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This is a mirror of my written book reviews on Goodreads.
They are generated using the .csv file of reviews which Goodreads lets your export. Here’s the code I used if you’re interested.
Walter Isaacson (2023) • ★★★★☆ • Sep 23 • Link to book ↗
I found this absolutely compelling and viscerally stressful.
Musk is like the rockets he is known for: immensely powerful, propelling the ideas he latches onto, and prone to lurch dramatically off-course. Extreme propulsion in erratic directions. Often it’s skywards, in the case of Tesla and SpaceX. Nail-biting ascents; something for tech optimists to be dazzled by.
And sometimes the rocket veers in inexplicable directions. The Twitter saga consumed most of Musk’s energy and some $40 billion dollars in pursuit of a mission we get little evidence he fully understood or endorsed on reflection, at least not as a top priority. Indeed there appear to be moments where he expressed regret that his hand was forced in the acquisition, and that he would otherwise have called off the deal. And then there’s the bizarrely self-desctructive tweeting habit*, some tweets so obviously terible ideas ex ante as to defy explanation. SpaceX have this tongue-in-cheek term for when a test flight explodes: “rapid unscheduled disassembly”. Apt.
I felt slightly sick reading the Twitter story, like being strapped into a ride I wanted to get off. Partly that might have been just how recent this story was — we are talking less than a year old — and much of it still unfolding. And partly it is some awareness, given what else of the picture we get of Musk, that all this money and energy might have been diverted to something truly great.
This whole analogy is strained but what I’m trying to say is that if you’re trying to send a very powerful rocket to Mars then take care in aming it.
Also, props to Isaacson: I don’t think the writing itself is as wonderful as e.g. Caro’s, but this is very deftly written, and I wonder who else could have secured such apparently unfettered access to effectively shadow Musk’s entire life for a period, including personal and compromising moments.
- Incidentally, I wonder if it will become much harder to find figures to idolise now we record and store what people actually say and do in so much more detail. Imagine if Ben Franklin had Twitter.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Anthony Bourdain (2007) • ★★★★☆ • Sep 23 • Link to book ↗
I gotta hot nut for that six-top on seven, Cabrone! It's been fired for ten fucking minutos, pinche tortuga. What? You don't got yer meez together, asesino? Get that shit in the window, you seso de pollo pinche grill man-throw it in the fucking jukebox if you have to. The rest of the order my hand! And don't forget to give it a wipe and some mota and a squirt of that red jiz on the way out, I got shit hanging here and you're falling in the fucking weeds!
In most hands this colourful Hemingway-meets-Zola stuff would come off affected, overdone. But AB was real it seems.
The Imagineers of War: The Untold Story of DARPA, the Pentagon Agency That Changed the World
Sharon Weinberger (2017) • ★★★★☆ • Aug 23 • Link to book ↗
Tales of US military R&D from the Cold War to Afghanistan; mind control, the ARPANET, and self-driving cars to be sure, also drones and defoliants.
There are the bizarre flights of imagination suggested by DARPA’s repution:
→ A plan to power a nation-spanning missile defence system by nuking the earth underneath the Great Lakes and draining the lakes into the new reservoirs through generators.
→ A $20 billion “Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization” which concluded that the best method the Pentagon had for detecting bombs remained “the dog”
→ Experiments to use rabbit telekenesis as a means of communicating with submarines (the hypothesis was that mother rabbits became agitated when they sensed if their baby rabbit had died)
→ The longest-serving Director of DARPA insisting on hosting numerous DARPA events at Disneyland, including the unveiling of the controversial “Total Information Awareness” surveillance plan
Plus many, many, failures — many apparently large ex ante mistakes — which totally betray the hyper-effective image I had in mind.
You might also consider picking up this book to learn management lessons: how could we (generic medium-sized organisation) replicate DARPA’s success at apparently inventing so much of the modern technological landscape? The major lesson is that there is no major lesson. So much of what DARPA achieved (for better or worse) was idiosyncratic to a time and place and set of people, and not so much to a magic ethos. From the concluding section:
The attempts to replicate DARPA belie the temptation to draw some fantastical lessons about management science. Should organizations get rid of all their employees every three to five years, as DARPA does? Should science agencies do away with peer review, as DARPA often does, in order to pursue revolutionary ideas? [...]
The truth is that DARPA’s legacy cannot be easily packaged as “innovation in a box.” Its successes—and failures—have always been a function of its unique bureaucratic form, which arose from its historical role as a problem-solving agency for national security. Rearranging boxes on an org chart, or cubicles in an office, will not produce another ARPANET. With the exception of having technical staff managing research, and a director, the agency has never had a fixed organisational structure. […]
In fact, DARPA’s style often runs counter to fuzzy management theories of collaboration. So-called kumbaya moments at DARPA are few and far between. With some notable exceptions, the program managers often know little of what their colleagues in other offices are doing […] DARPA, as one former director called it, is “140 program managers all bound together by a common travel agent.”
How Minds Change: The Surprising Science of Belief, Opinion, and Persuasion
David McRaney (2022) • ★★★☆☆ • Jul 23 • Link to book ↗
Partly because it’s a by-the-numbers pop psych book, which is ipso facto depressing; checking off bingo card entries like “an unqualified retelling of the Robbers Cave thing” and “tenuously invoking a Kahneman and Tversky concept”.
But also depressing because the one shining through line is that you’re looking to persuade, try anything but object-level argument. Proper big Bayesian updates from new evidence are just about unheard of, and the most useful tactics route via social methods, and steer steer clear of disputing facts or unpicking bad arguments. I think we should try to make that less true of ourselves.
(2.5 stars, rounded up)
The Future of Geography: How Power and Politics in Space Will Change Our World
Tim Marshall (2023) • ★★★☆☆ • Jun 23 • Link to book ↗
Much of this book is filler, including (as far as I remember) nearly all of the first chapter. The highlights were the overview of space law, present-day geopolitics of space, and some surprisingly compelling “how could space conflict break out” vignettes. Beyond the descriptive parts, the author’s analysis felt more journalistic than especially careful or serious.
The Making of the Atomic Bomb
Richard Rhodes (1995) • ★★★★★ • May 23 • Link to book ↗
"We were lying there, very tense, in the early dawn, and there were just a few streaks of gold in the east; you could see your neighbor very dimly. Those ten seconds were the longest ten seconds that I ever experienced. Suddenly, there was an enormous flash of light, the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen. It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green. It looked menacing. It seemed to come toward one. A new thing had just been born; a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature."
To Teller at Compañia Hill the burst “was like opening the heavy curtains of a darkened room to a flood of sunlight.” Had astronomers been watching they could have seen it reflected from the moon, literal moonshine.
(The claim about the moon is discussed here)
How to Achieve Financial Independence and Retire Early
J.D. Roth (2021) • ★★★☆☆ • Apr 23 • Link to book ↗
2.5 stars. Not very info-dense, even given the short length. Made me wonder what such a book would say if it were grounded in an expectation of transformative AI within the next decade or two.
Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Max Tegmark (2017) • ★★★☆☆ • Apr 23 • Link to book ↗
It is going to be tricky to write a general audience book about AI, cosmology, consciousness, ethics, and the longterm future of humanity without going thin on a few details
Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers
Robert Jackall (1989) • ★★★★☆ • Apr 23 • Link to book ↗
Parfit pointed out that there can be cases where collectives do harm, but no individual is causally responsible for it. His example was a firing squad: if everyone fires at once, no member of the firing squad made a difference to whether the condemned person was killed.
For Jackall, corporate bureaucracies are like firing squads: vast systems of “organised irresponsibility”.
