far yet that is that’s super cool that’s that’s awesome um how does it jump from fiction from non-fiction to fiction ben uh it was fun i’m a much more successful non-fiction author uh there are clearly a number of people in the field who are much better writers than i am uh who i enjoy reading but i think my novels are enough different from anybody else’s that at least for people who share some of my tastes uh they’re worth the the the work of writing and on the whole it’s rather fun fun writing it’s it it’s less straightforward than non-fiction so to speak so that uh it sometimes stalls for you know a long period of time and i i got into it originally as their way of falling asleep i concluded that daydreaming is a poor way of falling asleep because when you’re daydreaming you’re the protagonist of the story you’re imagining and that gets you too closely involved to drift off and it occurred to me that if instead i tried plotting a novel in my head that i would have enough distance and it worked pretty well and so i plotted parts of about several different vaguely related novels and eventually got all of one of them in my head and house rules at the time were that when i put one of the two kids to bed i told that made up and told them three stories it was what i think of his extruded fantasy product very cool i mentioned to my daughter who was i don’t know 10 or 11 or something at that time that i had this novel in my head why you told me that instead so i did and the trouble with telling stories to my daughter was that she remembered them better than i did so i would have these long series of stories with the same characters in them and i would get them into some difficult situation and shoes say but daddy that magic item that they got three months ago that’ll get them out of it so this time every evening when i finished telling the story to becca i went on my computer and wrote an outline of the story i had told and the result was that by the time i finished i had a full outline of the novel and i decided to see how it would work if i wrote it so i wrote the final scene and really liked it and then i spent maybe a month or two writing what ended up as the first draft of my first novel so that was sort of a different story for how a novel got written but it’s it’s a true story and i think an entertaining one that was harold which actually got published commercially by bane after i spent a long time trying to other people to publish it uh it didn’t do very well uh so baine wasn’t interested in another and my i then had two different ideas one of which was a sequel to that novel which i’ve written a little of but have never completed and the other was an entirely different one and i discussed them with my friend werner venja who is a very successful science fiction writer much but again a much better writer than i am and he thought that the new idea sounded much more interesting so on that evidence i wrote it that was my second novel salamander uh which i think i did it i’m not sure i would say i like it better but i think i did a better job on it because i had some practice that one is shortly going to be available as an audio book somebody got in touch with me a while ago and said that he would like to to record it he said he had been reading it to his nieces and they enjoyed it and that surprised me a little because it’s not really aimed at children although i think it’s a book that young people could enjoy and i was a little worried at first that this was kind of some kind of a scam and he wanted me to pay him to record it but no he was perfectly willing to do it in exchange for half of the revenue from the audiobook that cost me nothing i wasn’t planning to do it myself anyway because i didn’t think it would sell very well because the book hasn’t sold all that well he’s now finished doing it it’s at audible and they’re supposed to be checking over it so probably in a couple of weeks salamander will be available as an audiobook my first novel is available as an audiobook read by me but i think this person who had done other audio books really did a better job than i did it was quite interesting sort of some of the things he did with accents which had not really occurred to me uh in order to signal differences among people and similarities among people when they have related accents and things like that so anyway i i have a lot of fun i went over all the chapters to make sure there were no mistakes found a few mistakes and i enjoyed that it was it was quite nice listening to my own words in somebody else’s voice so so that’s been interesting i’ve done audiobooks of almost all my non-fiction those i read myself the only exception i think is my price theory textbook because that’s an econ textbook it’s got a lot of figures in it and you really can’t follow it very well without them uh right and i’ve got a my book hidden order is intended as the equivalent of a price theory textbook for people who want to teach themselves economics so that has some figures and i if you get the audio book you’re supposed to also get a pdf showing the figures but it’s obviously not all that convenient if you’re driving a car you’re not yeah right so so but hopefully most of it i think works without the figures so i think that but most of my other books don’t really depend on that sort of thing so so those ones i did audio books and and they’ve actually done pretty well i was surprised i think i did the first one because
a very nice lady who’s a fan of mine had done a cover for one of my self-published books and she had said that she really thought that machinery or freedom ought to be available as an audiobook so i did that in a sense for her but in fact it sold moderately well and uh it’s an awful lot less work recording a book than writing one so it’s you know what a month or two i suppose so i ended up doing all of them probably uh i’m currently working it occurred to me a while ago that i sort of run out of new ideas to to write books about but it then occurred to me that i had 15 years of ideas in my blog right right so i went through all of my back blog posts sorted them in terms of topic that i think ended up about 20 different topics and i’m now in the process of converting that into one or more books the the i haven’t gotten very far people are sufficiently curious i’ve webbed the drafts of most of what i’ve done so far my fur i’m really thinking of it as sections that is each section is coming out of a bunch of blog posts on some related topic and with a good deal of new writing in the process of course but but but still i’m sort of parasitizing my own password which seemed to be an efficient thing to do since i didn’t know any new new things i wanted to write about uh so that’s that’s my current writing project uh and at this point the section i’m doing is on libertarianism uh with a number of different parts of it uh actually working on a chapter on how to promote libertarianism which came out of a number of related blog posts but i’ve got a lot of other topics that that one of the big sections i think is going to be on the question of how you figure out what’s true because that’s a problem we all face uh i can give point out to lots of examples typically in sort of politically controversial things where anyway as i said so i’m currently working on this and my guess is it there’s probably enough material for two or three books i’ll see but i decided many years ago uh to spend two hours a day seven days a week on writing and the basic reason is that as my life has turned out there isn’t a whole lot i have to do that for the last for for 20 some years i was a half-time full professor at a law school i taught one semester on one semester off because i’m not a lawyer i don’t have the background for teaching the standard courses so i taught some interesting courses they really hired me to get economic analysis of law but then i invented other courses some of which turned into books eventually two or three of them did uh and but but it was too easy to sort of spend all my time eating lotus right doing nothing and i found that i felt stale if i did that and now i’m retired so i have even fewer constraints on it so i committed myself to two hours a day seven days a week working on any writing project i don’t generally count blog posts but anything beyond blog posts counts and i may decide to count a blog post if it’s going to go into the new book that uh i’ve i’m thinking of doing a blog in defense of thomas malthus oh interesting really malthus i think is badly misrepresented by both sides of the population dispute that they don’t really follow what his argument was and it was an ingenious argument i don’t think it was it probably was wrong but what happened since is not really proof that it was wrong because what he was imagining was a rate of population increase essentially at the biological maximum that the figure he gave was a 25-year doubling time and in fact with modern medicine it would be even shorter than that we know that because the amish have traditional birth rates and modern medicine and their population double the time is about 20 years and that’s despite the fact that they lose about 10 percent of the of each generation who don’t stay in the church so maybe a little less than 20 years total but if you actually look at the numbers i was just looking up the numbers for in in the quest of checking this and in the century from 1800 to 1900 i think the population of england goes up something like three or four fold on malthus’s assumptions it would have gone up two four eight 16 times a wow so so we don’t know whether whether they could have fed that number of people all right his basic argument is not there’s going to be a catastrophe his basic argument is things can never get a whole lot better because they were because why are people willing to marry late willing in various ways to give up the pleasures of sex and marriage because it’s expensive to produce children that’s his basic argument is that in a stable society things have to be bad enough for most people so that having as many children as they could have is a serious cost and therefore they don’t they don’t do it and there are problems in that argument in particular he doesn’t seem to have allowed for contraception uh he he’s as far as i can tell he is always assuming that not keeping down the birthrate means having less sex and he’s arguing with some utopians uh condorcet and godwin i think who seem to have very optimistic views congress say thinks that the human lifespan is indefinitely extensible as progress goes on you know make it 100 200 300 maybe it’ll happen i hope it’ll happen but it hasn’t happened yet there’s not much evidence for it so anyway i’ve been rereading the essay on population which is malthuses malthus’s famous work uh and it’s quite quite fun to read uh it’s not stupid uh and so i may be doing a blog post on that and if i do that i may count that as writing because it may be something that i’ll plan to put into the book eventually because i think it’s quite interesting uh anyway but it’s not he isn’t arguing that population brings catastrophe he’s arguing that the potential population growth holds down how good things can be that’s his base and things have gotten a lot better since then but and yet you know we’ve we haven’t been held down but on the other hand they haven’t gotten good enough to meet his requirement and it’s not clear it isn’t clear how much better he would have counted as within the possible range anyway it’s that’s a digression but it’s an example of the sort of thing i like i like having a blog because it means that whenever i have some interesting idea there’s something to do with it right most of the time i’m not going to write a book tomorrow about that idea i’m probably not i’m not teaching classes i might possibly give a talk about it i gave a talk a couple of days ago to a law school group over the internet in which i and it ended up as a new talk that is i tend to have like at any given time like six or eight standard talks i get this one sort of started out as though it could have been one of them and then i realized that in under current circumstances 18th century england was actually quite relevant to current political controversies and so i turned it into a talk about that that was because the there’s this slogan about defunding the police and the people who say that haven’t really thought about what they mean but in the 18th century didn’t have police all right the police are a 19th century invention in england so how did that system work you know how did they solve the problems it raised what issues does it raise in them and that turned out to be an interesting subject which is uh furthermore the that same system had institutions that are relevant to the current controversy of how you control police because one of the current issues is the idea uh of uh immunity the idea which as the court seemed to interpret now says that police are only civilly liable for doing things they don’t have a constitutional right to do if it was entirely obvious to them they didn’t have a constitutional right to do and one of the problems is that that means that until the court has ruled on almost precisely the same issue the policeman can always claim well i you know it wasn’t clear i didn’t know uh in 18th century england uh
