Links: June 2020

My first attempt at a Links post; let’s see how it goes!

General Learning

  • Agnes Collard on The Portal spends most of the discussion discussing the context of the discussion they are having; it made me so happy. A critical highlight is Collard’s argument that ethics must be selfish to be consistent (which she attributes to the ancient Greeks):

I think happiness is the meaning of life. I think it’s true, but I think it’s obvious, there’s no other answer, it’s completely trivial truth, no-one can disagree with this, because of something I would call the ‘value deferral problem’…

The value of my life, my life, can never be something to be found outside of me… Suppose I say, the entire point of my life is to make you happy, I’m an altruist… As an altruist, I’m sort of deferring the problem of the meaning of my life onto you, and I’m like, well the point is that Eric be happy, right? And suppose you defer also, right, to somebody else,? It’s like, we can’t keep deferring! Somewhere along the line, someone’s actually got to do the happy-ing! Right? And I think, it’s gotta be me who does it for my life: it’s not my children, it’s not my students, no-one can do the meaning of my life for me…

The value of someone’s life has got to come home to them, and be available to them, in the form of something like an experience…

This has been on my mind ever since. I think Pirsig would say that Collard is stuck in a static, objective mindset that does not allow for something Dynamic to itself to be the highest moral aim. Still, this argument was among the most interesting things I learned this month.

  • Sam Harris describes his recent mushroom trip in detail (and now it’s out from behind the paywall of the Waking Up app).
  • Elon Musk on Joe Rogan is always a must-see, if for no other reason than to see Elon act like a human being rather than the super-intelligent cyborg we know him to be. They discuss NeuraLink, which will be a world-changing device if it can do 1/10th of what Elon promises.

    They also discuss COVID-19 death-count inflation, which Elon is convinced is so significant that we should reopen the world’s economies; I’m not convinced.
  • The set of deities in the Scott Alexander universe is growing, with the new inclusion of Slack as the Yang to Moloch’s Yin (note also the connection to the Goddess of Everything Else). It’s an excellent post, well worth the 10+ minute read. (Also, I’m hoping this will help set up the SSC Cinematic Universe someday.)
  • Speaking of Yang: Andrew has a podcast now. I listened to a few episodes and it’s good (Yang’s a compelling speaker and is very smart), though I feel like whatever the topic of the episode ostensibly is, Yang’s obligated to connect it to UBI as the One True Solution to all of our problems. Gets old, after a while. I’d like to hear more about Yang’s other policy ideas.
  • CNN conducts a poll on Trump / the election / race relations (in light of recent protests across the US). Among the more interesting results: 84% of Americans believe peaceful protests of police violence against African Americans are justified, whereas just 24% feel that violent protests are justified. The former is very bipartisan but the latter is not: the 24% who approve of violent protests split to 42% for Democrats and just 9% for Republicans.

    Also, about 70% of Trump voters “say their backing of Trump is more a vote for Trump than against Biden”, whereas 60% of Biden voters are doing so largely to express opposition to Trump. I find this situation very troubling; can’t we get a candidate on the D side that people actually want to vote for?
  • On the “Light, Not Heat” side of the race conversation: A good TED talk from a year ago with reasonable ideas for police reform. I don’t know enough to know if it’s doable or as good as it sounds, but man, it’s refreshing to see this framed as a problem to solve rather than an incomprehensible mess of slogans and rage.
  • SpaceX / NASA successfully launch a (hu)manned spacecraft and connected to the International Space Station. Super cool stuff!

Physics

  • Fast Radio Bursts are very powerful extragalactic radio-frequency pulses that are being studied intensely lately. For a long time we could see them but we didn’t know where they were coming from; now there is evidence that they originate in magnetars, due to a coincidence between an x-ray and radio frequency signal.
  • Another cool study of Fast Radio Bursts which allows for a measurement of the total “ordinary” (non-Dark) matter content of the universe. This has unfortunately been marketed in the media as “discovering the mass that was missing in our models of the universe”, which is totally not what happened. *sigh*
  • Oh, and a mathematician / computer scientist thinks he maybe discovered the key to a new fundamental Theory of Everything in physics. (This happened two months ago, actually, but I haven’t said anything about it before.) I’ve talked to many of my colleagues about it, and they unanimously agreed that it’s probably wrong (though they “haven’t looked at it in any detail”).

    The story is almost identical to that of Eric Weinstein’s attempt at a Theory of Everything, which everybody rejects but nobody understands (including possibly Eric).

Topical: COVID-19

  • COVID-19 overtakes Malaria as the leading killer of 2020 so far.
  • More COVID stats: Week-by-week mortality stats aggregated over 24 countries across Europe from 2016-2020. It’s very clear that something is happening in 2020 that is (a) offset in time from the annual flu spike and (b) significantly larger in magnitude; in my mind, the “just another flu” story is done for. (h/t to one of my Stats students for sending it to me!)

    They also have data binned by age, allowing us to see the almost complete lack of excess fatality for children <15 years old; this remains one of the most hopeful facts about COVID-19.
  • Israel has started to do widespread antibody tests; preliminary results on a representative sample of the population suggest as much as 2.5% have had the virus at some point, “more than ten times the confirmed number of patients”. However:

[S]tudies are still underway to determine what antibody level would be needed for immunity. It is also not yet known how long any immunity might last or whether people with antibodies can still spread the virus

Still, any way you slice it, this must be good news.

  • 80000 Hours podcast with Marc Lipsitch answered many of my questions about where we are “now” (meaning May 18) with understanding COVID-19. Highlights:
    • infection fatality rate is between 0.2% and 1.5% with very high confidence, but likely close to middle of that range;
    • and there’s now good evidence of strong immune response after infection, meaning we may not get reinfected right away if at all (here’s an article about it).
  • There’s an ongoing debate about whether government-imposed lockdowns are a significant factor in mitigating the effects of COVID-19. The silver lining of a global pandemic is we get to see the response of many countries and compare them in real time, hopefully giving us good data we can use for next time (!). So do lockdowns matter?

I’m mostly still on the fence about the question, but on the spectrum from “doesn’t matter” to “the most important factor” I lean slightly towards the latter, meaning lockdowns have a large but potentially non-dominant effect.

Now, [saliva tests are] slightly better, not hugely better [than nasal swab tests]. But way more convenient and there is no shortage of swabs.

So, why hasn’t everybody started switching to the saliva tests? Well, even under the expedited process of giving Emergency-Use Authorizations, EUA, at the FDA [Food and Drug Administration], the FDA said to the group at Rutgers, ‘Okay. You can test saliva samples, but only with this particular kit for collecting–this particular type of tube that people spit in. And only your lab. We’re not approving anybody else to do what you just discovered how to do.’

And, we will never get to the level of testing we need if we operate under that kind of regime, under the FDA. So, that has got to change.

  • Jonathan Haidt talks about how we might use this pandemic catastrophe as a reset button, to improve ourselves and our societies in the long run. His optimistic perspective is, as ever, inspiring and much appreciated.

Just For Fun

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