Don’t Be a Feminist: Essays on Genuine Justice
Bryan Caplan (2022) • ★★★★☆ • Mar 23 • Link to book ↗
The titles of Caplan’s other two recent essay collections are a little corny, but this one is more egregious: given that the contents are varied and thoughtful and mostly not screeds against the foundations of feminism, it’s mildly embarassing to display or talk about a book called “Don’t Be a Feminist”, and I expect more people will be put off from reading it who’d benefit from reading it than readers reeled in by intrigue.
Title aside: this is another few dozen of Bryan’s selected EconLog blog posts, this time focused around social issues like discrimination. They’re mostly compelling, and always clear.
Labor Econ Versus the World: Essays on the World’s Greatest Market
Bryan Caplan (2022) • ★★★★☆ • Mar 23 • Link to book ↗
I listened to the AI narration version on Audible: it was hilariously bad at times (hallucinating strong new accents, mumbling, squealing); but mostly spookily good (with Audible compression there are 20-second snatches I’d struggle to distinguish from a human). I’d guess this new tech will be a boon for authors who can’t afford human narration of their books; and a boon for consumers: I look forward to narrations of increasingly obscure books.
The book itself is a collection of Caplan’s essays themed loosely around labor econ (immigration, minimum wage, education as signaling). They’re mostly very clear and short and fairly persuasive. Note that Caplan has a book on the most important subject covered, which is international immigration.
In general I am a big fan of collecting together writing which is already free to read on the internet, and charging people to read the collection. By revealed preference this somehow makes me considerably more likely to read the writing, maybe because I like logging things in Goodreads. Someone should do this for Robin Hanson’s best writing.
What’s Our Problem?: A Self-Help Book for Societies
Tim Urban (2023) • ★★★★☆ • Feb 23 • Link to book ↗
This was not the book I expected to read. Wait But Why is whimsical and imaginative and big, big-picture. I was ready to read a whimsical, imaginative, big-picture book which explained the timeless Tim Urban worldview on civilisation, or whatever.
The introduction was vintage WBW: if human history were a 1,000-page novel, isn’t it wild how everything just started happening on the very last page? Are we ready, equipped with our monkey brains, for the next page?
Then the vibe switched about a third of the way through. Urban zooms in to discuss the specific phenomenon of ‘social justice fundamentalism’, and its failings. I thought this case study would last a chapter, but it makes up most of the remainder of the book. Example after example. I was struck by how ‘gloves off’ the whole thing felt. Less “here’s a whimsical sideways reframing of [social/political dynamic], draw your own inferences” and more “this [social/political dynamic] is straightforwardly bad and harmful, here are many specific examples”.
I found the whole thing persuasive but I’m aware I’m sympathetic to Tim’s style of thinking and I was disposed to find it persuasive. I’m very curious how people reacted who are more sympathetic to things it was attacking.
There’s also a ladder metaphor which the book makes a big deal of; here’s a picture:
<img src=‘https://waitbutwhy.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/Audiobook-5.png’/ width=‘400’>
Edit: Robin Hanson’s review of this book is excellent.
Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind (Building Muscle and Performance, Weight Training, Men’s Health)
Adam Sinicki (2021) • ★★☆☆☆ • Jan 23 • Link to book ↗
2.5 stars. (Since GR doesn’t have half stars, I chose 2 stars on a coin toss)
At its most enlightening: an info-dense tour through different training styles and how they work. Explanations of particular exercises, especially ones that most people overlook (face pulls seem underrated!). A fairly convincing case for training variety / holism. This describes most of the first half.
At its least: like someone trained a language model on mid-tier pop psychology / self-improvement books. For instance: lots of claims that various activities can “enhance neural plasticity” by doing things like writing with your non-dominant hand. I’m still not sure what exactly these claims mean, and I’m especially skeptical that they can be both nontrivial and true (I’d love to hear why that skepticism is undue). This mostly only applies to the latter half of the book, about training your brain.
Book aside, Adam Sinicki seems cool and genuine, and his videos are quality. Happy to have discovered them.
Tracers in the Dark: The Global Hunt for the Crime Lords of Cryptocurrency
Andy Greenberg (2022) • ★★★★☆ • Jan 23 • Link to book ↗
This works so well as a sequel to American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road. It’s uncanny.
The Pattern on the Stone: The Simple Ideas that Make Computers Work
William Daniel Hillis (1999) • ★★★★☆ • Dec 22 • Link to book ↗
Neat attempt to demystify how logic gates add up to web browsers and computer games. Plus some shallow overviews of quantum computing, cryptography, and parallel computing. More cursory than Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, which I enjoyed more.
Avoiding the Worst: How to Prevent a Moral Catastrophe
Tobias Baumann (2022) • ★★★★★ • Nov 22 • Link to book ↗
A brief, no-frills introduction to a suffering-focused (and broadly longtermist) worldview. Lacking in some concrete details because of the length, but just very resoundingly sensible in what it does say — commendable given the gravity of the subject matter.
Weighing Goods: Equality, Uncertainty and Time
John Broome (1995) • ★★★★★ • Nov 22 • Link to book ↗
This is a book that takes a technical approach to some abstract questions in ethics. The questions are about things like inequality across people, the value of risk aversion, and how personal goods might contribute to general good. There are lots of tables and symbols, lots of ‘principles’ and ‘theorems’, and some (accessible, simplified) proofs. In style it probably most resembles an introductory textbook on a relatively abstract part of economics, like game or auction theory.
Granted, this is going to appeal to a fairly niche audience. If you are among the philosophy nerds inclined to curiosity based on the book’s blurb, then consider this a resounding endorsement. Broome’s writing is careful, modest, and clear as truth. It’s compact enough to feel like a summary of itself.
And for folks interested in effective altruism: Broome mentored Toby Ord and William MacAskill, and in fact was the person to first connect them.
How the World Really Works: A Scientist’s Guide to Our Past, Present and Future
Vaclav Smil (2022) • ★★★☆☆ • Nov 22 • Link to book ↗
Very good on deflating/complicating the more conveniently simple stories people tell about climate change, resource depletion etc.
Smil also promises at multiple points to pour cold factual water over some of the crazier stories about how AI could play out this century, but never does. (Other than by pointing at vague kinds of guilt by association between these stories and other kinds of catastrophism which have turned out to be overblown, which is fine as far as it goes.)
Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium
Carl Sagan (1998) • ★★★★☆ • Oct 22 • Link to book ↗
Carl Sagan was an effective and entirely overqualified communicator of scientific ideas, but I’m always most struck by the parts in between — where he zooms all the way out, places things in some grand human story, ponders our failings and future.
Somehow it always lands for me: not so pretentious, just a thoughtful person trying to speak on the world’s behalf. Who today is so capable? I’m actually curious.
American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road
Nick Bilton (2017) • ★★★★☆ • Aug 22 • Link to book ↗
So much fun. The soul of a top-tier Netflix true crime drama. Especially unsettling to experience Ulbricht’s gradual slide from scruffy directionless libertarian ideologue to fearsome remote-work-era crime lord.
Big History: The Big Bang, Life On Earth, And The Rise Of Humanity
David Christian (2008) • ★★★★★ • Jul 22 • Link to book ↗
The final chapters, looking to the future, were surprisingly thoughtful and raise a bunch of longtermist ideas over which much ink has subsequently been spilled.
One intriguing thread running through the book was viewing big history in terms of (increasing) complexity, and getting some mileage out of anolgies between different ‘complex systems’ at different scales. I vaccilate between thinking all this ‘complexity science’ stuff is a wonderfully promising proto-field that’s still too hot for the mainstream, and thinking there’s no real there there.