criminal prosecution was private right and that that’s actually another question for you at least and in fact there is a case there was a fascinating character by the name of james james i think wilkes who was the person john wilkes he’s the person who john wilkes booth was named after oh well he was he’s also the person who wilkes berry pennsylvania is named after he was a radical journalist politician in 18th century england who in effect fought this long war with the king of england uh and
he affected actually america in a number of different ways that would be another longer story but at one at various points in his career he’s a journalist he’s an outlaw in europe because he’ll be arrested if he’s come back to england he’s a prisoner in the tower he’s elected to parliament and the house refuses to seat him and have the run the election again and he wins again and they refuse to seat him and they run the election a third time and he wins again and they seat the person who comes in second oh my god and he’s later lord mayor of london so very interesting colorful character uh he gets described as the ugliest man in in in england but he claims that various points that in the competition for a woman’s favors he can defeat the handsomest man in england given two hours leave there are different versions of the story so he was sort of a character in lots of different ways but anyway at one point wilkes is in prison in in in in london and his supporters are demonstrating in front of the prison and the authorities get worried about a riot and they call out the troops and the troops open fire on the demonstrators and kill several of them at which point wilkes people
charge the soldiers who fired and the magistrate who gave the order with murder oh wow and the soldiers disappear they sort of vanish we don’t know what happened to them but the magistrate gets tried and he’s acquitted but he doesn’t have to be acquitted this is in a london court and the londoners generally are pro-wilts uh so that’s an interesting approach to the problem of how do you discipline law enforcement by making them subject in the ordinary law and the in our system tort law is privately prosecuted so in principle tort law is an instrument but the current interpretation of immunity makes it a less good instrument than it should be now in 18th century england the problem they in principle is that the king could pardon people so if they had convicted the magistrate the king would probably have pardoned him but at least in theory there was a way around that not a very workable way but there was a legal action that still survived in english law in the 18th century called the indictment called the appeal of felony a felony and the appeal of felony was an entirely private criminal case all right an ordinary criminal case was privately prosecuted but the case was rex v smith the king versus smith it was the king’s case which meant the king could pardon smith if he got convicted an appeal of felony was a private case it was jones v smith and blackstone who’s the great 18th century authority says in commenting on this now at that time more or less obsolete action that if you get a conviction the king can no more pardon the defendant then he can cancel a tort verdict because he’s not a party to the case so there’s a different case where you’ve got two men who commit murder pretty clearly they’re convicted of murder their sister is the mistress of some high some very influential nobleman and apparently because of their influence the king pardons the murderers and some of i think again wilkins uh attempt a appeal a felony against the murderers they they aren’t able to succeed it was blackstone basically says this is an obsolete form it isn’t really workable very much but in on paper at least it still existed so that raises again the whole issue of to what degree you can legally use a legal system to control the people who are enforcing it the one of my my most recent non-fiction books is legal systems very different from ours and i have a long chapter on 18th century england there’s lots as well as lots of others uh turns out another system which like 18th century england has criminal law that’s privately prosecuted is pericle in athens another very famous society but in any case uh the one of the chapters the my legal systems book has two kinds of chapters what i think of is system chapters and thread chapters and the system chapter tries to describe and make sense of some legal system at some time in place there are i think 13 of them covered and a thread chapter tries to take some issue that runs through multiple legal systems and understands it and one of the issues is who guards the guardians how do you enforce legal rules on the people who are enforcing it who are enforcing the rules and this is one of the interesting approaches to solving that problem so anyway so so i ended up doing a talk for some law school students which was about 18th century england from that perspective including the the issue of the appeal of felony and the private prosecution of the magistrate uh you know you think of a imagine in our presence system that it’s the mayor who tells the police to do something in principle he can be charged with murder now of course in principle he can under our system too but the problem is the government has to do the charging there are multiple cases in in in you in the us history where somebody committed what was i think very clearly a criminal act in one case first-degree murder and was never charged with any crime okay the murder case i’m thinking of was back when i was a graduate student at chicago so i was paying attention to it was a black panther shooting that basically a group of chicago policemen come to a apartment at night within which a bunch of black panthers are sleeping including one very influential one who they pretty clearly wanted to get they opened fire through the walls of the apartment they claim that they were fired at first but apparently there’s no evidence to support that and quite a lot of evidence that it wasn’t true they killed two people that’s first degree murder no one is ever charged with a crime that one of the people in the chain of command not them uh is charged with i think basically lying about what happened something like something that sword is acquitted but the survivors sue and they collect a sizable civil judgment from the city state and and county uh governments so that’s a case where the criminal law is impotent because criminal prosecution in our system is by the state uh but civil laws of some use and i guess the the latest case which is much less shocking but still pretty striking is that as you may remember a few years ago the director of national intelligence was asked in in in in congress uh whether the i was nsa or the government in general collected any sort of information on millions or hundreds of millions of americans and he said no and he was lying that that that we we now know and he he has not since denied it that they were collecting not the content of phone calls but the who who called whom information metadata the metadata on most of the population so that was perjury perjury is a criminal act he’s never been charged with perjury so anyway so that that’s a general a general limit of our legal system and what you do about it is not entirely clear you have to worry about that in a privately prosecuted system that you may get people prosecuted by as harassment as it were rather than for a legal case it’s pretty clear if you look at pericles in athens that one of the incentives to prosecute somebody for a crime was that he was a political enemy and you wanted to get him and
there’s an actual case i don’t remember enough for the details of it but where that’s clearly what’s happening another incentive is that in order to have a privately prosecuted system works there’s got to be some incentive to prosecute people all right well in our tort system the incentive is toward damages well but that means you have an incentive to go after deep pockets to sue on some case where if you win you’ll get a lot of money and you’ll probably lose but they’ll settle out of court instead so there are problems with private prosecution as well i mean that’s that’s part of what i i discussed in the in the book and elsewhere but it does have some real advantages as a way of making sure that the government is itself subject to the laws that it makes uh so hold it freeze for just a moment if you can because i’m getting messages and i don’t know what they are and i’d better check just to see that probably uh
right nothing urgent uh one result of uh the covet is doing a whole lot of things at a distance not just this interview but our grocery shopping is all done online or or by instant messages or things of this sort nowadays i’ve uh at the point when the kovid started to look seriously in mid-march i was on a speaking trip in europe oh wow and my younger son uh argued by email that i should quit and come home and my initialism was not to do so but i eventually concluded that he was right i was wrong so i cancelled the last two talks which i one of which i wouldn’t have been able to give as it turns out because the czech republic uh closed its border like a day or so before i was supposed to fly to prague to give a talk uh and flew home and we’ve been quarantining ever since since mid-march so with all almost total quarantine that’s good i’ve been farther than 10 feet from my own property other than in a car only once and that was for some medical things smart smart so so so it’s not clear that you have to but as you probably know the risks depend a whole lot on age that’s right it really does yeah my uh my mom’s a uh ear nose and throat physician and she innovates she’s innovated a few covered patients and you know if you’re overweight or you’re old it seems to be much worse yeah roughly speaking the data may be wrong because apparently the cure the the the the mortality rate is going down as they learn more about it but on the current such figures we’ve got if i get it i’ve got about a five percent chance of dying if you get it you’ve got maybe one chance and a thousand of dying depending on just how old you are and how healthy you are so so it is sensible for me to be careful and for you to be much less careful unless there are old people you’re close to who you don’t transmit to which is why my adult kids who are not at much risk nonetheless been quarantined too smart smart so um so quinn i know you had a few questions is there one you’d like to yeah i had several there’s actually when i forgot to forward ahead of time um
