Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week.
I spent the month of July in India visiting a friend, traveling first through Himachal Pradesh and then through New Delhi and Gujarat. I won’t share my full travelogue, but a few misc. impressions and amusements are copied out below:
1) One underrated way to judge a society is by how much effort it puts into making the small, unimportant things beautiful (credit for pointing this out to my goes to my friend, who thinks quite a lot about this sort of thing). In that spirit, I present a Kullui bus stop:
2) There is a William Carlos Williams poem:
When I was younger
it was plain to me
I must make something of myself.
I walk back streets
admiring the houses
of the very poor:
roof out of line with sides
the yards cluttered
with old chicken wire, ashes,
furniture gone wrong;
the fences and outhouses
built of barrel staves
and parts of boxes, all,
if I am fortunate,
smeared a bluish green
that properly weathered
pleases me best of all colors
will believe this
of vast import to the nation.
I found the bluish green!
3) Having a conversation with an Indian fellow in a café who was writing a treatise on “theogrammatical topology and semantic spacetime”, who insisted that over a thousand years ago a group of wise men slowed their consciousness down and attuned with quantum acoustics so as to deliver us 3000 sutras that serve as quantum algorithms represented in Sanskrit. Dear reader, I am here to inform you that every visual stereotype you just assumed about this man while reading the previous sentence is precisely accurate. Especially if you also made the leap to imagining him sitting next to his western girlfriend, whose primary contribution to the conversation was a persistent, reverent nod. He encouraged us to follow him on Instagram.
4) The mountains:
5) The pizza delivery guy who showed up one afternoon in the courtyard of the Key Monastery (the complex in the top photo), much to the bemusement of the head monk.
6) Cybercity, a corporate park outside of Delhi whose name, unbelievably, I did not just make up:
7) The museum advertising a display of traditional Himachali hookahs as “different types of Hubble Bubble”
8) The palatial dress shops that clothe the wedding parties of Delhi’s upper crust, which my friend and I bluffed our way into and then snuck pictures of because it was more fun than going to art galleries.
9) The temples, both inside and out:
10) A new police PR campaign?
Quick highlights from some of the movies I watched or re-watched over the last month:
Richard Jewell – This ended up being far more interesting than I had anticipated going in (by now I should have learned to give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt) but by the end I felt like it all just kind of… melted. It was clearly aware of the density of important ideas it had accumulated by the end of its runtime, but I’m not sure I felt like the movie really landed any of them. Although maybe that is asking too much of it. 7.5/10
Rang De Basanti – Has the most aggressively 00’s aesthetic I’ve ever seen, but once I got past that I really appreciated its heart. I can see how this could inspire a generation of young Indians. Does Hollywood have an equivalent to this? The Trial of the Chicago 7 seems a recent example, but it starts with its protagonists already in the thick of things. Is there a movie where the specific arc is watching your protagonists go from apathetic drifters to passionate activists? 6.5/10
No Sudden Move – Sleek and twisty in traditional Soderbergh style, but by the end of this one I have to admit I was just kind of lost. Quite fun while it lasted, though. 7/10
Charade – A kind of light-weight Hitchcockian mystery that wisely realized that it would be a mistake to bury the charm of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn under too much tension. At times you can tell how much it actually seems to want to turn into a screwball romantic comedy. Wisely, though, it resists the urge to fully give into either set of influences, and instead pulls off a graceful balancing act that results in a thoroughly enjoyable little movie. 8/10
Key Largo – I was strangely let down by this one. The crackling energy I had anticipated seeing from Bogart and Bacall just never seemed to materialize, and in general both of them just seemed under-utilized. It was still very good, to be clear–Bogart noirs have a very high floor for quality–but I think I just had my expectations set too far towards The Big Sleep to be able to fully appreciate the movie for what it was. 7.5/10
House of Flying Daggers – To my great disappointment, I just cannot get into this movie. It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve seen it twice, and it would be hard to find a bigger fan of Zhang Yimou than me. Hero is an all-time top-5 action movie for me, and I consider Raise the Red Lantern to be not only one of the most astonishingly beautiful films I’ve ever watched, but also one of the most penetrating dramas. Flying Daggers does not falter in carrying on Yimou’s reputation as an unparalleled master of color and movement, and while its fight scenes do not top Hero, they are not far off in their ballet-like elegance. That, alone, is more than enough to recommend at least one viewing. But the story just completely fails to grab me. I don’t know why, but I simply can’t buy into the romance at the heart of the movie, so it has never come together for me. Even watching it this time with the benefit of DJ 2-Tone Jones’ soundtrack, I remain underwhelmed. 6.5/10