The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility (The Princeton Economic History of the Western World, 49)
Gregory Clark (2014) • ★★★★☆ • Jun 22 • Link to book ↗
Clark investigates social mobility, roughly construed as “how predictive is your parents’ and grandparents’ status of your own?”. All his new results come from tracking the social status of (rare) surnames over time (a method which somehow hadn’t been seriously attempted before). They yield a starker picture then accepted measures of social mobility, notably parent-child income correlations.
That picture is one on which social mobility is slower than thought across time, and is strongly inherited within families. Much more so than a “random walk in wealth, plus inheritance” model would suggest.
A good illustration which is not (IIRC) discussed in the book: Mao severely persecuted China’s pre-revolutionary “landlord class” elite; their land was siezed, many were killed, and their children were stigmatised and poorer than average. But at the turn of the 21st century, their grandchildren are again wealthier than average. From all that was destroyed, something survived.
Clark also finds little evidence of our ability to increase social mobility through feasible social policies. One indication comes from the US government’s ‘Head Start’ program — ~$8 billion / year of federal spending on preschool and childcare for low-income kids (about $8,000 per child per year). A major government-led study on the effects of the program found some short-term effect, but no evidence for lasting benefits beyond a couple years. (Neither Clark nor this review take such results to undermine the need for welfare programs like Head Start — it’s just that they help the worst-off at a time, but appear to do little to accelerate social mobility).
I feel like this book falls in the same category as The Elephant in the Brain: it mounts a lengthy empirical case against some assumptions that if false would raise a whole lot of questions, and then simply ends.
See also: Scott Alexander on ‘Secrets Of The Great Families’
Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World
Tyler Cowen (2022) • ★★★★☆ • May 22 • Link to book ↗
The thesis of this book is that the world can and should do better to find talent, and failing to identify talent has large but mostly silent costs (analogous to restrictions on immigration, or some kinds of discrimination). I found that really compelling.
I enjoyed the unusual interview question ideas. Paraphrasing some:
What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?
What browser tabs do you currently have open?
How hard do you work?
What mainstream belief do you think is correct?
How ambitious are you?
What’s a conspiracy theory you’re into?
What is your most irrational belief?
Carl Sagan (2002) • ★★★★★ • Apr 22 • Link to book ↗
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us—there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
The size and age of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home. In a cosmic perspective, most human concerns seem insignificant, even petty. And yet our species is young and curious and brave and shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is prerequisite to survival. I believe our future depends on how well we know this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
Hooked from that first, biblical, line. Poetic, extraordinarily grand in scope, still authentic and unpretentious. Imitators so often shoot and miss at this stuff, but Sagan did it first and did it best!
The lines about nuclear war in particular prefigure and inspired The Precipice.
How to Live: 27 conflicting answers and one weird conclusion
Derek Sivers (2021) • ★★★☆☆ • Apr 22 • Link to book ↗
An all-you-can-eat buffet of Siversisms. Endless morsels of wisdom, or a platitudinous overload, depending on appetite.
History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective (The Great Courses)
Gregory S. Aldrete (2013) • ★★★★★ • Apr 22 • Link to book ↗
I finished this series while having breakfast, and in the penultimate lecture I learned how one of the great luxuries afforded to Charlemagne was to hear histories read aloud during his meals, from tutors versed in stories from antiquity.
The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner
Daniel Ellsberg (2017) • ★★★★☆ • Mar 22 • Link to book ↗
Still relevant, alas. Full of eye-widening “wait, really?” revelations.
Without meaning to undermine this book’s moral seriousness, one especially bizarre detail was a plan codenamed ‘Project Retro’:
It was a classified proposal to deal with the possibility that a Soviet attack with ICBMs could eliminate our capability to retaliate with land-based missiles, primarily Minuteman ICBMs.Wait, really?
[…] This scheme proposed in some detail to assemble a huge rectangular array of one thousand first-stage Atlas engines—our largest rocket propulsion engines, except for Titans, of which we had only a few—to be fastened securely to the earth in a horizontal position, facing in a direction opposite to the rotation of the earth.
The officer originating this proposal envisioned that if our Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) radars detected and reported on the huge viewing screens at NORAD a large flight of missile warheads coming across the North Pole from the Soviet Union—aimed at our missile fields in North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Missouri—the array of Atlas engines would be fired, as near simultaneously as possible, to stop the earth’s rotation momentarily.
The Soviet missiles, on their inertial path, would thus bypass or overfly their intended targets.
[…] You didn’t have to be a geophysicist, which I wasn’t, to see some defects with this scheme.
Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand
John Markoff (2022) • ★★★★★ • Mar 22 • Link to book ↗
Ace! Some favourite ‘Brandisms’ from the epilogue —
“We are as Gods and we might as well get used to it.” “We are as Gods and we might as well get good at it.”—Whole Earth Catalog, 1968
“After burning our bridges we reported before the Throne to announce: ‘We’re here for our next terrific idea.’ The Throne said, ‘That was it.’ ”—Introduction to the CoEvolution Quarterly, 1974
“Ecology maintains. Coevolution learns.”—Whole Earth Epilog, wraparound, 1974
“An old joke says that the lake with the longest name in the world is called—in a single native American word—‘You-fish-on-your-side-we’ll-fish-on-our-side-nobody-fish-in-the-middle.’ ‘Nobody fish in the middle’ is a formula for a perpetually livable planet.”—CoEvolution Quarterly, 1975
“On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”—First Hacker’s Conference, 1984
“Charisma is theft. Commitment is a trap. If the group says, and means your life, ‘you’re either on the bus or off the bus,’ get off the bus.”—Journal, 1985
“Judge a new building not just by what it is, but what it is capable of becoming. Judge an old building by how it has played its options.”—Journal, 1990
“We are as gods and we HAVE to get good at it.”—Epigraph to [Whole Earth Discipline](https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6411373), 2009
Energy and Civilization: A History
Vaclav Smil (2017) • ★★★★☆ • Mar 22 • Link to book ↗
File under ‘information dense’! Did you know that a normal human metabolic rate is about 80W, and the average person generates around 100W over a normal working day? That this is roughly the power required for an incandescent lightbulb? That per capita energy use in the US — the amount of energy each person relies on — is on the order of 10,000 kWh per year, which is equivalent to around 10 humans working 24/7? That per capita energy use lines up pretty well with the human development index, infant mortality, and indices of political freedom? And that the world is becoming steadily less energy intensive, measured by energy consumption per unit of GDP?
What We Owe the Future
William MacAskill (2022) • ★★★★★ • Mar 22 • Link to book ↗
Extremely ambitious, and extremely persuasive.
Future people count, there could be a lot of them, and we can make their lives better. What We Owe the Future is a book about these three ideas, which come together in longtermism: the view that we as society should be doing far more to protect future generations.
When we take a million-year view on our place in history, what issues come most into focus? What matters most from this vantage point? And what can we do about it? MacAskill (plus a small army of researchers and fact-checkers) sets out to find answers, and the result is my favourite kind of book: sweeping, meticulous, sometimes delightfully counterintuitive.