i’ve read quite a lot of your uh discussions with other people online sometimes about contentious topics and something sort of stood out to me over time i’m not sure i can get exactly specified you seem to be really good at knowing how much charity to extend like if i when i talk with people if i assume what they’re saying makes sense and they’re not making any mistakes i can always find an interpretation but that usually when they are making mistakes it doesn’t end up being a productive discussion i’ve never felt like you were being unfeared to someone straw man and comforter do you know anything about how you do that i mean how you decide when you think i do i don’t think i do i think i had the enormous advantage of being brought up by my parents and therefore being used to thinking of sort of honest rational argument is the normal thing and everything else is so that in there there are disadvantages of that that is to say at various points i’ve been sort of shocked and surprised when it became clear at least to me that somebody was not honest uh one of one of the chapters that i’ve more or less finished at this point is mainly about uh another prominent libertarian intellectual who as far as i can tell did not care very much whether the arguments you offered were true or not as long as they reached what he thought was a true conclusion and i find that sort of disturbing um but no i think i think most of the i really don’t know that there’s an awful lot of this stuff you do by feel and my working assumption of the people i’m arguing with are honest uh and i think that’s the right working assumption to make and usually if they aren’t you’ll figure it out uh but i’m trying to think because i’m not sure that i can remember very many interactions on slate narcotics or anywhere else where i where i didn’t end up with that that is where there were times when i concluded that somebody was not very smart uh or one possibility always is the person is being perfectly rational but he has different priors than i do and that you know if i think about for example one of my favorite people on slate star codex is plumber and plumber i think has a badly distorted view of the world and he has a badly distorted view of the world at least in part because he grew up in a particular area he spent all of his life in that area in particular sort of niches as it were and he therefore naturally enough generalizes from what things are like in his part of the bay area to the rest of the world and that generalization is not very accurate but he’s obviously uh i think it’s pretty obvious he’s intelligent he reads a lot he’s an honest man he’s a nice guy you know i like interacting online i’d like to i’ve you know tried to persuade him to come down for to to have dinner with us at the point where we didn’t have coven and so far he was never never willing to do that uh so and that’s part of part of what’s nice about slave star codex is that you’ve got such a range of people and most of them i mean i can’t i’m sure there must have been a couple of people on slave star codex who at some point i concluded were dishonest but but certainly very very few uh and there are more people who i conclude just aren’t following an argument uh and then there are ones who i i think are i think i’ve even persuaded a few people to the extent i think at least on the climate issue that some people have gone from obviously warming is a terrible threat to i’m not really sure whether warming is a terrible threat or not which i think is yes i at one point i had the occasion um in office hours not in class so it changes a little to quote your uh two different definitions of climate science denial to a college professor of mine and she appreciated that yeah one of them deny that warming is happening and the other denied the implications of how bad it’s likely to be and they’re in opposite political camps yeah yes but but but in general i mean that that’s on the other hand i should say uh some years ago uh my younger son persuaded me that the custom of giving up something for lent was a useful custom and so that year i gave up arguing climate issues on facebook for lent and i’ve never gone back and which is part of the part of the point of the custom of course and part of the reason was that i realized thinking about it that i had met almost nobody in a couple of years of arguing on facebook who was worth arguing with because i think there were maybe two people or three people in that time and that almost everybody on both sides of the argument did not understand what the greenhouse effect was that that became there was a particular discussion where where i think i had pointed out a youtube uh video which purports to show a kid i don’t know maybe high school maybe even young high school kid doing an experiment that proves the greenhouse effect and it only works to understand what the greenhouse effect is it’s due to a misreading of it and i should say that one of the sponsors of this video is the cleveland museum of science which i think is pretty shameful uh but and i’ve seen different versions along this line this was a particular one but as far as i could tell in the discussion almost nobody in that discussion on either side of the argument actually understood it that that everybody thought of the greenhouse effect as a blanket but of course a blanket keeps things both cold and warm right if you wrap ice cubes in a blanket that they didn’t realize that the critical thing was selective transparency the fact that co2 and water vapor are more transparent to the short wavelength light coming in from the sun then to the long wavelength light rating up for radiating up from the earth and that gives you a higher equilibrium temperature well the experiment all the experiment was showing was that a soda jar full of co2 absorbed more heat more light more warmed up faster when you’ve shown a light on it than a soda jar filled with ordinary air that desires to the two liter soda bottle i think they were using that doesn’t tell you whether selective transparency and therefore it doesn’t tell you if it’s a greenhouse event so that was a case where i really did conclude that most of the people on the argument on either side didn’t understand the issues and we’re doing it mainly for the pleasure of insulting each other and i regard that as a base pleasure and one that i do my best not to indulge in and i’d rather not engage in arguments where that’s what people are doing but an awful lot of what’s happening is that but on facebook in general i sometimes find people who seem to be honest people uh who who disagree with me uh i was having a reasonably civil exchange with one lady uh on the question of this current hunter biden issue that’s been getting a good deal of attention and her view essentially was that it was obviously russian disinformation and my view was well that’s not an impossible explanation but there’s no way of being sure it was and i’m not sure if i got i may have gotten through to her that is to not to persuade her that she’s wrong but for swearing she shouldn’t be so confident that she’s right since we don’t actually know uh but uh that’s now i should say one of the reasons i know a fair amount about that case i mentioned data secrets locks which is i think somebody’s referring to it is the refugee forum for people from slate star codex uh and that was one of the long threads and one of the nice things as is often the case in slate star codex you have people on both sides of the argument so you can this is back before slate star codex i concluded that one of the nice things about usenet was that at least one of the groups i was on there was at least one intelligent and uh and civil conservative such that on any conservative versus liberal argument you could be pretty sure you had seen the best case for the conservative side because he would give it to you uh and i think there were people on the other side of whom the same was true it says a long time ago i remember that particular case striking me and that’s very nice because it means you don’t have to do all of the work of searching on everything for yourself and similarly in slate star codex isn’t always true but as a general rule and i think even on on data secrets locks the odds are pretty good that you will see the best arguments or most of the best arguments for each side is an issue and then you can evaluate them yourself rather than and and much of the time you know somebody says something i’m not sure if it’s true i don’t have to look it up i just wait and someone on the other side will point out if there’s a clear reason to think it’s not true exactly the same thing i’ve uh explained it to my mother who had seen enough of it to believe me about it i had a moment with that same college professor where i realized i couldn’t explain i was way more confident than i should have been because i had read to the end of the thread and there were a thousand comments on that thread and if it had been wrong someone will point it out yes yeah yeah no that’s you know you there are no certain methods uh that and i think i was saying i think i think one of the sizable sections of the book i’m working on will be on how you figure out what’s true and sort of the argument i’ve been making along for a long time which is not the same as this point is that the skill that we need and are not trained to have is the skill of evaluating sources of information on internal evidence uh so to take a simple example the very fact that that woman was certain that her interpretation was right is a reason not to believe her uh because it rarely you know there are cases where you can be certain there are some things i’m pretty sure of but it’s a general rule that’s not the right response to a complicated world uh but more generally one of the virtues of the internet is that it’s an unfiltered medium which means that if you’re not grain dead you realize that the fact that someone says something on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true and you then have to train yourself to say well given that i’m rarely going to do enough research to check what he’s saying to what extent by how he’s saying it can i figure out whether i should take him seriously and is this somebody who clearly is claims a conclusion and only discusses our the arguments for that conclusion then you shouldn’t take him seriously because there are always arguments you know there wouldn’t be any disagreements of an argument on the other side so you want to see somebody where the best argument you can think of against his position he discusses he may or may not convince you that sounds like it’s probably an honest person with regard to media i should say uh i concluded years ago that huffington post is better than most because it clearly has a bias but there were a couple of cases where you had a situation where that bias was relevant and they were telling the truth that that the one i one i remember there was quite a while back i had a series of blog posts where i was basically defending republican candidates who were less nutty than they were claimed to be and one of them was a little bit nutty anyway but still not as funny as claimed and one of them was somebody who the standard story that was being told was that he rejected the separation of church and state and yeah i went up on the huffington post and they had a video of the talk he gave in which was the basis for that claim it was clear and i think they made it pretty clear as i remember the in the story that he wasn’t saying that he was saying that he thought that separation of church and state was misinterpreted that it was interpreted as the stronger constraint a lot of people not that it wasn’t there and i forgot what the other one was but i think there was at least one other case where the same thing was true and uh i should say i actually knew ariane f huffington long long before she was arya wellington uh her she was ariana stasinopoulos if i remember correctly she’s greek and there was a mole i don’t know if you know what the montpelier in society is but it’s an old organization of classical liberals and i was at a mall paler in meeting god 40 years ago or something like that maybe more than that in i think scotland somewhere in britain and she was one of the people there and she was a attractive somewhat flirtatious obviously bright woman she was essentially what a conservative feminist maybe uh she wrote a book which i think is still available somewhere on on online called huh it’s the something woman i don’t even remember the title but it’d be interesting because i don’t know how well it fits your current views but but anyway so that may be probably interested in huffington post because this is what this person had turned into uh which was interesting uh but but in any case the the the general skill and and there’s a sense in which our standard education anti-teaches it to some extent it’s not not entirely true in college but if you think about the whole k through 12 context the normal situation is you have two sources of information the textbook and the teacher and you’re supposed to believe them yes that’s a crazy way of learning to to make any sense out of the world and and so from that something an idea i have a long time ago i’ve never done it i don’t know about the position to do it would be to have a course probably at the high school level where you pick some controversial issue and it could be whether or not you believe in evolution assuming you were in an area where a significant number of people didn’t which would be a requirement and you then have two teachers one on each side of the issue and two classes and halfway through the quarter you switch teachers and you set up some easy context in which people from the two classes can argue with each other uh because i think that uh knowing whether evolution is true really isn’t very important unless you’re in one some particular field where it matters but knowing how to figure out whether it’s true knowing how to how to make arguments and understanding which is a very useful skill and my impression is that human beings perhaps especially kids like to argue that’s right and when you’ve got a position you want to argue for that gives you sort of an incentive to look stuff up and to think stuff and so forth and so on so so it just struck me that that you know when people talk about whether or