All posts by Peter

I was tempted to call this post a response to Scott Alexander’s Problems with Paywalls, but after carefully rereading that I can’t find any clear disagreements with him. I mainly want to push a slightly more pro-paywall tone.

Paywalls have well-known benefits, such as incentivizing good content, and aligning the interests of writers with the interests of readers, at least compared to ad-based business models.

I’m annoyed by how the news media storyteller industry uses paywalls, but I mostly hope that industry goes away for reasons which would remain valid even if they had nice paywalls.

I’ve sometimes been tempted to generalize my dislike of paywalls to something beyond “this industry does them poorly”, but I keep remembering that paywalls seem okay for books.

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Book review: Why Everyone (Else) Is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, by Robert Kurzban.

Minds are Modular

Many people explain minds by positing that they’re composed of parts:

  • the id, ego, and super-ego
  • the left side and the right side of the brain
  • System 1 and System 2
  • the triune brain
  • Marvin Minsky’s Society of Mind

Minsky’s proposal is the only one of these that resembles Kurzban’s notion of modularity enough to earn Kurzban’s respect. The modules Kurzban talks about are much more numerous, and more specialized, than most people are willing to imagine.

Here’s Kurzban’s favorite Minsky quote:

The mind is a community of “agents.” Each has limited powers and can communicate only with certain others. The powers of mind emerge from their interactions for none of the Agents, by itself, has significant intelligence. […] Everyone knows what it feels like to be engaged in a conversation with oneself. In this book, we will develop the idea that these discussions really happen, and that the participants really “exist.” In our picture of the mind we will imagine many “sub-persons”, or “internal agents”, interacting with one another. Solving the simplest problem—seeing a picture—or remembering the experience of seeing it—might involve a dozen or more—perhaps very many more—of these agents playing different roles. Some of them bear useful knowledge, some of them bear strategies for dealing with other agents, some of them carry warnings or encouragements about how the work of others is proceeding. And some of them are concerned with discipline, prohibiting or “censoring” others from thinking forbidden thoughts.

Let’s take the US government as a metaphor. Instead of saying it’s composed of the legislative, executive, and judicial modules, Kurzban would describe it as being made up of modules such as a White House press secretary, Anthony Fauci, a Speaker of the House, more generals than I can name, even more park rangers, etc.

In What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, Nagel says “our own mental activity is the only unquestionable fact of our experience”. In contrast, Kurzban denies that we know more than a tiny fraction of our mental activity. We don’t ask “what is it like to be an edge detector?”, because there was no evolutionary pressure to enable us to answer that question. It could be most human experience is as mysterious to our conscious minds as bat experiences. Most of our introspection involves examining a mental model that we construct for propaganda purposes.

Is Self-Deception Mysterious?

There’s been a good deal of confusion about self-deception and self-control. Kurzban attributes the confusion to attempts at modeling the mind as a unitary agent. If there’s a single homunculus in charge of all of the mind’s decisions, then it’s genuinely hard to explain phenomena that look like conflicts between agents.

With a sufficiently modular model of minds, the confusion mostly vanishes.

A good deal of what gets called self-deception is better described as being strategically wrong.

For example, when President Trump had COVID, the White House press secretary had a strong incentive not to be aware of any evidence that Trump’s health was worse than expected, in order to reassure voters without being clearly dishonest. Whereas the White House doctor had some reason to err a bit on the side of overestimating Trump’s risk of dying. So it shouldn’t surprise us if they had rather different beliefs. I don’t describe that situation as “the US government is deceiving itself”, but I’d be confused as to whether to describe it that way if I could only imagine the government as a unitary agent.

Minds work much the same way. E.g. the cancer patient who buys space on a cruise that his doctor says he won’t live to enjoy (presumably to persuade allies that he’ll be around long enough to be worth allying with), while still following the doctor’s advice about how to treat the cancer. A modular model of the mind isn’t surprised that his mind holds inconsistent beliefs about how serious the cancer is. The patient’s press-secretary-like modules are pursuing a strategy of getting friends to make long-term plans to support the patient. They want accurate enough knowledge of the patient’s health to sound credible. Why would they want to be more accurate than that?


Kurzban sees less value in the concept of a self than do most Buddhists.

almost any time you come across a theory with the word “self” in it, you should check your wallet.

Self-control has problems that are similar to the problems with the concept of self-deception. It’s best thought of as conflicts between modules.

We should expect context-sensitive influences on which modules exert the most influence on decisions. E.g. we should expect a calorie-acquiring module to have more influence when a marshmallow is in view than if a path to curing cancer is in view. That makes it hard for a mind to have a stable preference about how to value eating a marshmallow or curing cancer.

If I think I see a path to curing cancer that is certain to succeed, my cancer-research modules ought to get more attention than my calorie-acquiring modules. I’m pretty sure that’s what would happen if I had good evidence that I’m about to cure cancer. But a more likely situation is that my press-secretary-like modules say I’ll succeed, and some less eloquent modules say I’ll fail. That will look like a self-control problem to those who want the press secretary to be in charge, and look more like politics to those who take Kurzban’s view.