One answer is that we should avoid completely destroying ourselves to keep what potential humanity has intact. MacAskill suggests, in this way, humanity is like an imprudent teenager:
Most of a teenager’s life is still ahead of them, and their decisions can have lifelong impacts. In choosing how much to study, what career to pursue, or which risks are too risky, they should think not just about short-term thrills but also about the whole course of the life ahead of them.Existential risk is the subject of [The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity](https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/50485582). But in considering what priorities longtermism suggests, What We Owe the Future goes beyond just focusing on mitigating existential risks. It also introduces the possibility of lock-in: the thought that entire value systems could become entrenched for indefinitely long into the future. We know it's possible because it's already kind of happened — but there are also special reasons to worry about lock-in soon, since advanced AI could be used to very strongly enforce even values that nobody wants. Plus, the values that shape the future could be contingent: sensitive to choices we make right now, rather than just guaranteed and unchangeable — illustrated with the extraordinary story of how the Atlantic slave trade was finally abolished.
That all suggests another memorable analogy, which captures much of this book’s message:
At present, society is still malleable and can be blown into many shapes. But at some point, the glass might cool, set, and become much harder to change. The resulting shape could be beautiful or deformed, or the glass could shatter altogether, depending on what happens while the glass is still hot.Other highlights: the most readable intro to population ethics I've come across, an in-depth look at whether civilisation could recover from catastrophe (and why keeping coal in the ground could help), a defense of 'moral entrepreneurship', and facts about Glyptodons.
What makes this book so special is that it amounts to a call to action. We face future-defining problems, yes — but we can do things about them. I am so excited about the prospect that some people could start with a kind of vague feeling of doom about the future, read this book, and take it as inspiration to start working on an effort to put the entire future on a better course.
The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI
Ben Buchanan (2022) • ★★★★☆ • Feb 22 • Link to book ↗
3.5 stars. A clear and accessible overview of developments in AI as a transformative technology. Many interesting details about automated hacking, semiconductor supply chains, great power dynamics, and regulatory scleroticism. And the final chapter contains an impressive list of concrete policy recommendations for democracies.
There wasn’t a great deal of serious thinking about the prospect of truly transformative or ‘general’ AI, nor about related concerns around building safe and aligned AI. There is the familiar roster of concerns around social media algorithms boosting disinformation, bias in classifier models, political deepfakes. All clearly important and pressing problems, but not obviously the only challenges we may have to face if you really buy that “we encounter AI as our distant ancestors once encountered fire”.
If you have not read books like Human Compatible or The Alignment Problem, I’d tentatively suggest starting there. If you have read them, much of the (very good) overviews in this book are likely skimmable.
Incidentally I really like that central analogy. Fire is powerful, but by default undirected. Learning enough to light fires, but not enough to control them, could mean burning down your home. When early humans learned how to light fires, they razed landscapes in ways that are still visible today. Fortunately, we’re now able to use fire like a tool.
Imagine you are an early human living on a small forested island, unaware of life beyond your island. You have discovered fire, and so far managed small and short-lived demonstrations. As you learn to use it to cook and stay warm, you begin to worry about who should be able to create fire, and how to distribute the cooked food it produces. Then the weather turns hot and dry, and you notice the possibility of a forest fire: destroying the island that sustains you. This prospect seems worth worrying about at least as much, even though you’ve not witnessed anything really like it before. So you might consider setting rules for only lighting fires on the beach, or building firebreaks, and otherwise learning how to control fire before it burns down your home.
How to Prevent the Next Pandemic
Bill Gates (2022) • ★★★★☆ • Feb 22 • Link to book ↗
Sane, comprehensive, charmingly wonkish overview of what we should learn from Covid. Nice to get a straightforward postmortem of the worst of the pandemic, and also to learn a bit more about how vaccines actually get developed and approved, different kinds of vaccines, plus hopes for cool future pharmaceutical interventions (e.g. pills instead of injections). Some sensible sounding suggestions: leaning into ‘second-source deals’, mechanisms for getting more vaccines to LIMCs, massively ramping up response training exercises. Biggest and most intriguingly of all is proposal for an <a href-‘https://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Meet-the-GERM-team’>international team to monitor for outbreaks and coordinate a much more confident response.
This book focused on preventing natural pandemics, and as such there was fairly little material on the risks from engineered pandemics. For what it’s worth, these risks strikes me as potentially greater than the risks from natural pandemics over the next couple decades, and currently more neglected than risks from natural pandemics. Crossing my fingers for more books of this quality focused more squarely on engineered pandemics!
Valley of Genius: The Uncensored History of Silicon Valley (As Told by the Hackers, Founders, and Freaks Who Made It Boom)
Adam Fisher (2018) • ★★★★★ • Jan 22 • Link to book ↗
Epic. The format is a collage of interview snippets from the people who where there when Silicon Valley grew up, and half the story is told through the format itself — it’s giddy and disorienting to get all these retellings of seminal events from slightly different perspectives, Rashomon style. Like one of those amphetaminic hacking supercuts from a film like The Social Network but for 500 pages. Is there a word for nostalgia for a time before you were born?
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
Oliver Burkeman (2021) • ★★★☆☆ • Jan 22 • Link to book ↗
Some sections were 5 stars, others 2. There is at the heart of the book a terrible and important point: that you don’t have so long to live, that you will only achieve a small fraction of the things you want to achieve, that you are likely living as if this isn’t true. And the rest of the book is studded with similarly big and uncomfortable truths.
The mess we’re in, Burkeman tells us, stems from things like commodification and late capitalism. It’s the same somewhat fuzzy complex that absorbs blame for so many other problems of the day. Some of this diagnosing our mistakes in terms of big narratives about capitalism etc. strayed into ‘not even wrong’ territory for me — trite, unilluminating, though not obviously false.
The prescription is surprising, and it’s not clear to me that it follows from the big point about finitude at the start of the book. It’s a kind of resignation: if we’re not going to achieve everything on out bucket lists, why rush at all? Settle down, embrace your limits, and go on lots of long walks instead of charging through your interminable todo list. And don’t worry about how much you manage to achieve in your life in some absolute sense, since it’s all washed away anyway in the fullness of time anyway.
Some of this was welcome, but the big finitude thing makes me think something very different. For Burkeman, work is either an unfortunate necessity, or at best a way to move up in the world. He doesn’t take seriously how work can achieve things, and some of those things can be extraordinarily worthwhile for other people too. If you are lucky enough to be doing this kind of work, then why not figure out how to get more done?
With this perspective, the finitude thing made me think something like: clearly lots of things are very important, but I only have a few thousand weeks to do anything about them. If I focused on only a few things, I could help make a large and worthwhile difference — but only if I ruthlessly prioritise (i) which things are most important to do, and (ii) how I can spend my time on them. And then, every now and then, it might be appropriate to feel a sense of quite profound urgency about achieving the most important or wothwhile things I can achieve, before the clock runs out. Since you can’t do everything, Burkeman tells us to chill out. But why not the opposite?
The Man from the Future
Ananyo Bhattacharya (2021) • ★★★★★ • Nov 21 • Link to book ↗
Tore through this. Perfect balance between details on JvN’s life and thinking, and little tangents and anecdotes from e.g. the construction of the bomb and early computer history. Dense and not too long. Up there with The Dream Machine for enjoyment and insight. Imagine if JvN and Frank Ramsey had both lived 10 years longer — the ideas we missed out on…
I especially liked the epigraph quoting Edward Teller —
“Von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3-year-old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us.”
The Hacker and the State: Cyber Attacks and the New Normal of Geopolitics
Ben Buchanan (2020) • ★★★★★ • Sep 21 • Link to book ↗
A breathless recent history of cyberwar and geopolitical upshots. Covers Stuxnet, Petya and NotPetya, the Sony Pictures hack, the Shadow Brokers, EternalBlue, WannaCry, and more. Other books cover some of these episodes in more narrative detail; like This Is How They Tell Me the World Ends: The Cyberweapons Arms Race and Sandworm: A New Era of Cyberwar and the Hunt for the Kremlin’s Most Dangerous Hackers. This one covers more ground, and has a tighter, briefing-like ryhthm. Less journalistic.