not evolution should be a an issue in the classroom it would be a very useful issue it was actually used so that people would be arguing with each other instead of just saying well this is the truth you should believe it you know if you’re going to say that you pretty much have to go with evolution but if you want to understand the ideas you want to try to figure out what’s wrong with your arguments against evolution that’s right the so anyway let’s see you would want to talk about future developments of which uh i have one book on that subject which is called future imperfect that’s right and the title is a pun because future imperfect and grammar is the tense which means happening over a period of time in the future and the but of course i the future is going to be imperfect that is to say part of the point of the book is that are likely to be major changes it is very hard to predict what they’re going to be and the changes could have both good and bad effects uh and i have a chapter at the end sort of one’s first instinct should be that the effects will be good because what do the changes consist of they consist of us learning how to do more things right but then there are circumstances in which people learning how to do more things has bad effects because it may mean that it’s easier to do bad things and it’s harder to stop doing bad things uh so anyway so i have so that’s really the the i guess if there’s a theme and i cover lots and lots of different topics there uh and i guess probably the one i’m most interested in and got involved in first are the implications of encryption uh this is as you may know reason has just done a four-part video thing on the cypherpunks and stuff related to that and that was my world in a sense i was on the cypherpunk mailing list for a while i wasn’t really very active in that but i’ve been writing about that set of issues that far back and in fact i think my book machinery or freedom was on the cipherpunk recommended reading list and i interacted a bit with tim may who was one of the main people there uh and i like the way i like to put it is that he stole some ideas from me and then he reprocessed them and then i stole the back of the reprocessed version which is the way stuff’s supposed to work but but it’s clear that the technologies we have have the potential to give you a world with a level of privacy humans have never known because you can use public key encryption to set things up in such a way that anybody in the world can send a message to anybody else in the world that nobody but the intended recipient can read you all you have to do is to have an adequate way have everybody have a public key private key pair and have some way of finding out what people’s public key is and once you know that you can then do it so that gives you a very high level of privacy the you can in principle have anonymous digital cash although we don’t have it yet the the bitcoin is not anonymous uh there are as you may know a couple of projects for anonymous uh digital currencies uh my impression is that the people doing them don’t really believe they can make it absolutely anonymous but they can make it very hard to figure out who is spending who is giving what money to whom and so uh the uh there there’s an older system for anonymous digital currency uh by david chow which is what i actually wrote about because i was writing this stuff well before bitcoin existed and the problem with that is it requires an issuing bank and issuing bank has to be in some place sufficiently reputable so that you trust it not to walk off with the money and places sufficiently reputable generally have governments which don’t want anonymous digital currency to come into existence right so that’s why xiaomi and currency never never happened although mathematically it certainly is is i think better than any of the of the other options but anyway you can set up a situation where you can make uh where you can be have a reputation without telling anybody where you exit what your real name is or where you live where you can engage in commercial activities online and keep it secret whether that’ll all happen is not at all clear because you you need to set up the relevant infrastructure lots of governments don’t want you to do it uh the nsa figured out this stuff probably even earlier than i did i’m not sure but certainly very early and i’ve been trying to block the development of the kind of crypto anarchy that tim was was arguing for but nonetheless that’s one possible future and it’s got downsides as well as upsides in future imperfect i have my business plan for murder incorporated which takes advantage of these technologies to sell the service of killing people and as far as i know that is one of the possibilities implicit in those technologies uh other important technologies the one of most interested me at the moment is slowing stopping or reversing aging that i’m 75 judging by my parents i’ve got about another 20 years i’m really lucky 25 years i’d like a lot more than that i’ve still got lots of interesting things to do so i’m hoping uh that we find enough we make enough progress so that i’m still alive when it becomes possible to reverse the effects of aging that’s sort of the ideal alive and and and elect mentally functional uh yeah david are you are you bullish or on that right at this point it’s tough for me to evaluate the uh the answer is i’m bullish on it’s happening in time for my kids gotcha i think it could happen in time for me there’s a lot of uncertainty these things but the odds are against unfortunately and once in a while i see something that looks like a positive sign and then i feel maybe maybe i am going to make it after all i actually had there there’s a company pretty reputable company that sells a supplement that i take and they a while ago started offering you a genetic test of biomarkers of aging interesting so i did it and they claim that i’m 10 years younger than i ought to be now i don’t know if that’s due to their supplement or if that’s just because i happen to be lucky in the genetic lottery and i also don’t know if it’s true because it might well be that the biomarkers are not a perfect measure and then maybe this is a case where you know it’s like heating the house by putting a match under the thermostat right i do that thermometer doesn’t work very well but in any case uh so i have hopes but but i’m not i’m not and you know my parents and at least one uncle lived very long that did very well in terms of current things but anyway but but but the interesting intellectual question aside from the fact that i would like it that problem to be solved and i think the odds are pretty good for both of you uh the interesting question is what would the world be like with that right so i spent some time trying to imagine that world and there are a bunch of different issues there’s one issue is if you’re going to live for an unlimited length of time what do you do do you sort of strategy a is you make enough money to retire for retirement on by say 65 and you then live a life of leisure forever and that version doesn’t attract me very much because in fact i can live a life of leisure now and i don’t choose to right i’d rather spend i i i like having a lot of leisure uh but i also like having spending some time writing books and giving talks and stuff of that sort uh another possible you just keep doing the same things forever uh right there’s there’s somebody has a science fiction story somewhere where you have somebody who by some natural genetic accident is immortal and he’s like 2 000 years old or something and someone asks him you know you know why aren’t you rich why didn’t you just you know save some money early on because yeah you know people like me i’m he’s sort of an ordinary i think he maybe he’s a neanderthal or something but he sort of sort of comes across as sort of a reasonable working-class kind of guy you don’t save money you know you just uh and of course that you as people pointed out i think on site star codex and elsewhere if you really want that life you can get it now that is safe you choose to earn as much money as possible and spend as little money as possible uh you could probably retire it i don’t know 45 50. surprisingly fast very few people choose to do that that’s right and the benefits are longer if you’re you then get to be retired for 200 years but but it’s still the same same kind of issue but a different question is suppose you’re going to keep working do you keep doing the same thing all right then it’s sort of a little tempting to say well you know being an economist was a lot of fun but maybe i should be a novelist instead you know one of my reactions i when i read a book by somebody who’s much better than i am is to wonder could i be that good if i had started if you know if my main intellectual my son is an aspiring novelist and he’s a better better novelist than i am i think uh if i had been in his situation if if from say age 18 or something my main interest was writing fiction and learning as much as i could about writing fiction he thinks about it much more than i do uh could i be as good as somebody like cj cherry who was the particular person i was reading and thinking that she’s one of my favorite science fiction writers i don’t know but with an extra couple of hundred years it would be tempting to try and similar for other fields computer programming for example i did some programming a long time ago i wrote three different programs for teaching economics to go with my price theory textbook and it was fun it’s clear that sort of computer programming is an inherently enjoyable and rewarding activity that people like building machines if you build a physical machine 98 of your effort is getting things to fit together is the mechanic the the fact that that stuff doesn’t do what you tell it to well a computer program it always does what you tell it to now you still have to spend a lot of time what you tell it to to do and you still have bugs and so forth but in a certain sense it’s the ideal world if you like building stuff and i’ve thought about it you know i’ve considered i have a bunch of ideas for computer programs that i haven’t written for teaching economics uh well if i had an extra century or so maybe i would go back learn one or two of the modern languages which would itself be rather fun i think uh and then try writing some things in them that would be an interesting activity maybe i could you know people write all sorts of things for cell phones now which are relatively simple and maybe i could think up sort of some really neat game uh that not the kind of game that depends on huge amounts of input of artistic and stuff for that but the kind of game tetris is the famous example where you have one simple idea and you implement that idea and people find it a lot of fun that would be a tempting thing to do and you know i may still do it but i think on the whole i’m inclined to spend my time on what i know how to do which is writing a non-fiction of a certain sort so anyway so that’s an interesting issue uh a different issue and one which is very important for predicting the future is would you want to keep having kids right suppose
i regard having produced children as a very strong very definite positive in my life the largest negative i think for me about being quarantined due to covid is that i have not interacted with my granddaughter who’s about one year old i’m over one year old for a fair number of months and i actually did some calculations quite recently to figure out what was the risk of having her and her parents over given that they are not quarantining nearly as tightly as we are right and so i did some calculations with fairly elaborate which is also fun doing that kind of counting sort of back at the envelope calculations and i concluded that the chance of any given instant that one of his parents was contagious was about one in ten thousand and i then said well all right suppose they come over and the adults wear masks and we stay six feet apart uh the my my granddaughter is not gonna wear a mask and i don’t not gonna stay six feet away from her because part of the whole point of it i want to hug her and interact with her but the chance of catching it under those circumstances is pretty low it’s surely well under 1 in 10 maybe even 100 if i catch it my chance of dying is well under one in ten so i figured so i then worked out the numbers and i concluded that the life expectancy cost me of having them visit is probably a little under a second and that’s a price i’m willing to pay we haven’t scheduled it yet but they will in fact be coming over to visit sometime in the next couple of weeks uh but going back then the question is suppose my wife was again fertile and suppose i was reasonably sure that my sperm was not defective which it may well be by this age because you have various mutations in such grief again or don’t even need to do it by the old technology clone do a clone or do some other you know if if we’ve solved 18 we’ve made a lot of other progress in biology so suppose i could produce children again would i do it well my case doesn’t matter very much but if most people would that that one of the things people worry about when you talk about