In the Loop – Searingly funny, and indisputably the greatest political satire of the 21st century. It is also fascinating as a kind of time capsule of Bush-era comedy, and makes me want to bite the bullet, embrace my inner masochist, and give the pit of cynicism and despair that is Veep another shot. 9.5/10
High and Low – Eventually I want to do a full write-up on this film because I think it’s criminal that it isn’t as well known as Seven Samurai or Rashomon. A 10/10 morality play sewed together with a 10/10 noir, all shot so beautifully that I’d have just as much fun watching it even if you cut the subtitles and muted the entire thing. Can’t recommend highly enough. 10/10
We’re at that time of the year when all of the upcoming awards season films start releasing their trailers:
Codon magazine has an excellent profile of the current state of research into how to genetically modify crops to improve photosynthesis. Current avenues of work range from modifying existing enzymes to be more efficient all the way to rationally designing totally new, artificial photosynthetic systems. Three thoughts:
1) The apparent impossibility of imagining how most of these innovations would ever make it past regulators in Europe serves as an infuriating reminder of why that continent is obsolete (or am I being too harsh? I’m open to considering whether the environmental risks of GMOs to biodiversity are greater than I realize, but my impression is that fears of nonexistent health risks are the primary driver of the EU’s overzealous application of the precautionary principle here).
2) How much would a successful breakthrough in this area contribute to reducing tail risks around large-scale agricultural failure? I don’t feel like I have a very good grasp on the risk profile of industrial agriculture, but enough people I trust seem to be worried about the prospect of global crop failure at some point in the next half century for me to take the question seriously. How much of that problem, though, can be reduced by improving production efficiency to increase slack in the system? At what point would we hit some other bottleneck where risk can only be reduced further by improving the efficiency of nutrient use, water use, pest/disease resistance, land management practices, or some other parameter?
3) The prospect of fully synthetic chlorophyl replacements – while still a long ways off according to the article – nevertheless gave me my first flash of a possible future of automated, high-density agriculture based around hyper-efficient lab-grown foodstuffs (side note: what do you call an artificial plant? That feels like a category that definitionally shouldn’t exist). I don’t know if this would be good or bad. If we’re being generous, we could imagine this leading to an expanding range of tastes and flavors alongside a steadily rising baseline of nutrition, plus the environmental benefits of getting to rewild existing farmland. But I can just as easily picture a more dystopic version of events where the global diet tends towards soylent food squares, population-level nutrition continues to decline, and taste is drained away from mass consumer staples so slowly we sit there and let it happen like a boiled frog. I give it a 40/60% chance.
North by Northwest
John Nerst has a follow-up on his post from earlier this year suggesting that people’s political beliefs are heavily influenced by the way we extrapolate out from our psychological self-conception. Nerst’s summary of his original idea:
We assume 1) that our experience of how our mind works is correct and 2) that other minds work the same way. This of course influences our attitudes on how to live life, and further extends to our beliefs about how society works and thus our political and moral views. So these are, ultimately, downstream of personal psychological quirks.
As an example, his original post cites Scott Aaronson’s reaction to Bryan Caplan arguing that people with mental illnesses should be seen more as people with unusual preferences than as people suffering from fundamental constraints
I recently had the privilege of hanging out with Bryan Caplan, and I think it gave me insight into this mystery. Bryan, it turns out, has a superhuman ability simply to decide on his goals in life and then pursue them—to the extent that, for him, “urges” and “goals” appear to be one and the same. This ability is an inspiration to the rest of us, and is no doubt closely related to his having become a famous libertarian economics professor in the first place. However, it might make it difficult for him even to understand the fact that most of us (alas) are wired differently.