If nothing else, it is useful to remember just how wild the recent history of nation state hacking is (and ∴ probably its future). There are nations spying on allies in order to spy on other nations. The most costly cyberattack in history enabled by an exploit developed by the NSA and stolen for reasons and by means which remain unclear. The world’s biggest shipping firm being hit by such fast-spreading malware that only a single hard drive in an it’s Ghanaian office was spared by a power cut, from which the rest of the company’s operations were recovered. And remember that time North Korea held a major film studio to ransom over a Seth Rogen film?
I totally missed that Buchanan also wrote The New Fire: War, Peace, and Democracy in the Age of AI, which I also enjoyed.
Human Frontiers: The Future of Big Ideas in an Age of Small Thinking
Michael Bhaskar (2021) • ★★★★★ • Sep 21 • Link to book ↗
So much fun. Where did all the big ideas go? Are they becoming irreversibly harder to find? Are we witnessing a ‘great stagnation’, and how might we get out of it?
Facts and stats at firehose rate of delivery. Lighter on overarching theses / arguments — I would have appreciated more careful thinking about how and why working on speeding up ‘big idea’ generation could actually be a pressing priority, and also about the feasibility of especially long or irrecoverable stagnation. But this was hugely enjoyable; breathless and discursive enough never to drag. More ideas about ideas!
Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past
David Reich (2018) • ★★★★☆ • Aug 21 • Link to book ↗
Genomics has recently given us a new lens on ancient human history, and this is a big deal. It is a noisy process making inferences about a complex and still highly uncertain story, of groups of early humans swirling around the planet, bifurcating and remixing — like piecing together cosmological history with the earliest telescopes.
Instead of a tree, a better metaphor may be a trellis, branching and remixing far back into the past.
I struggled to follow many of the details, because the writing requires forensic attention and I didn’t give it that. Also this wasn’t one to listen to in retrospect.
The last few chapters, considering social implications / questions, seemed sensitive and illuminating to me.
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
Robert B. Cialdini (2006) • ★★★★☆ • Aug 21 • Link to book ↗
3.5 stars. A surpsisingly early example of pop psychology done mostly right: a messy topic neatly carved up, lessons crisp and repeated, plus lots of examples. To be read with some amount of skepticism.
Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity
David Allen (2002) • ★★★☆☆ • Jun 21 • Link to book ↗
So wish I’d read this back in the early 2000s when I was a jet-setting computer-illiterate executive with a PA and an office overflowing with index cards
The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
Joseph Henrich (2020) • ★★★★★ • Mar 21 • Link to book ↗
Outrageously good. In the mold of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Better Angels: bold, sweeping claims about human history backed by a nonstop parade of supporting facts, arguments, and experiments. Chronologically picks up where Diamond leaves off, and better explains some changes which Pinker mostly just documents (imo). Plus the stories from Henrich’s anthropology fieldwork are great, as they were in his previous book. What a cool guy.
The Good Ancestor: A Radical Prescription for Long-Term Thinking
Roman Krznaric (2020) • ★★★☆☆ • Jan 21 • Link to book ↗
Nicely eclectic but a little dewy-eyed for my taste. Also strangely pessimistic about human ingenuity for a book about longtermism: lots of emphasis on degrowth, resource depletion, and all-round belt-tightening and sobriety. There is such a thing as too much progress apparently!
Talk of new technology is surprisingly thin too, and near-zero interest in weirder ideas like space colonisation or transhumanism. Also, possibly misleading to describe the Limits to Growth report as prophetic and fail to mention anything it got wrong.
On the other hand: so many delightful examples of longtermist projects in art and politics, and some lovely new metaphors and framings for ideas in sore need of them. And very glad to have learned about Joseph Bazalgette — what a legend!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Eric Carle (1994) • ★★★★★ • Dec 20 • Link to book ↗
I just can’t let Luca beat my 2020 reading challenge by one book
Science Fictions: The Epidemic of Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science
Stuart Ritchie (2020) • ★★★★☆ • Dec 20 • Link to book ↗
As other reviewers have said: sober, balanced, hopeful cataloguing of perverse incentives in present-day science, plus some potential fixes. A highlight was learning about this actual paper, accepted for publication in the ‘International Journal of Advanced Computer Technology’.
What stood out for me was how superbly well-written this was. It’s friendly and funny and crystal clear. Infuriating for anyone who’s tried and failed hard to find that voice in their own writing!
The Story of Human Language
John McWhorter (2013) • ★★★★☆ • Nov 20 • Link to book ↗
A favourite tidbit:
The word silly began in Old English meaning “blessed.” But to be blessed implies innocence, and by the Middle Ages, the word meant “innocent”: Cely art thou, hooli virgyne marie (1400). But innocence tends to elicit compassion and, thus, the meaning of the word became “deserving of compassion”: Sely Scotland, that of helpe has gret neide (1470). There is a fine line, however, between eliciting compassion and seeming weak; as a result, silly meant “weak” by the 1600s: Thou onely art The mightie God, but I a sillie worm (1633). From here, it was short step to “simple” or “ignorant,” and next came the word as we know it, silly!
Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything
Kelly Weinersmith (2017) • ★★★★☆ • Oct 20 • Link to book ↗
Delightful nerd tapas. Only misgiving is that we didn’t get more comic diagrams: I found myself googling to get a mental image instead, which seems like a missed opportunity given that half of the pair draws things for a living. Stick around for the bonus chapter at the end about mirror humans!
How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
Robert Greenberg (2006) • ★★★★★ • Oct 20 • Link to book ↗
I recently set out to cancel my Audible membership, and Audible tried tempting me to stay with a half-price deal. I am not made of resolute stuff: half-price was too good to resist. This is how I ended up paying £3.99 for Robert Greenberg’s ‘How to Listen to and Understand Great Music’ — all 36 hours of it, plus a handy accompanying PDF. Throughout this full day-and-a-half’s worth of recorded lectures, I learned about ancient musical theatre, through plain chants and madrigals, past Bach and the Baroque, opera and oratorios, the passacaglia, symphony, and concerto; Beethoven’s da-da-da-DUMM 5th — to Schönberg and Stravinsky and all the rest. Greenberg is possessed of the kind of charisma and fervour to land the lead role in the Dead Poets Society. We get serious music analysis, to be sure, but no shortage of rambunctious anecdotes and historical titbits also.
Friends, there are plenty of reasons to be depressed at the state of the world. But I live in a time where I’m able to exchange half an hour of minimum wage work for a comprehensive guide to some of the major artistic achievements of the past half-dozen centuries (at least as far as the West has to offer). Until recently, concert music was the rich and/or elite. You could listen to what happened to be playing in your city’s concert hall, and only then for a fee. Now the vast sweep of history’s ‘great’ music is a search and a click away. That, I think, is something to be grateful for.
William MacAskill (2020) • ★★★★★ • Sep 20 • Link to book ↗
Excellent, scrupulous dive into an exciting topic. Not a beach read, but probably hard to improve as both an overview to this nascent field, and a key contribution in its own right.
Often, we know all the relevant empirical facts, but we are left unsure about what (morally) we should do. This isn’t a philosophical fancy: it should be familiar to basically anyone who cares about acting ethically, but takes seriously the fact that ethics is hard.