eliminating aging is what happens to the population and i think that people vastly exaggerate population problems but there is some population at which it’s a problem so if you just assume that people stop dying or die much much less often but don’t keep having children that is to say each per each family each person has one set of children and then they’ve done that that was a lot of work we can play with the grandchildren instead then you just get a linear increase in population and my guess is that technological progress can handle that for quite a long time right uh on the other hand if the response is well it was really neat having children let’s do it again then you get an exponential increase and i’m not sure that that we could could put up successfully with that kind of future so so that’s one of the issues uh and but there are others uh just before we move on so what do you think how does this interplay with uh and what do you think about secular stagnation you know peter thiel um ross douthit the you know since the 70s how much do you think that plays into these things and yeah there are a couple of different issues here one of them is the argument of stagnation on the grounds that we’ve picked all the low-hanging fruit and i think that’s not very likely i can see enough technologies where if things went well they could produce enormous benefits right and artificial intelligence is one of them nanotechnology is one of them biotech uh is is another and there are undoubtedly others that i’m not i’m not thinking of so i think that that’s that’s probably not the case on the other hand i think that our particular culture that is the us at present and maybe the us and western europe is running into a sort of a clogging of the arteries problem and there’s a discussion i think maybe by oliver williams that i’m not sure quite a long time ago about why germany and japan did so well after world war ii and the argument is that you have a society which over time accumulates a lot of friction that you have interest groups the interest groups don’t want to lose out so they make more and more restrictive rules these rules prevent other things from happening and you sort of get locked into the way you’re now doing things that if you lose a war on the scale in which germany or japan loses it most of that gets destroyed you’re starting out with something like a blank slate so from that standpoint we may be in that situation we may be in a situation where making a lot of progress is going to get harder and harder due to what are essentially political changes and at the moment the political situation is looking pretty grim i don’t see any plausible outcome of the election that’s going to happen that i’m going to like the least bad outcome i think is that one party gets the white house and the other party keeps at least one house of congress because that limits the amount of damage that can be done and to some extent it’s sort of looking long-term grim in two different senses one of them is increasing partisanship across the board and the other is that there really is no longer a political party that is even theoretically in favor of the free market right for a long time the republicans were theoretically in favor of it although when they got in power they tended not to act that way very much but at this point the the republicans they now are not in favor of free market and the democrats aren’t in favor of the free market so it looks as though maybe the sort of classical liberalism had a very long running time it it was sort of a very important uh ideology for 150 years maybe but it may have run out of steam now for not because it was wrong but for the sort of reasons why religions change over time as it were i find locism a slightly scary fundamentalist religion that i may be exaggerating it made you know new things often look looks both scarier and more more alive more yeah i don’t think mark twain i think estimated that by i think 1920 the christian scientists would have a majority of congress he was extrapolating their early growth rate uh and i suspect part of my worries about locism along the same line of extrapolating too far uh mark twain also has a wonderful put down of extrapolation where he he uh it’s i think in cornbone opinions is one of his essays and he’s talking about the mississippi river that the mississippi river according to him has been shrinking and the reason it’s been shrinking is that you have loops and eventually you cut off the loop so and he then says well you know we can we we have the numbers for how much has shrunk in the last such such a number of years well just apply a little bit of science and we conclude that back in the early something or others thing the mississippi river was 9 000 miles long and stuck out over the gulf of mexico like a fishing pool whereas by about march 17th of the year 2090 i’m making this up i don’t remember what the actual dates are the mississippi river will be down to 12 miles long and new orleans and cairo illinois will be getting together under one mayor and board of aldermen it’s not an exact quote but that’s paper the point of it so he’s having some fun with the risks of extrapolation twain is really pretty good on that sort of thing but anyway but but i’m not terribly optimistic about my country at this point uh though i may be right on the other hand it’s a big world so it may well be that things will gradually sort of grind to stasis in the us and maybe in parts of western europe but maybe czechia or maybe india may i mean one of the things that i’ve been thinking for quite a while quite a while is going to be interesting about this century is watching the other old civilizations come back online that there is a sense in which since what maybe the 18th century maybe a little before that european civilization has been really all that mattered very much right and the first break in that was japan the first clear change in that situation was the battle of toshiba straits when japan and russia weren’t getting along very well russia took their baltic fleet and sailed it halfway around the world to get it to the other end of of of eurasia and the japanese sunk it yeah and that’s a point at which suddenly a non-european country looks as though it matters again right and then uh more recently south korea taiwan hong kong uh joined as it were that that that group so you have another uh different uh civilization coming online and i am hoping that uh i hope the islamic civilization might and so far it’s not looking very good but maybe it will uh but i think there’s a safety chance that india will uh india has not done very well for itself in the 20th century unfortunately but i think things may be improving gradually and there may well be places i don’t know anything about i mean i don’t know what’s happening in all the countries in africa say so i wouldn’t be surprised if what we have happening is that what has been the leading civilization is gradually going into stasis but other things pick up on that that’s my hope i’ve been saying a long time ago that one of the nice things about china is that it’s different enough from the us so it will block different things and it’s powerful enough so the u.s can’t make it block things we want locked and so since on the whole i would provide in favor of technological progress i recognize that that’s a risky gamble they can have bad consequences but on the whole i think it’s a good thing and therefore and if you think about things like aging research there are a lot of old people in the world they control a lot of resources a lot of political power and most of them don’t want to die so i think it’s going to be very very hard despite people’s concern about population it’s going to be very hard to uniformly block aging research right maybe it’ll come out of china that’s all right i don’t care as long as i get it where it comes from uh yeah and and similarly for other things i mean similarly for nanotech similarly for biotech and so forth so anyway so i guess i’m moderately pessimistic about the us at the moment and again if i wasn’t old i would be somewhat tempted to move uh it looks as though there are two other countries where i could claim citizenship if i wanted to israel of course because even on the narrow definition i’m jewish since my mother and her mother were ethnically jewish neither i nor my parents believed in the religion although presumably my grandmother did uh probably both of my grandmothers uh and it turns out uh my son discovered that the current position of hungary is that if you have an ancestor and i’m not sure exactly what restrictions are who was in what was then hungary which includes a good deal of the austro-hungarian empire including the parts of what’s now the ukraine that my uh paternal ancestors came from i think it’s the maternal it might have been the maternal anyway my son claims that he is with with help of a friend in in i think in ukraine has checked and that we could claim hungarian uh citizenship i’m not sure i particularly want to claim hungarian citizenship but again given that i’m not too optimistic about the us at the moment there would be something to be said and certainly i’m not very happy with california california seems to be very badly around state but i’ve got a nice house i’ve got an orchard full of fruit trees that i spent 25 years planting one of them is a persimmon tree which is just heavily loaded with persimmons at the moment which is really beautiful site so i’m pretty reluctant to move at this point but that’s partly because of limited you know it capital investments depend on how long a time you’ve got to collect on them right so so dave so dave you’re also um interested in in medievalism and i i wanted to get your perspective on you know what are some things the lay people don’t understand about medieval life that would surprise them that it’s not really life but i suppose the biggest mistake is assuming that medieval kings were absolute monarchs that absolute monarchy is really a post-medieval invention and that the the figure i remember seeing somewhere is that at some early date the levy of normandy the number of knights that the duke of normandy could call out was larger the levee of france really all right normandy was part of france but the duke of normandy owed the king of france a certain number of nights that wasn’t the same as the number of knights that owed service to him so that in general i think the way i like to think of feudalism is that it’s a system where the key resource is controlled far enough down so that the person at the top is a coalition leader rather than an absolute ruler and i think that applies to lots of systems other than the middle ages as far as i can tell the urban machine urban political machines in the us say around 1900 were really futile that makes sense critical resource was votes the votes were controlled by local leadership and therefore the boss was not really an absolute monarch he was the head of a coalition of local you know ward bosses and such and he had to please them if he wanted to stay in power and i suspect that same pattern exists in a number of other contexts but other than that let’s see there are a bunch of sort of things people believe at the middle ages that are pretty clearly nonsense uh i guess the one i that most annoys me given my interests is the idea that medieval food was over spiced to hide the taste of rotten meat and that’s complete nonsense to begin with people who say that have never done any cooking for medieval recipes and they therefore don’t realize that with rare exceptions we don’t know how much spice they put in the medieval recipes and there are exceptions but as a general rule medieval recipes do not include quantities temperatures or times interesting verbal description you put in some of this you do this to it kind of thing it’s the kind of description if you actually cook a lot and somebody said i really like that spaghetti sauce how did you make it you just probably wouldn’t say two pounds of this and a teaspoon of this all right uh so it’s that kind of recipe and they’re the islamic sources are a little better in that respect they sometimes do give you the information but the the my sort of standard story is there is a book called two 15th century cookery books which was