I think this insight is a strong and useful one, and so I was pleased to see Nerst extend his thinking by formulating a 4-point compass of dispositions towards the nature of the self that could translate into political preferences in the way he describes.
Briefly (mostly a summary of Nerst, but some of this is my added interpretation):
South: you believe your personality and desires are strong, fixed, and innate. These desires aren’t easily changed, either by society or by willpower. As a result, you believe that society should be organized to respect people’s preferences and give them as much freedom to act on them as possible. You are skeptical that social engineering will work, especially if it demands that people sacrifice what they think they need be happy.
West: you believe that people’s values, beliefs, and preferences are primarily determined by society. You believe people’s personalities are malleable, and as a result focus primarily on ideology as both the root of most problems and the most effective vector for positive change. You consequently are more likely to consider culture war issues to be of existential importance.
East: you believe that people are primarily shaped by the experiences of their upbringing, which quickly and permanently set their values and personality features. You tend to gravitate towards psychoanalysis as a way of understanding the world, and generally see a revolution in the nature of our small-scale relationships as the most promising direction for catalyzing progress.
North: you believe people are in control of their own desires and goals, and carry out self-authorship through a combination of willpower and rational deliberation. You believe that people are primarily responsible for their own failures, rather than society or some other scapegoat. This generally leads you towards a preference for liberal values of freedom and tolerance, but could also lead towards a paternalistic desire to shape people or institutions so as to reduce the temptation to act irrationally.
I don’t feel I have a very strong orientation myself, but probably lean slightly Westward. I’m curious to observe myself now, though, to see whether I notice particular forces driving my reasoning.
I think there is a pleasing symmetry here in how he established the poles. East and West both focus on the role of external forces in shaping a person’s values, but differ in their optimism about how much room there is for change once those forces have been exerted. The North-South pole is different in that both dispositions instead emphasize the internal, but the contrast between the two is the same as the East-West pole in that they differ in how much control a person thinks they have over those forces.
At first glance this seems to be pretty comprehensive, but I think it will be a fun project to continuing to observe the discourse to see whether there may be a third dimension out there hiding. Maybe splitting the East-West pole into multiple axes according to the type of external force? Social vs. technological, for instance?
South by Southwest
Speaking of third dimensions, late last year Vitalik Buterin proposed what I think needs to immediately be enshrined as an essential third axis for the traditional cartesian political compass: bulldozer vs. vetocracy. In this axis, bulldozers are those who think systems should maintain the freedom of actors to take big, disruptive actions without having to ask for permission. Vetocrats, on the other hand, think that large changes should only take place if there is universal sign-off from a large number of diverse actors.
Importantly, this axis does not align with the traditional left-right or authoritarian-libertarian axes. Any corner of the traditional political axis can be located on either end of the bulldozer-vetocracy divide:
The key question for determining a bulldozer-vetocracy orientation is whether a system is more likely to fail by doing bad things, or by preventing good things from happening.
Vitalik outlines a few positions when he seems to tentatively hold on the subject of how to orient oneself on this axis:
- The physical world has too much vetocracy, but the digital world has too many bulldozers, and there are no digital places that are truly effective refuges from the bulldozers (hence: why we need blockchains?)
- Processes that create durable change need to be bulldozery toward the status quo but protecting that change requires a vetocracy. There’s some optimal rate at which such processes should happen; too much and there’s chaos, not enough and there’s stagnation.
- A few key institutions should be protected by strong vetocracy, and these institutions exist both to enable bulldozers needed to enact positive change and to give people things they can depend on that are not going to be brought down by bulldozers.