The book’s first task is to explain why moral uncertainty poses a real and significant issue at all. Doesn’t this question ‘fetishise’ rightness and wrongness as distinct from the things that make actions right or wrong? And don’t we have some kind of regress on our hands as soon as we abstract away from the first-order theories? Headlines from this chapter: this is a real problem, those objections aren’t so strong, and furthermore you should be morally uncertain to some degree. Look: the greatest moral philosophers of the last century were morally uncertain — what’s your excuse?
The bulk of the book consists in figuring out how to decide under moral uncertainty given various levels of comparability between theories, and measurability within them. There’s a nice table in the introduction laying out the possible ‘informational situations’, where a tick indicates that the book considers it:
When all the moral theories you’re considering are intertheoretically comparable and interval or ratio-scale measurable (the ideal cases), we should maximise expected ‘choiceworthiness’ (the more choiceworthy an option, the stronger the reasons for doing it). This is just like how (on most views) we should maximise expected utility when we’re faced with epistemic uncertainty.
Why not just act according to your favourite theory — the one you have most credence in? Suppose you’re driving fast along a quiet road and approach a corner with a crossing the other side. In all likelihood, there’s nobody around the corner and you can afford to speed on through. But there is a chance somebody will be crossing. That chance is large enough, the consequences of hitting someone terrible enough, and the cost of slowing down small enough, that it’s obviously best to slow down — even when you think it’s very likely slowing down will turn out to have been pointless. So it goes with moral uncertainty: as long as you have some credence in an ethical theory which tells you that taking this option would amount to an awful mistake, even if it’s not your preferred theory, then you have a reason not to take this option.
One interesting objection here is that maximising expected choiceworthiness (MEC) would be way too demanding in practice. Maybe you’ve read Peter Singer’s arguments that the relatively well-off have an obligation to donate a significant amount of money to effective charities. Even on a fairly low (≈ 10%) credence in his view, MEC would still recommend donating. On Singer’s view, choosing not to donate £3000 or thereabouts is morally equivalent to standing by as a stranger drowns in front of you. Just like slowing down the car, you really better donate that money even if you think, on balance, that Singer is wrong. The authors are happy to bite the bullet here: where this reasoning is watertight (i.e. the only alternative is to spend the money on hot tubs and fancy watches), then conclusions like these really do drop out of taking moral uncertainty seriously.
Things get interesting when the theories we’re uncertain about are less than fully structured. Some might only be able to rank options on an ordinal, rather than cardinal, scale. Others might retain some interval-scale measurability, but lose any direct comparability with other theories. What to do here?
In the case of merely ordinal theories, there’s a fruitful analogy to be drawn with problems in social choice: given a bunch of preference orderings over options from a bunch of people, how do we pick the best option? This is a deceptively tricky question with no unequivocally good answers. After discussing some alternatives, the authors ultimately come down in favour of the ‘Borda rule’.
What about when the theories we’re considering are able to measure options on some cardinal scale, but there’s no obvious way to compare between them? Suppose your credences are split 50-50 between ethical theories A and B, and you’re choosing between options X and Y. A assigns 10 ‘A points’ to X and 100 to Y; B assigns 50 ‘B points’ to X and 5 to Y. Which option is best depends on the exchange rate between ‘A points’ and ‘B points’. How do we figure this out? The solution put forward is called ‘variance voting’, which normalises each theory so that the variance (the average of the squared differences from the mean) come out the same across all theories. Again, this is a bit like actual voting; where voters get to express the strength of their preferences between options.
Once the authors have proposed some formal methods for comparing choiceworthiness across theories, they turn to a more general question. How often are theories in fact comparable? Aren’t these solutions over-optimistic hacks trying to bridge an unbridgeable gap? Was this whole project really feasible after all? The authors (conveniently but convincingly) argue that intertheoretic comparisons really are possible here.
The last few chapters address the broader implications of the approach to moral uncertainty that’s just been outlined. The first consequence is metaethical: taking moral uncertainty seriously seems to favour cognitivism: the view that moral judgements are beliefs that take truth conditions, rather than something like an expression of desire or approval.
Now we get to think about the practical implications of taking moral uncertainty seriously, and in these chapters it becomes really clear that, in addition to being intellectually interesting, this topic is often surprisingly decision-relevant. The first point the authors want to make is that incorporating moral uncertainty is a more complicated deal than the literature wants to assume. Some have argued that maximising expected choiceworthiness leads to such obvious recommendations in some cases (e.g. in deciding whether to eat meat) that first-order theorising becomes all but irrelevant. To these people: don’t be so certain!
The final chapter asks about the value, on the foregoing framework, of ‘moral information’. Note that we do and should value information which helps resolve more familiar kinds of uncertainty. Suppose you’re buying a second-hand car, but you’re unsure whether it’s a dud, a lemon. Presumably there should be some amount of money up to which you would be willing to pay to find out. Well, suppose you’re thinking about giving your time (career) or resources (donations) to some cause, but you’re uncertain about which cause is morally best. How much should you be willing to pay, in time or money, to resolve that uncertainty? A lot, according to these authors! In one plausible example, we see that a philanthropic organisation should be willing to pay $2.7 million of their $10 million pot for reliable moral information which determines how to spend the remaining $7.3 million (!). In one (highly idealised but amusingly counterintuitive) example, somebody considering how to spend a 40 year career might reasonably be willing to spend anything up to 16 years of her life studying ethics in order to figure out how to spend the remaining 24! Bottom line: moral information, even when it’s less than fully reliable, can be hugely valuable.
It’s worth noting that a lot of this book is fairly technical. Not offputtingly so, but it would probably help to have some familiarity with moral philosophy and maybe a bit of decision theory. I recently read Peterson’s An Introduction to Decision Theory, which came in handy reading this — maybe worth checking out.
Overall, you get the impression that MacAskill, Ord, and Bykvist have spend a huge amount of time deliberating over objections and objections to objections; and have followed any number of promising alternatives before reaching the solutions they put forward. And clearly this is a book many years in the making — for instance, MacAskill’s BPhil thesis about moral uncertainty was published in 2000! I also appreciated how many questions were left open or only partially resolved: you get a sense that this is a young and exciting field for research. The case has been opened, but it won’t be shut for a while. Recommended!
You can access the free PDF version of this book here.
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd Ed.
Edward R. Tufte (2001) • ★★★★★ • Jun 20 • Link to book ↗
An art book made out of graphs. A reference book to be savored.
Effective Altruism. Philosophical Issues
Hilary Greaves (2019) • ★★★★★ • Jun 20 • Link to book ↗
Superb, accessible, thought-provoking collection! Greaves and Pummer have chosen and commissioned articles on a surprisingly wide variety of topics, and from a real diversity of (sometimes critical) perspectives. We have familiar views rehearsed or reprinted from central figures in the effective altruism movement; but just as many illuminating ‘outsider’ perspectives and novel concepts being introduced.
The first two chapters cover some of the basic motivations, misconceptions, and terminology associated with effective altruism. In “The Definition of Effective Altruism”, Will MacAskill outlines what ‘effective altruism’ does and does not mean—defending the Centre for Effective Altruism’s definition:
Effective altruism is about using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis.Note the (potentially surprising) absence of any claim to the effect that you should do any of the above! Sure, many effective altruists believe as much; but leaving normative claims outof the official definition makes sense.