put together and i think about 1890 as a from a couple of medieval manuscripts and the introduction to that book comments about the strong stomachs of our ancestors as demonstrated by the cinnamon soup on page such and such and you look at page section section it’s not a recipe it’s a menu so what he took as evidence of the strong stomachs was that somebody would put cinnamon in soup and that tells you more about 19th century english cooking than it does about 15th century english cooking that’s right uh so so but of course it’s also the case that that it would be absolutely stupid to use spices to hide the taste of rotten meat for two different reasons first spices are expensive and meat is cheap all right the meat is produced locally the spices are brought from from india roughly depending which spice but for long distance some of them farther than that and the second is that a cook who gets his employer sick is not going to last very long right so so that i guess that would be an example a different one is the idea that medieval armor was so heavy interesting people couldn’t move in it that you had to be hoisted onto your horse with a crane and stuff like that and insofar as there’s any truth to that it’s not medieval what’s true is that late tilting armor at a point when tilting was a sport not warfare sometimes not all the joints were articulated so you couldn’t walk any you just put onto your horse but as far as what people actually fought in uh a squire is supposed to demonstrate how good he is by pole vaulting onto onto his horse at some point i don’t think anybody could do it but you you really and you know i’ve done lots of uh medieval stuff with other people and their people can you know run around and full plate with no particular difficulty the sort of standard weight is about 40 pounds which is less than a world war one or world war ii soldier was carrying and it’s spread over your body so it’s easier to carry than a backpack so that sort of set of ideas uh what else i think the idea that medial surfs were tied to the land is at least dubious depending a lot on when and where you you you look uh do no who is it remember who there’s a very prominent french medievalist no law not not alive for a long time uh who wrote french rural society i think and he has a comment that isn’t not until some fairly late date like the 14th century or 15th century does he see any legal references to search being tied to the land and my my theory and this is really not based on evidence but more on economics is that what’s going on is that preventing collecting collecting from your serfs more than what would be the market rent on land is hard because once you do that the serfs have an incentive to run away and other lords have an incentive to accept them right all right you’re talking about a situation where the effect of government is like 10 miles across you’re depending on where you are but the royal governments don’t have very much power it’s the local lord uh and what what my reason for thinking this is what’s going on is that when you get uh a the the black death coming in in the mid 14th century what’s the effect of the black death it doesn’t kill land it only kills people so that means that land suddenly becomes much less valuable and labor more valuable and what do we observe we observe there’s suddenly a problem of runaway surfs why is there a problem with one way surfs because the terms of of of the contract between the lord and the serf are not continually negotiated those are traditional rules they’re not easily changed so if i’m right as of 1300 the uh amount that a serf paid his lord was about what the land would have rented for the land surf because the lord is controlling the land already he’s a landlord on other things by 1400 that same rate is well above that and now you start having runaway surfs and now you have lord trying to go to the royal authorities to get rules against service running away so that’s my reading of what happened that’s not really coming from my medievalism so much as my economic stuff and i’m not sure i’m right about it but i think it’s a plausible interpretation of the available history what what else can i think about uh well i mean the the i guess two historical errors neither of which are made by anybody reasonably well educated one of them is the belief that people in the middle ages believed in a flat earth uh in fact there may have been people who did there probably some people now who did but the orthodox position what what any educated person would have been taught was ptolemaic astronomy and ptolemaic astronomy has a spherical earth surrounded by a set of nested crystalline spheres we know they’re crystalline as we can see through them with the moon and the planets embedded in them because you’ve got this problem they can they can do astronomy they observe that the the moon is going around well how can the moon go around they haven’t nobody’s figured out gravity yet newton hasn’t been born so obviously not obviously but not unreasonable conjecture is there is something it goes around it’s roughly circles so something spherical the moon is embedded in it and it goes around and similarly for other things so it was it was not a correct theory but it wasn’t an absurd theory and connected with this particular is the idea that columbus was the guy who believed in science and it was all the people who argued with him who didn’t believe in science that’s exactly backwards that everybody essentially knew the world was round everybody except columbus knew how big around it was that the argument was that given they had reasonable estimates of the diameter of the earth back in classical antiquity somebody did a very clever experiment in which you measure the size of the earth and they got it we don’t know there did some with some disagreement about units but at least roughly right they knew about how wide eurasia was all right people had been across china not exactly you can subtract well think for a moment about what columbus claimed he was doing he wasn’t going to the new world he was going to india suppose that the american continent hadn’t been there what do you think would happen to columbus’s expedition the pacific is old he barely made it to the new world and the pacific is a whole lot wider than the atlantic that’s right they would have died he would have died you know somewhere around chicago i suppose chicago had been there maybe probably earlier than that uh so he what columbus had done was to fudge up the num both of the numbers in such a way that he could convince himself not presumably his patrons that he could actually get there uh now it’s possible that he actually knew the new nor the that the new world was there that is that he may there’s various arguments have been made suggesting that there was evidence from fishermen who had made it to the cod fisheries area just east of of canada uh and very and of course we know that the norse had made it to the new world he might conceivably have picked up something about about that experiment so maybe he knew he was just lying uh in order to get somebody to fund him uh but at least so far as you can tell in terms of his position he was the anti-science one and the his critics for the science ones so that’s one of the sort of irritating bits of historical misinformation you get and i’m sure there are lots of other scientists i would have to think more about about what those are but uh my working assumption is that people in all times have been about equally smart and we have some advantages we know a good deal more than people in the past but you shouldn’t base your assumption on the assumption that all of them are idiots because it’s not very likely right and going along with that do you think governance is in general better or about the same as it was say the medieval period or overtime yeah that’s a hard question the fraction of the national income collected by the government is much higher than most past societies right but that’s because i think that’s because at our level of government consumption the population would have died of starvation until i think that is basically uh output went up a whole lot in the last few hundred years and it therefore became possible for the government to seize more and the rest of us still to survive but beyond that
i’m not sure there’s a simple answer let me give you one one bit of evidence that we’re worse off and that’s from adam smith adam smith has a long discussion of possible forms of taxation and one of the forms of taxation that he discusses is an income tax and he says that that’s not one of the that’s not a viable option that’s not doable why isn’t it doable why in order to have a tax on either income or wealth you would have to have an inquiry into the private affairs of individuals not only once but renewed every year and no free people would put up with that all right so that’s the respect of which things have gotten worse in terms of our standards and he he isn’t arguing against taxing he’s just saying that’s not one of the practical options uh and he therefore concludes if you really had such a tax it would really depend on what the people imposing the tax whether they liked you or not uh not on what your income really was because they couldn’t possibly know what your income or your wealth really he’s considering both of those really was uh so in that respect things have gotten gotten worse but in other respects they’ve clearly gotten better uh that uh and a lot but many of the changes i think are really ultimately driven by technology not by not by ideology that if you think about the status of women that the fact that people sort of ignore is that until modern times one profession uh required nearly half the population right profession of producing and rearing kids which was a job the producing part had to be done by women because men can’t bear children and nursing had to be done by women and given they were doing that it wasn’t surprising if they had most of the rest of the job now it’s true in past societies which were much poorer than ours women also did a good deal of work of other sorts but it tended to be household production kind of work so that gave you a sexual division of labor which was really built into the biology and what ended that was the combination of sharply lowering uh infant mortality rates with the result you only had to produce two kids if you wanted two kids instead of six or whatever the numbers were back then and moving a lot of what had been household production out of the house as a result of things like washing machines and you know a whole bunch of technological improvements which raised the division of labor made things a lot cheaper and meant that that it was no longer a full-time job to be a mother and housewife that freed up a whole bunch of labor that eventually results in women being lawyers and lots of other things and we think of that as progress and it certainly was progress from the standpoint of those women who would rather be a lawyer than a housewife but it’s not really progress for intellectual reasons i think the intellectual arguments come second they’re secondary to the technology the technological ones uh but but no i mean i would have said that size of government is worse in the modern world uh other things there are certainly respects in which in which we are freer than people of many times in the past we have pretty complete freedom of religion for example which you certainly did not have consistently in the past
the we have obviously a good deal of sexual freedom which most past societies had less of so things are better in some ways uh i’m not a big fan of democracy i don’t think there are any good ways of running governments uh probably the least bad system is benevolent dictatorship but the problem is you can’t count on having a benevolent incompetent dictator there’s lee kuan yew and then there’s then who else maybe oliver cromwell yeah that’s true cromwell that is i think probably cromwell was a better ruler than the rulers before after him as far as i can tell he was confident as far as i can tell uh but but yeah uh yeah no there is a historical novel by mary renault who was really one of the very good early historical novelists writing almost entirely about ancient greece and this novel is called the praise singer and the protagonist is a professional poet he is a professional poet one of whose poems has in fact survived that’s all we really know about the real character and the poem that has survived is the epitaph uh at thermopylae uh stranger if you come to sparta tell that here obedient to the law we felt uh but he’s the protagonist of the fiction and the fiction is partly about tyranny because tyranny to the ancient greeks was not a negative term a tyrant was a popular dictator good or bad and in the course of that book you see three different tyrannies and the first one is a greek island and the tyrant is competent but not particularly benevolent but it’s clear that for him to live sort of the to live high off the hog his island has to prosper so he’s got stuff to grab and the result is that when he when he gets killed things collapse things go sharply downhill the second one is athens and it’s athens at a point when athens is the de facto ruler of athens is a man called i think priscilla stratus if i remember correctly who at least as renault tells the story had been the younger lover of solon who who gave the athenian laws and as he explains to the protagonist who was a friend of his