- In particular, blockchain base layers should be vetocratic, but application-layer governance should leave more space for bulldozers
- Better economic mechanisms (quadratic voting? Harberger taxes?) can get us many of the benefits of both vetocracy and bulldozers without many of the costs.
1) Noah Smith gives an overview of the elite overproduction hypothesis, the idea that social unrest is being driven by the fact that we have a glut of over-educated elites and not enough places to put them.
“For me, a telling anecdote that first clued me into this hypothesis was when I debated Jacobin writer Meagan Day in 2018. When I pointed out that very few Americans are financially destitute, she responded that “it’s not just destitution, it’s disappointment”, and proceeded to describe her own frustration with the two unpaid internships she went through as a struggling college-educated writer… From that moment onward, when socialists with college degrees talked to me about the “working class”, it became clear to me that the class they were describing was themselves.”
2) Apparently that car seats as contraception study purporting to show that onerous child car seat regulations prevent approximately 140 times as many births as they do car crash fatalities is actually pretty solid. For those who are confused: most cars can’t fit more than two child car seats in the back at one time. States that require kids as old as 8 (!) to ride in a car seat effectively force parents to upgrade to a larger, more expensive car if they want to have a third child, contributing to the economic pressures which force parents to settle for smaller families than they’d otherwise like to have. I’m delighted to have such a vivid example of the unintended consequences of bad policymaking, but I’m skeptical that much will actually change as a result of this new spotlight:
“We can ask what other rules impose large effective costs on families without much benefit, especially those that come out of an obsession with safety. And especially those that interfere with the logistics of life. Making parents unable to be confident letting their children stay home on their own, or run errands or go to the playground, until in many cases they are in high school, is a severe cost that compounds with larger family size. It is expensive in dollars, in time, in stress and experiences and in the joys of childhood…
The more ways we find to make modern life compatible with family life and general human existence, the more willing parents will be to have more children, and the better off everyone involved will be on all levels.”
3) L.M. Sacacas muses on how material objects help anchor our sense of self, and how the shift to a digital world may take away those anchors.
[Quoting Hannah Arendt] “The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that […] men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. In other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature.”
4) Matthew Yglesias neatly sums up the college loan forgiveness debate:
“What makes this whole discourse so cursed is that very few people want to engage with the underlying point of disagreement which is that some people think debt forgiveness imposes an economic cost (via inflation or higher interest rates) on those who don’t get it.
*If that’s false* and Biden just helped some people out, then being mad about it is pure irrational spite.
But if it’s true, then it’s a valid complaint.
The problem is this is a tedious macroeconomic issue that has nothing to do with people’s feelings about student loans or the role of college in society or generational fairness or anything else people find interesting.” [relevant]
I think that’s probably the right frame for thinking about the issue, narrowly. But I’m more curious about what effect student loan forgiveness will have on the longer-term project of addressing cost disease in the higher education space. My sense is that this is a step backwards, but I have very low confidence
5) In the New Atlantis, Jon Askonas argues that consensus reality is falling apart because the internet has given us the ability to spend our life inside alternate reality games that provide us a constant, thrilling sense of discovery and the illusion that we are getting closer to the truth. I’m quite pessimistic here. I think one of the primary effects of the internet has been to expose people to the overwhelming complexity of the world, something that no human is equipped to handle. It’s a hostile environment for our psyches, which have evolved to have a powerful meta drive to seek alignment with what is real. Consensus reality is a simplification, so it will always fail to perfectly represent the real. That means it’s inevitable that if you scratch a little bit in any direction, you will see the flaws and experience discomfort.
I think this should lead us to a more empathetic stance on conspiracy theorists. I don’t think it’s helpful to shame people for questioning consensus reality (especially if you’re a leftist whose entire ideology is based on critical theory). Instead I think we should focus on how you go about forming an alternative picture, and whether you are engaging in this process with the proper amount of self-reflection and awareness for mind traps. But this is a more complicated issue than I have any right to pretend knowledge of.
6) This is honestly pretty paradigm-shifting for me.
7) MIT researchers are looking into using bubbles as a geoengineering solution.