Toby Ord’s “The Moral Imperative Toward Cost-Effectiveness in Global Health” was an early landmark for effective altruism. The idea is straightforward: in discussing the ethics of global health, cost-effectiveness might strike many as a technical afterthought relative to considerations of justice, equality etc. But just learning about the stark differences in cost-effectiveness between interventions in the same area—sometimes many orders of magnitude—is enough to dispel this impression. The plain facts here speak so loudly that commentary or philosophising is almost unnecessary: for instance, “the least effective HIV/AIDS intervention produces less than 0.1 per cent of the value of the most effective”. Compare, for instance, spending $40,000 on training a guide dog and its recipient, or else on eye surgeries undoing damage from trachoma:
We could thus use our entire budget to provide a single guide dog, helping one person overcome the challenges of blindness, or we could use it to cure more than 2,000 people of blindness. If we think that people have equal moral value, then the second option is more than 2,000 times better than the first. Put another way, the first option squanders about 99.95% of the value that we could have produced.
I thought this was clear and compelling enough to refer to anybody curious about the ideas which underpin effective altruism.
In “Evidence Neutrality and the Moral Value of Information”, Amanda Askell asks: when choosing among interventions with equivalent expected value, is there ever good reason to back the intervention with the least evidential support—i.e. the most speculative such interventions? Spoiler: yes! And for fascinating and convincing reasons!
In the next article, Lauri Paul’s recent writing about ‘Transformative Experience’ is adapted for the context of effective altruism. The general idea is that certain experiences or changes are dramatic enough that (i) actually undergoing them is a necessary condition for knowing what they’re like; and (ii) you emerge with (substantially) new preferences, sense of identity, or beliefs. For instance, it is virtually impossible to make a fully informed decision about having a child or getting married if you haven’t before been married or had children. As applied: how should an aspiring effective altruist plan her career if she lacks the experience to make an informed decision, nor the time to try every alternative? Should she “earn to give” if her future hedge-fund-manager-self eventually writes-off her original intention as naïve, youthful optimism? Made me curious to check out the ‘book’.
In “Should We Give to More Than One Charity?”, James Snowden asks: (unsurprisingly) should we give to one charity? Snowden’s answer, counterintuitive but tricky to dispute, is no. Provided you’re not a billionaire—in which case, refer to the original text for guidance.
Next, Nick Beckstead effectively presents a SparkNotes summary of his thesis arguing for the overwhelming importance of the far future. This piece made tangible an idea which is often to hard to grasp intuitively, even if you find it conceptually watertight: that the value of the long-term future is staggeringly huge in expectation, and should factor into our moral priorities with corresponding urgency and weight. Here’s the back-of-the-envelope calculation Beckstead proposes: let’s say (conservatively) humanity has a 1% chance of surviving for another billion years. This will almost certainly involve developing the technology for colonising space—so conditional on surviving that long, let’s say humanity again has at least a 1% chance of spreading through the stars and thereby surviving for 100 trillion years. The expected duration of humanity’s future lifespan is therefore at least 1% × 1% × 100 trillion = 10 billion years. Like Toby Ord’s comparisons of cost effectiveness, that figure alone might be enough to make the longtermist case.
Next comes “Effective Altruism, Global Poverty, and Systemic Change”, in which Iason Gabriel and Brian McElwee argue that the effective altruism movement has largely overlooked a class of causes that sit somewhere between existential risk reduction (see previous) and narrowly targeted, epistemically secure interventions in global health. The former class addresses potentially enormous payoffs or losses with correspondingly slim probabilities and / or confidences. The latter deals with smaller payoffs, but with fewer unknowns and high confidence of success—being backed by fairly unequivocal kinds of empirical feedback. Addressing global poverty via systemic change falls somewhere in the middle along both dimensions. The authors cite books like Blood Oil, The Great Escape, and Why Nations Fail as identifying such neglected systemic causes of poverty—like global supply chains sustaining authoritarian regimes, rent-seeking and ‘extractive’ political institutions, and tax evasion which “deprives countries of vast capital flows that could be used to improve the lives of their citizens”. They also note, and the historical record apparently bears out, that few equivalently serious systemic social problems are tackled without advocacy movements and targeted campaigns. Yet, targeted movements pulling on the right levers can result in disproportionately significant and cost-effective outcomes. I learned, for instance, about one such initiative called Global Witness:
...founded in 1993 to help tackle illicit financial flows to authoritarian regimes, including the trade in blood diamonds. Operating with an annual budget of several thousand dollars, the organization spearheaded efforts to establish the Kimberly Process for diamond certification and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize as a result of its efforts. More recently, it was the driving force behind the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), an endeavour which has led corporations to publicize trillions of dollars of previously hidden financial transactions.So seeking out systemic change seems (i) somewhat tractable and achievable; (ii) promises huge potential payoffs, and (iii) answers the charge that more targeted and practical interventions (bed nets, nutritional supplements...) 'plaster over' symptoms of (unaffected or even indirectly reinforced) systemic causes. It isn't immediately clear, then, why effective altruists are not on the whole more interested in systemic change. One explanation—mere risk aversion—clearly won't stick, given the vanishing probabilities involved in existential-risk reduction. Gabriel and McElwee point instead to an aversion to taking political sides (broadly construed). Whatever the reason, the conclusion seems right:
[T]he greatest positive impacts on the world can be achieved not through iterated small-scale interventions, but rather through systemic initiatives that alter the rules within which actors operate and that challenge the values that underpin them. Exerting even small leverage over very large systems could in principle have much greater impact than efforts to optimize within the status quo.I think this was my favourite of the bunch—challenging and convincing. And for further reading, take a look at these pieces in favour and these pieces opposing the claim that "effective altruists neglect systemic change".
In “The Hidden Zero Problem: Effective Altruism and Barriers to Marginal Impact”, Mark Budolfson and Dean Spears point out a simple and worrying way in which small individual donations might sometimes have no marginal impact whatsoever, despite the effectiveness of the recipient charities. This is when wealthy (i.e. billionaire) donors make commitments to ‘top-up’ the funds of that charity whenever it falls short of its fundraising goal. If, for illustration, you choose to donate £100 to AMF, this might just mean that some billionaire coughs up £100 less at the end of the year—money which likely instead falls into some ‘saving for a new luxury item’ jar. In this way, the counterfactual effect of donating to effective charities backed by ‘top-up’ pledges from wealthy donors may be to “merely to transfer money to a billionaire in the United States, and accomplish nothing for the global poor.”
There were also a handful of articles introducing philosophical concepts that were mostly new to me — the ‘possiblism’ vs ‘fallibilism’ dispute, the notion of ‘membership duties’ derived from citizenship and the resulting ‘cooperative utilitarianism’, the conditions under which one has satisfied duties to assist, the difference between ‘sympathy’ and ‘abstract benevolence’, and the so-called ‘callousness objection’. And a couple more besides. All equally deserving of comment, but this review is already too long.
Heartily recommended for anybody curious about live and nuanced issues in effective altruism beyond the standard arguments for and against. Five stars!
Ken Binmore (2005) • ★★★☆☆ • May 20 • Link to book ↗
"Keep me always at it, and I'll keep you always at it, you keep someone else always at it. There you are with the Whole Duty of Man in a commercial country." – Mr. Pancks, from Dickens' Little DorritI feel like this quote nicely summarises Natural Justice's sentiment: sell grand moral theories, buy game theory. Binmore unpacks some key ideas from his field (personal highlight: the baffling Centipede game) and shows just how they explain social order. He also argues (convincingly, I guess) that fairness norms are evolutionarily hard-coded. Among other things, this explains why few conflicts are more heated than squabbles with siblings about who got more sweets / pocket money / TV time.
Binmore is also a card-carrying, flag-waving moral relativist, and spends the remainder of the book trying to explain what game theory supposedly tells us about ethics. He does a good job at making his extra-naturalistic perspective sound fairly sane (or at least non-egregious); though at times it felt like he was reacting to SparkNotes summaries of the headline moral theories he wanted to set himself apart from. When, asks Binmore, will these blockheads stop searching for ‘skyhooks’ from which they can hoist their universal pronouncements about the Right and Good? As a heuristic: be wary when every other candidate view seems equally insane!
