A blog about biology, self-improvement, and the future

Here are some more links I read recently that I thought were cool. No guarantees any of them are actually new in an absolute sense; if it’s relevant, make sure to check the date before using them in an argument or something.

  • The blackmail paradox is my current favourite thing in common law – to the extent that I’m now very open to the possibility that blackmail shouldn’t be illegal, or perhaps even be considered a thing. (I mean, probably that’s a terrible idea, but I’m honestly not really sure why.)
  • This post by Robin Hanson both gives a nice counterargument to the Bostromian Vulnerable World thesis and illustrates what happens what the world would be like if Nick Bostrom were attacked by a swarm of rabid ellipses. And also quotes this bombshell tweet from Anders Sandberg in 2018, which I’m amazed hasn’t seen more play.
  • I really like Winograd schemas, a form of linguistic puzzle that humans find trivial but machines find challenging; in 2016 the best-performing system managed 58% accuracy.
  • I’ve been thinking about information hazards a lot lately; maybe I shouldn’t have told you that. Anyway, for countervailing views, check out Bruce Schneier’s interview with 80,000 Hours and this post on the EA forum.
  • Like first-past-the-post voting, pre-performance competition for public resources is an intuitively appealing idea that turns out to work horrendously badly — in this case, eating up vast amounts of time and money, most of which is wasted. That it also happens to be the way we allocate almost all of our scientific funding might therefore be considered something of a disaster. This Vox piece does a good job laying out the case for one of many much-better alternatives (grant lotteries), though it does kinda pivot away into weak-sauce objections at the end. (h/t Vlad Sitalo for the EconTalk link, which I was struggling to find in the archives.)
  • DNA can hold over 200 petabytes of data per gram. Why not use it for long-term storage?
  • I am a fan of Stephan Guyenet and am pretty strongly convinced by his scepticism of the “woo fats boo carbs” narrative that seems to have taken over in many circles these days. Here he is pointing out that, actually, fat seems to be at least as addictive as sugar. (NB: I think I might have actually got this one from an SSC linkpost.)
  • Harvard is setting up a research/teaching program called “Embedded EthiCS”: because it’s a collaboration between the philosophy and computer science departments GET IT? It’s probably a good thing that this exists, but I’m not sure how I feel about august institutions choosing their naming conventions based on puns.
  • Ada Lovelace’s reputation is somewhat fraught these days, caught between all those people who want to claim her as “the world’s first computer programmer” and splash her name everywhere, and people who think she’s badly overrated. Stephen Wolfram was also confused by this and decided to dig into it; he seems to rate her. I still think her story is more one of tragically wasted potential than actual lasting achievement, and we should maybe find some more women in computer science to name things after, but this and a couple of other things have definitely updated me regarding the depth and originality of her vision, and how great a tragedy her early death really was. (Content note: Stephen Wolfram’s primary fascination is always Stephen Wolfram, so as always he mentions himself more often than you might naïvely think would be necessary, were you not aware of how great Stephen Wolfram is.)
  • Finally, did you know that the Online Etymology Dictionary (one of my favourite websites) has a blog? It’s true! And it’s fascinating and grumpy and great. Highlights include my favourite ever discussion of autoantonyms, discussions of the knotty histories of “fast” and “gun”, and lots of very entertaining ranting about how, no, your favourite word is not a fucking acronym.