My weekly list of good reads. With commentary on why I liked them. This week has more than usual, so let’s go.
1. Robin Hanson, sex redistribution, viral outrage. To recap, Hanson wrote a short post arguing inequality in the distribution of sex may be similar in importance to inequality in the distribution of income. His quoted the news of a self-described involuntary celibate (incel) murdering 11 people by driving through a shopping district in Toronto. Hanson ended his post saying “Strikingly, there seems to be little overlap between those who express concern about income and sex inequality. Among our cultural elites, the first concern is high status, and the later concern low status. For example, the article above seems not at all sympathetic to sex inequality concerns.” Hanson’s post now has 500+ comments(!). It started going viral with this twitter thread asserting Hanson is motivated by evil. Then Jordan Weissmann in Slate asked Is Robin Hanson America’s Creepiest Economist? Which was predictably followed by someone claiming Hanson believes “women should fuck violent men“, complete with quote marks around those words. Sigh. Ross Douthat at the New York Times wrote a piece influenced by Hanson’s post on incels and sex robots, which of course was misinterpreted as well, leading Douthat to write a twitter explainer thread.
The viral dynamic here is simple and commonplace. Someone writes about topic X, which is associated with very bad thing Y. But the writer doesn’t talk about Y, or talks about Y casually, so people go bananas. For example, if X is genetics and IQ, then the very bad thing Y is racism. Sam Harris and Ezra Klein did this dance recently. Klein calls out Harris for talking X genetics/IQ, but not talking Y, saying “You did not discuss how race and racism act upon that outcome. You did not discuss it. I mean, amazingly to me, you all didn’t talk about slavery or segregation once.” (See my recent post on Harris/Klein here). James Demore’s firing from Google followed the pattern, where X was stats on sex differences and Y was sex discrimination. In Hanson’s case, X was involuntary celibacy/sex inequality and Y was rape/misogyny. Plus mowing down 11 people with a van. You’ll notice these examples have an author coming from a rather nerdy and analytic viewpoint. And the Y they ignore or treat causally is a white hot flash political point. A recipe for viral hate.
My two cents is if you write about an X that’s associated with angry topic Y, it’s best to explicitly comment on Y. Don’t ignore the elephant in the room. In Hanson’s case, it sounds like overkill, but he should have explicitly said rape and misogyny are very very very very very very bad. As is killing people by driving over them. Or just not used the incel example to make his point (often the safest approach if you’re very analytic and prone to misjudge how readers may react). I’m not saying this is logical. Or fair. Or will even protect you all that much. But it’s how
the internet human nature works.
All that said, unlike some of the other examples I used above, I find Robin Hanson a brilliant and highly original thinker. I’m a fan of his books and his blog. And the people attacking him and his motives for his post on sex redistribution got it completely wrong. He’s obviously a very analytic academic trying to sort out the puzzles of human behavior, not encouraging or advocating for rape and misogyny. The claim would be utterly ridiculous if it weren’t now Hanson’s (permanent?) top google result. I’m glad at least his peers are supporting him: Alex Taborrok, Kevin Simler, Adam Ozimek, Garrett Jones.
Another pattern of the Two Minutes Hate I’ve noticed is these events create heat but no light. There’s little to learn about sex inequality from this dust up. On the other hand, I think it’s worth understanding the underlying pattern, which is what I’m taking a shot at here. If nothing else so others (like me) can avoid it. Another thing to learn from this go round is the psychology behind those involved, for which I highly recommend Scott Aaronson’s sympathetic (if at times chastising) post on what happened. Read it here.
2. Hominin in Philippines 700k years ago. Butchered rhino bones and stone tools were found on Philippines’s largest island, Luzon (paper). Homo sapiens evolved 300k years ago. So this means it’s Homo erectus, or an as yet unknown hominin. The analogy I’d draw is many people used to believe humans were unique in using tools, having culture, having a theory of mind. All of which have since been demonstrated in chimps and corvids. Similarly, some people believed Homo sapiens sprung rather discontinuously into being with language, arts, complex reasoning. But now we’re learning human behavior has far deeper roots in the homo lineage. Including, apparently, an ability to build rafts for sailing the seas. Best popular article I read is here.
3. Catching blood doping in marathons. Elite runners “tend to produce performances that vary from race to race by 1 to 1.4 percent”. When an athlete ran 4.22 faster than expected, he was caught. This seems a general method. It works best in timed sports like track or road racing, but if an athlete dramatically improves at any point in their career, it’s worth investigating. The author Alex Hutchinson is always good on the science behind distance running. link
4. Stories as the new social media format. “Stories” are short videos built of images, captions, overlays and effects. Snapchat invented them. Instagram and Faceook copied them. Newsworthy quote from Chris Cox, Facebook’s chief product officer: “The increase in the Stories format is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends sometime next year.” If you follow tech, worth knowing how incredibly popular Stories are, even if, like me, you are a wee bit too old to use them very often. link
5. Globalization in the information age. Richard Baldwin splits globalization into three eras. The first globalization (from the industrial revolution) is/was about moving physical goods. So moving textiles or iPhones. We’re talking David Ricardo. The second is/was about moving know-how. For example moving the knowledge for creating textiles or smartphones. The third will be about the virtual movement of people and human services. So we’re talking human services done via the internet, remotely across the globe. I found Richard Baldwin’s piece insightful and thought provoking (good), if a tad jargony/incoherent (bad). On balance I’d still recommend. link
6. Contingency of Marx’s popularity. Branko Milanovic argues Karl Marx’s popularity was contingent on three (not inevitable) turns of history. First, Engles spending two decades writing Das Capital. Second, the first world war thrusting Russia into chaos and the October Revolution. Lastly: “The fall of communist regimes brought it to its low point. But then –the third event—globalized capitalism that exhibits all the features that Marx so eloquently described in Das Capital, and the Global Financial Crisis, made his thought relevant again.” I’m far more skeptical of that last point compared to the first two. And if it were me I’d have emphasized Marx’s totalitarianism tendencies more. But the argument for the contingency of Marx’s historical influence is well made.
7. Credit Scoring using Digital Footprints. Link to paper, via Arnold Kling. Information “people leave online simply by accessing or registering on a website” is as good as FICO credit scores. Perhaps inevitable, and also perhaps inevitably regulated. No doubt this will blow up one way or the other in the next few years. Especially as Facebook and Google are the natural companies to do web behavior based credit scores, given their reach. Watch for it.
8. Marchettis constant of one hour of commute time per day. So 30 minutes each way. “For Marchetti, one hour is the basic limit for the total amount of travel that humans have been willing to put up with each day since the dawn of human society. He speculated that early humans travelling on foot at around 5km/h (3mph) would thus have a territory radius of 2.5km. To test the idea, he looked at the areas associated with individual villages in Greece – territories established over many centuries – and found that they tended to be roughly 5km across, supporting his claim.” Worth remembering as we enter an era of driverless cars. If you are working or sleeping during your driverless commute, does it count against the 30 minutes or not? link
9. Email are micromeetings. M.G. Siegler hates email, but now tries to write about that hate less often. Good for him. His recent post makes an analogy between hating meetings and hating email. Both are time sinks imposed upon us from outside. “Emails are basically little meetings that you get sucked into throughout a day. Some of them may take just a few seconds, others take far longer. Some may even take days or weeks.” Very much agree. Nails the dynamic. link
Thanks for reading. Have a good day/evening.