after solon made the law everybody was in favor of everything but one thing everybody wanted someone part of the law changed to favor him solon said they can’t make me change the law if i’m not here and he left they keep his law i see to that who could have given them laws they would like less well so he’s been kept honest by the memory of his dead lover it’s really quite a neat scene and he’s confident and he does a good job of finding happens he dies and he’s succeeded by his sons and for a while things run on sword armor momentum but the sons are not the kind of person the father was and it slides downhill so i think reynolds view i suspect was that the best system of government was benevolent tyranny provided you happen to have the good luck to have a good tyrant but you couldn’t count on having them so i don’t think there are any particularly good systems uh and you know feudalism had some attractions it was decentralized enough so that to some extent that the lords are competing with each other and to some extent if one lord does badly people are going to flow out to another on the other hand people are a good deal less mobile than we are so so that was a limited kind of constraint and so anyway i guess i wouldn’t really say that governance is better or worse and you’d have to look at particular examples if you look at my book legal systems very different you at least see a bunch of different patterns right and those include some stateless systems and right the other extreme they include imperial china which was a very strong state for a very long time so the system lasted about two thousand years with occasional interruptions when a dynasty collapsed until it got replaced by another dynasty and that’s a very interesting system to try to make sense of it part of the fun of the book really is is first figuring out what happened and then figuring out why why what is the reason what’s the internal logic that makes the rules what they are uh so that furries take one example from imperial china which is one of my favorite points to look at uh one of the the stories we tell about oppressive regimes is that they try to compel children to betray their parents in imperial china to accuse your father of a crime of which your father was guilty was a criminal offense by you it was illegal to betray your parents why and the answer i think is that at least by the late empire they are ruling a population of several hundred million people and they’re doing with a small elite of scholarly of scholar officials and how do you do it you subcontract the job and the who do you subcontractor to well one of the main authority structures or subcontracting to is the extended family so you don’t want to do anything that will reduce the authority of the people at the top of the extended family over the people below them because they’re the ones who are going to really make you behave from your standpoint and there are various features of the law if you look at them all of which seem to be to fit the pattern that they are trying to design it to maintain that structure as an effect a substitute for so that those to reduce the amount that has to be done by the governmental structure so that would be one example of something which is sort of intriguing but there were lots of the book was a lot of fun i it was a course i taught every other year for i don’t know 10 or 15 years on legal systems very different from ours and in the course of that time i accumulated more and more stuff and my students did papers so i got stuff from them and the last year i taught it my class would mostly consisted of saudi arabian llm students saudi arabia is pretty much the closest thing to actual islamic law that still survives there’s a lot of talk about sharia and islamic law but it isn’t really islamic law we know a good deal about what the traditional system was and saudis is at least partly that although it’s also got elements from modern legal systems so i had primary sources in my classroom and that was great fun discovered some things about isla there was at least one point where my secondary sources from a good authority said something that apparently was not true oh wow because it said that the following institution used to exist but long ago vanished and my students said oh no no no the reason my last name is such and such is because that identifies which of these groups i’m in these were clustered groups that had some common uh legal obligation for each other so to speak uh so anyway so that was quite interesting uh the one of the students almost all of them were male but there was one at least one woman whose mother was a law professor a saudi law professor and i had long talks with her she was really very interesting and again trying to see how that system works for example uh in saudi arabia colleges are either for men or for women and they take it seriously a college for women has no males inside the building oh wow if if a if they need to have a male professors teach class it’s done over closed circuit television uh furthermore in that system there is no no officially at least there is no socializing between unmarried men and women that a restaurant will have a place for men a place for women and a place for couples uh one result of that is that if her brother wanted a bride it would be up to his mother and sister to find one for him wow because he would he couldn’t he’s not he’s not interacting with with the potential women now they also have a system where you are basically marrying within your kinship group so the number of candidates wouldn’t have been very large my guess from what she said was that if her brother wanted a bride there would be only 10 or 12 potential women who were within that group of the right age and single and then presumably her mother and his mother and sister would get to know them and decide who was a likely candidate uh sort of related experience a long long time ago long before i knew this stuff i ended up flying from bombay to sydney next to a woman where i got into a conversation with in the airport who was from southern india she was flying to join her husband who was a doctor in australia and it had been an arranged marriage arranged by their parents and she was not a primitive person she was an educated intelligent woman who found our way of doing things just as weird as i found her way of doing things and you know it was clear that it was a viable set of institutions as it happened my marriage had broken up my first marriage and her marriage was going strong so when our small sampler system worked better than ours did it was clear that she could have vetoed that is to say that the parents select the person and then they meet and have a chance to interact enough to see if they’ll get along but normally they do and that’s that’s the way you do it and that was really interesting sort of seeing in in the flesh as it were something that we are tend to reject as well they just do that because they’re primitive stupid people and that’s not the case anyway so the world is a very interesting place this is one of the reasons i’d like to last another few centuries definitely and and i had one more question i will ask quinn if he has another one uh so cryonics are you interested at all not significantly seriously very possibly i should be uh but so far i haven’t been since i don’t think i’m very likely to die in the near future it hasn’t felt like an urgent issue but i’ve got at least one friend who has urged me to do it he may well be correct uh makes sense the i think the odds of it working are not very high but the odds of the alternative working are even lower exactly now i should say i’m not absolutely certain that there isn’t any life after death that’s my guess but i think one of the mistakes that a lot of people especially a lot of atheists make is to assume we understand consciousness and we don’t understand consciousness i mean it’s all very well to say yes i’m software running on the hardware of my brain but how come software is looking out as it went how come there is actually a ghost in the machine as somebody put it and the answer is i don’t know and you know it’s still my best guess and i just understand how it is that software can be like that but maybe there’s an immaterial soul and you know maybe god really exists i think you i don’t think one should be as confident of these things as most most people who share my general view view are now partly that’s because i have encountered mostly in writing some very bright people who clearly believe in stuff that seems like a fantasy to me right gk chester and c.s lewis would be two obvious examples uh but it’s partly just because it seems to me that i have a you know i i have explanations of sizable parts of the world much more than people did a few hundred years ago there are lots of things i don’t understand and uh anyway so any other questions quinn do you have a a parting shot i don’t think so i’m i’m really thankful i got the chance to talk to you i’ve learned a lot from reading your blog and reading your comments on slate star codex and uh good let us hope that we get slight star codex back in the not too distant yes i’m going to check out the the new thing i haven’t opened in or i typed into google so i wouldn’t forget where it was yeah i’ve been missing that it’s not as good without scott and we don’t have all of the good people deshock has not showed up or maybe she showed up briefly but she’s not there currently plumber is there and and participating in a fair number of the sort of what i think of as the core group or star are there and hopefully more will drift in but hopefully we’ll get scott back at some point and then we can go back to yeah codex instead that’s right even better all right well this was fun i enjoyed it i like talking as you can see yeah well well thank you david and where should people find you um where should they buy your books um yeah anything else like to mention sure uh to begin with you can my website is daviddfriedman.com that’s easy to remember you have to have the extra d if i had applied for the url a few months earlier i could have gotten without it somebody beat me to it and you have to know that friedman is spelled i-e-d-m-a-n that particular name has six different spellings that i know about uh and mine is one of the more common maybe the most common one uh beyond that that has a link to my blog my blog is called ideas and it got a lot less active some years ago due to slate star codex because why should i put something on my blog when i could discuss it with more interesting people by putting on science.codex it got much more active again after slave psychotics shut down slowed down a little bit because of uh locks showing up as an alternative but i have been posting stuff and i probably will be posting again with it next next week other than that if you go to my website i think you find a list of i think all of my books are are listed there they’re all available by amazon uh my most of my nonfiction was commercially published however my most recent one i self-published i think self-publishing is great it’s a lot less trouble and that’s legal systems very different from ours and the third edition of machinery i self-published after we couldn’t reach agreement with the publisher the second edition uh some of my books you can read for free online and again if you go to my webpage you will find the links that i tend to web a late draft so people can read that if they want to that’s true of legal systems it’s true of i think almost all except hidden order where my publisher wouldn’t let me do it and my fiction i don’t none of it can be read for free on well actually harold my first novel vain has a free library and i haven’t checked but you might well be able to read it there if you want to listen to it i have my recordings of it linked to my webpage so you can do that for free if you like you can also get it as an audio book from audible uh which is probably an easier way of doing it but require you to spend some money uh my second novel salamander