I’m actually not sure how much I got out of this. Very often, I got the impression Binmore was dressing up some fairly innocuous observations as piercing and/or damning insights. On the other hand, the mark of good philosophy is often precisely that it sounds innocuous and obvious in retrospect—when the writing is clear enough that you feel like you knew it all along. Shelved as ‘to-reread’. Maybe Game Theory and the Social Contract will clear things up.
The Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage
Clifford Stoll (2005) • ★★★☆☆ • Apr 20 • Link to book ↗
A bass guitar note took my attention from the hacker's trail. The Grateful Dead were playing outdoors at the Berkeley Greek Theater, only a hundred yards downhill from the lab. The police couldn't keep people from sitting in the field overlooking the concert, so I skipped over there, mingling with a thousand others in tie-dyed shirts. Burnt-out panhandlers, left over from the sixties, worked the crowd, begging tickets and selling posters, buttons, and grass. The drum solo in the second set echoed from Strawberry Canyon, adding a weird backbeat apreciated only by us cheapskates in the fields. Life was full: no hacker is worth missing a Dead concert for.What's the word for nostalgia for a time and place you never lived through?
Toby Ord (2020) • ★★★★★ • Mar 20 • Link to book ↗
The book discusses the risks of catastrophic events that destroy all or nearly all of humanity’s potential. There are many of them, including but not limited to the Hollywood scenarios that occur to most people: asteroids, supervolcanoes, pandemics (natural and human-engineered), dystopian political ‘lock-in’, runaway climate scenarios, and unaligned artificial general intelligence. The overall risk of an existential catastrophe this century? Roughly one in six, this author guesses: Russian roulette. Clearly, mitigating existential risk is not nearly treated like the overwhelmingly important global priority it is: not in our political institutions, nor in popular consciousness. Anyway, it’s excellent– highly recommended.
It was also full of some fairly alarming and/or surprising facts. So in place of a full review, here are some highlights:
The Biological Weapons Convention is the international body responsible for the continued prohibition of bioweapons, which on Toby’s estimate pose a greater existential risk by an order of magnitude than the combined risk from nuclear war, runaway climate change, asteroids, supervolcanoes, and naturally arising pandemics. Its annual budget is less than that of the average MacDonald’s restaurant. (p.57)
Remember that quotation attributed to Einstein that “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left”? Firstly, it’s not true– a recent review found that the loss of all pollinators would create a 3 to 8 percent reduction in global crop production. Secondly, Einstein never said it. (p.118)
Technological progress is really hard to predict – “One night in 1933, the world’s pre-eminent expert on atomic science, Ernest Rutherford, declared the idea of harnessing atomic energy to be ‘moonshine’. And the very next morning Leo Szilard discovered the idea of the chain reaction. In 1939, Enrico Fermi told Szilard the chain reaction was but a ‘remote possibility’, and four years later Fermi was personally overseeing the world’s first nuclear reactor.” Furthermore, at the start of the 20th century, many thought heavier-than-air human flight to be impossible. Wilbur Wright was somewhat more optimistic, guessing it to be at least 50 years away; 2 years before he invented it. (p.121)
The UK has four levels of ‘biosafety’. The highest level, ‘BSL-4’, is reserved for research involving the most dangerous and infectious pathogens. The 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease caused economic damages totaling £8 billion and the slaughter of some 6 million animals to halt its spread. Six years later, a lab was researching the disease under BSL-4 security. Another outbreak that year was traced back to a leaky pipe in the lab, spreading the disease into the groundwater. “After an investigation, the lab’s license was renewed—only for another leak to occur two weeks later.” (p.130)
Nuclear near misses have been terrifyingly frequent. The book lists more than ten examples. Here are a few:
1958. “A B-47 bomber accidentally dropped a nuclear bomb over South Carolina, landing in someone’s garden and destroying their house.” (the warhead remained in the plane)
27th October 1962. Four nuclear submarines had been sent by the Soviet Union to support their military operations in Cuba during the height of the Missile Crisis. A US warship detected one of these submarines and tried to force it to surface by using depth charges as ‘warning shots’. The submarine had been underwater for days and had lost radio contact for as long– and with it, information about the situation unfolding above. Moreover, being designed for the Arctic, the submarine was breaking down in the tropical waters. Temperatures ranged from 45°C to 60°C as carbon dioxide began to accumulate. Crew members were falling unconscious. The captain, Valentin Savitsky, guessed by the bombardment that war had broken out. He ordered his crew to prepare the submarine’s nuclear weapon. “On any of the other submarines, this would have sufficed to launch their nuclear weapon. But by the purest luck, submarine B-59 carried the commander of the entire flotilla… [who] refused to grant it. Instead, he talked Captain Savitsky down from his rage.” (p.4)
28th October 1962. The very next day, a US base in and US-occupied Japanese island received by radio an order to launch its nuclear arsenal. “All three parts of the coded order matched the base’s own codes, confirming that it was a genuine order to launch their nuclear weapons.” Captain William Bassett took command and became responsible for executing the order. But he grew suspicious– a pre-emptive strike should already have hit them, and the threat level was set to DEFCON 2 rather than the highest level of DEFCON 1. Yet, he radioed the Missile Operations Centre to check, and received the very same order. A lieutenant in charge of a different launch site told Bassett he had no right to stop the launch given the order was repeated. “In response, Bassett ordered two airmen from an adjacent launch site to run through the underground tunnel to the site where the missiles were being launched, with orders to shoot the lieutenant if he continued without either Bassett’s agreement or a decleration of DEFCON 1”. Bassett then called the Missile Operations Centre again, who this time issued an order to stand down. This story is still disputed and was only made public in 2015.
26 September 1983. Just after midnight, the Soviet early-warning system designed to indicate nuclear launches from the United States showed five ICBMs heading towards Russia. The duty officer, Stanislav Petrov, was under orders to report such a warning to his superiors, who in turn were instructed to retaliate in kind with immediate effect. “For five tense minutes he considered the case, then despite his remaining uncertainty, reported it to his commanders as a false alarm.” (p.96)
Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist who developed new high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat during the so-called ‘Green Revolution’. He is often credited for having saved more lives than any person who ever lived. Estimates range from 260 million to over a billion lives saved. (p.97)
Finally, the total amount of money expended annually on researching and mitigating existential risks is dwarfed by the amount of money spent annually on ice-cream by about two orders of magnitude.
Again, strongly recommended; but not remotely comforting.
<img src=‘https://artlogic-res.cloudinary.com/c_limit,f_auto,fl_lossy,q_auto:good/ws-banksidegallery/usr/library/main/images/hilary-paynter-1.jpg’ alt=‘Hilary Paynter’s wood engraving featured in the book.’ width=‘300’/>
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst
Robert M. Sapolsky (2017) • ★★★★★ • Jan 19 • Link to book ↗
As others point out, Sapolsky is a little too enthralled by some of the headline claims of social psychology, many of which which turn out to be wobbly at best and total bunk at worst. But whatever — I feel like that’s par for the course in the world of pop psychology.
Overall, this is a c. 800 page firehose of information and the facts-per-page rate does not let up. There’s also no discernable thesis, but it would be less interesting if there were.
The Physics of Theism: God, Physics, and the Philosophy of Science
Jeffrey Koperski (2015) • ★★★★☆ • Jan 16 • Link to book ↗
Fairly balanced overview of the physics / theology overlap. Not as polemical es expected, and some neat takes on well-trodden arguments.