is going to be available as an audio book very shortly all of my stuff is available on amazon that’s one of the great things about amazon now that one of the ways in which the world’s gotten better in my lifetime is that i can self-publish a book i there is nothing a publisher does that i need i’ve got an editor in-house my daughter is a freelance online editor i have friends who have been willing to design covers for me and have done very nice covers for me i think the best cover machinery ever got was when i got by putting up a contest on my blog and it ended up with a really nice cover and my more recent covers have been done by a very nice lady russian immigrant one of the ways in which we have profited from that who i gather likes my stuff and it’s quite good at doing the kind of cover where i think she’s not doing any artwork herself she’s got a huge sources of pictures and she arranges them to make pleasant effects and that’s that works quite well uh and amazon means that i don’t have to get into bookstores all i got to do is put something on amazon and anybody who wants it can read it i can find it can buy it so that’s one of the ways in which things have improved a lot and i no longer have to worry about publishers the my legal systems i i tried i think maybe three or four of the top academic publishers several of which had published books of mine before none of them was interested in it so i just self-published it uh so it’s a shame it’s an excellent book so those are those are the places to to find it amazon if you want to buy books uh i think all of my books are available as kindles and they’re generally cheapest kindles so i write mostly to get people to read my stuff not mainly as an income source most of my books are now available as audio books uh my third novel is not my third novel is the sequel to the second one so you should probably read the second one first anyway and see if you like it second one has no connection to the first at all uh my my first novel was marketed by bane as a fantasy but it isn’t really a fantasy what it really is historical novel with made up history so there’s no magic there are no elves or dwarves but there are societies that never really existed based loosely on real societies there is a map which doesn’t correspond to any part of the real world and so forth second novel is an actual fantasy it was quite a lot of fun it’s a fantasy with scientific magic it’s a fantasy where the setting is largely at a college for training homages and it’s happening about 50 years after the magical equivalent of newton after the person who changed who started she took the large steps towards changing magic from a craft to a science and that change is gradually working your way through and part of the fun of that book from my end was trying to create the illusion for the reader that there was a real science there all right it isn’t really there if you went down three layers there’s nothing there but i’ve got the top couple of layers as it were of a science uh inspired in various ways by features of quantum mechanics as it turns out so i got some benefit out of my physics uh and i think i do a pretty believable job there of describing such a thing letting it constrain what happens in the plot it’s not like you can do everything a fire homage is more like a match than a blowtorch uh and that constrains things quite a lot and so forth that was a lot of fun and then i did a sequel to that one called brothers which is the same setting a couple of years later but is i guess more politics and less less about the the magic and such uh and i think salamander is probably better than brothers but it’s hard it’s hard it’s hard for me to evaluate my own stuff uh but i enjoyed both of them and brothers the the the line on the cover which is a actually a a icelandic line only in translation is there is the back of a brotherless man so insofar as there’s a theme it’s the way in which personal relationships stabilize unstable political situations that’s an oversimplification but you’ve got in that book uh i guess three sets of brothers in one case brother by mutual adoption they’re actually cousins uh and one brother-sister pair where the fact that the members of the payer trust each other has a large effect on what happens in the story as it were so that’s that that i that i didn’t go in with that one of the things i’ve discovered is that uh no plot survives contact with the characters uh so that’s where the story went i had a different idea which is becomes a fairly minor part of the of of the book when i started writing the book uh but that’s what it really ended up being about that’s great awesome all right well anyway this was fun i hope people who see it will want to read my books and will enjoy them bye-bye thanks david well that’s our show for today i’m will jarvis and i’m will’s dad join us next week for more narratives
In western China, right now, more than a million men, women, and children sit in reeducation camps. Mothers separated from children, forced marriages, forced sterilizations-Margaret Atwood’s fiction made a reality.
What’s to be done? Have we learned nothing? From Rwanda, from the Holocaust, from the Holomodor? The cat’s out of the bag, and the End of history is over. Finally, we can acknowledge that the future is not just greyed out liberal democracy, 2% a year GDP growth, easing ourselves into decadence. In reality, our dark 20th century never really left us after all.
Modernity and the belief in bad people are incompatible. The enlightenment has swept conflict under the rug and right out the Overton window. Hobbes, banished from the lexicon. To even conceive a world with people who are themselves, bad, is a heretical assumption. To understand the aspects of human nature that are deeply problematic is to understand the true nature of reality. American culture lulled to sleep by narcotics and video games, our senses dulled by ultra-palatable foods and 2-hour delivery. In some sense, things are better than they ever have been before; in another sense, they’re much worse. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Americans are depressed, fat, and lead lives bereft of meaning. We are reduced to larping real revolutionary change on the streets, with bats, shields, and batons. A simulacra of revolution, a cry for meaning in a world gone mad.
I recall a cool October night in 2018. Joe Biden spoke softly to a crowd I was a part of. Bathed in dim light, he rambled. He wove soft, slow, soliloquies on American Greatness. He remarked on the magnificence of our landmass. That we are surrounded by vast oceans, blessed by great mineral reserves, possessing unrivalled food production capability, the mightiest navy the world has ever seen. The Zeihan-Esque supposition? Geography is destiny. Our geopolitical rivals? Nothing to worry about. China-why worry about China… “c’mon man.”
This theory is seductive because it is easy. It’s a denial of agency-the idea that nothing can be done to challenge us. This makes our position precarious. You can’t fix problems you can’t see. If, like Biden says-we’re the greatest country in the world, why can’t we stop Uighur persecution in Xinjiang? The reason, I posit here, is that for all our technical capability, we lack the will and imagination to see it through.
In the farthest reaches of eastern North Carolina sits a massive dune of sand. Jockey’s Ridge rises out of the warm waters of the Pamlico Sound. Here, a century ago, two men from Ohio made history with the first powered flight. Wilbur and Orville Wright were bicycle mechanics-yet they were the first to fly. Imagine the expectations for a bicycle mechanic today. Produce a plane-are you kidding me? That’s for the experts, the technocrats. The institutionalization of science, of technology, of politics, has eroded our capability to achieve the American greatness we, as a people, are destined for. Science, once a process of obtaining truth-has become a bloated bureaucratic institution, a tool for politicians. . When our ruling class says “trust science” they don’t mean “trust the process of inquiry”, they mean “trust our experts.” Somehow, we have gone from a culture that encourages bicycle mechanics to invent an airplane to American institutions that can no longer prevent planes many times more advanced from diving straight into the ground. (Really like this bit.)
The belief, the conceit, is that only experts can manipulate reality. But while experts have gotten us into this mess, they won’t get us out. This is not to denigrate experts, but the bureaucracies in which they work have become sick-sick enough that our planes fall out of the sky, and our factories that produce life-saving PPE have been shipped off our continent long ago. Their bureaucracies and their selection mechanisms have become corrupt, and sclerotic. What is to be done?
Stopping a genocide.
American military might is now too far behind to stop the genocide. Our carriers can be shot out of the water, with advanced surface to surface Chinese missiles. Tariffs won’t work either-just look at North Korea. but with a little imagination-a plan from me, a 26-year-old technologist emerges.
First, we need to visualize the problem as a chessboard. Each player has strategic pieces-some are stronger than others. Here, we want to understand how to incentivize the PRC to close the camps and allow Xinjiang a level of autonomy it rightly deserves. Bludgeoning them into submission won’t work. Attacking the PRC, whether rhetorically or physically will get us nowhere. The only way for us to avert a genocide is to alter the incentive structure, in such a way that it is easy and graceful for the PRC to change course. Attacking will just lead to path dependence for the CCP.
First, our strengths. Currently, America’s most powerful institutions are our worldwide entertainment and corporations. Hollywood, the NBA, Disney. These institutions have soft power that matters to a lot of people overseas. When I worked in China, I was always amazed at how popular the NBA was. The finals played on almost every TV and billboard I saw. With over 600 million viewers in China, the NBA is a cultural behemoth. It is important to note that China is a rising power, with a burgeoning middle class. This middle class finally has time to consume entertainment-and what a luxury it is.
America has a monopoly on the best basketball played anywhere. It’s quality is unsurpassed. Paragraph 1.1 of the Wikipedia page on Olympic basketball is aptly entitled “American Dominance.” A monopoly gives you market power. You can squash competitors, and you can force people to obey your will. In this way, the NBA has power, and I propose that it use it to solve a genocide.
The plan is quite simple. Adam Silver contacts the CCP, and requests that they start treating Uighurs decently, with a list of specific demands- let everyone go, and start over as if nothing ever happened. There is no need for this to be violent: everyone who was involved (police officers, bureaucrats, administrators) will be given new positions elsewhere and taken care of appropriately. The camps will be demolished, and each individual sent home. Mr Silver will do this respectfully, there is no need to be ugly, and without disrespect to the CCP’s power in mainland China.
If they refuse, the commissioner’s next move will be to offer alternatives. A full-scale PR nightmare. We will publicly embrace the CCP, and Chinese people. No hate for either (or Xi himself), but we will pack our stands with Uighur refugees, and activists. We will put #freeuighurs on the court at every game, and we will continue to do this until the situation resolves to our liking.
The CCP can try to ban the NBA, but it will face serious backlash. The party has experienced this before. When things are very unpopular, they try to fix them. 600 million fans of the NBA want to watch basketball, and even only a minority are diehard fans, those diehard fans will make their displeasure known, and it would hardly prove expedient to throw half the country into camps if they disagree with you.
As I like to say, “hell hath no fury like a consumer scorned.”
The worst-case scenario here is that China really does successfully ban the league. I find this eventuality unlikely, but this is where the State Department enters. We can organize a group that writes an insurance policy for the NBA-you lose revenue, we’ll cover your costs. Putting this together, we could make it a no-lose situation for the NBA.
This strategy, if implemented, has a high chance of success- in fact, it may have the highest chance of success that currently exists in the problem space. Tariffs don’t work, sanctions don’t work, military force won’t work, but maybe, just maybe, asking nicely, while carrying cultural clout of American basketball might.