I could identify some of my brain’s modules as part of my “self”, and say that self-control refers to those modules overcoming the influence of the non-self parts of my brain. But the more I think like Kurzban, the more arbitrary it seems to treat some modules as more privileged than others.

The Rest

Along the way, Kurzban makes fun of the literature on self-esteem, and of models that say self-control is a function of resources.

The book consists mostly of easy to read polemics for ideas that ought to be obvious, but which our culture resists.

Warning: you should skip the chapter titled Morality and Contradictions. Kurzban co-authored a great paper called A Solution to the Mysteries of Morality. But in this book, his controversial examples of hypocrisy will distract attention of most readers from the rather unremarkable wisdom that the examples illustrate.

Mancur Olson’s The Rise and Decline of Nations tells us that in stable times special interest groups tend to slowly create increasingly rigid agreements to cement their income streams. Major wars, and other cataclysms of that size, occasionally sweep away those rigidities, creating conditions under which faster economic growth is possible.

COVID has been much less cataclysmic than what Olson talks about. Yet I see hints that the recent pandemic has had effects that weakly resemble war. I see stronger evidence that the pandemic was a useful trigger for overcoming the effects status quo bias. I’m writing this post to help clarify my thoughts about how significant these effects will be, and how they’ll affect stock markets.

Is the stock market’s impressive performance partly due to expectations that the pandemic caused a lasting increase in profits?

I’ll guess that it explains one quarter of the stock market’s rise. A fair amount of that guess reflects my intuitions about how much can’t be explained by other factors. That approach is at least as error-prone as estimating individual pandemic effects. So please interpret this post as mostly groping around in the dark.

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Book review: Shut Out: How a Housing Shortage Caused the Great Recession and Crippled Our Economy, by Kevin Erdmann.

Why did the US have an unusually bad recession in 2008, followed by years of disappointing growth?

Many influential people attribute it to the 2004-2006 housing bubble, and the ensuing subprime mortgage crisis, with an implication that people bought too many houses. Erdmann says: no, the main problems were due to obstacles which prevented the building and buying of houses.

He mainly argues against two competing narratives that are popular among economists:

  • increased availability of credit fueled a buying binge among people who had trouble affording homes.
  • there was a general and unusual increase in the demand for homes.

Reframing the Housing Bubble

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Book review: The Explanation of Ideology: Family Structure and Social Systems, by Emmanuel Todd.

What features distinguish countries that embraced communism from countries that resisted?

Why did Islam spread rapidly for a century and a half, then see relatively few changes in its boundaries for more than a millennium?

Todd’s answer is that the structure of the family is a good deal more stable than ideologies and religions, and different family structures create different constraints on what ideologies and religions will be accepted. Published in 1983, it still seems little-known.

Maybe this neglect is most pronounced in the English-speaking parts of the world, where one family structure is overwhelmingly popular, and alternatives are often dismissed as primitive relics. France seems more conducive to Todd’s insights, since France has four different family structures, each dominating in various regions.

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There’s a new clinical trial result showing that Bredesen’s approach is able to at least partially cure common forms of Alzheimer-like dementia. (Press release here). It has not received as much attention as it deserves.

The 9 month study seemed a bit less impressive than what I’d hoped for, but the outcomes still support the claim that common forms of dementia are partly curable.

Out of 25 patients, 21 or 19 improved their cognition compared to the start of the trial, depending on which measure I look at, and 2 or 3 declined.

Side effects included occasional improvements in hypertension and diabetes, enough to allow patients to stop taking medications for those conditions.

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Book review: Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein.

Doctors are more willing to order a test for patients they see in the morning than for those they see late in the day.

Asylum applicants chances of prevailing may be as low as 5% or as high as 88% purely due to which judge hears their case.

Clouds Make Nerds Look Good, in the sense that university admissions officers give higher weight to academic attributes on cloudy days.

These are examples of what the authors describe as an important and neglected problem.

A more precise description of the book’s topic is variations in judgment, with judgment defined as “measurement in which the instrument is a human mind”.

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It’s been a decade since I blogged about the benefits of avoiding news.

In that time I mostly followed the advice I gave. I kicked my addiction to The Daily Show in late 2016 after it switched from ridiculing Trump to portraying him as scary (probably part of a general trend for the show to be less funny). I got more free time, and only missed the news a little bit.

Then the pandemic hit.

I suddenly needed lots of new information. Corporate earnings releases were too slow.

Wikipedia, Our World in Data, Metaculus, and some newly created COVID-specific web sites partly filled that gap. But I still needed more, and I mostly didn’t manage to find anything that was faster or more informative than the news media storyteller industry.

That at least correlated with higher than normal stress. I suspect that paying attention to the storytellers partly caused the stress.

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Book review: Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old, by Andrew Steele.

The latest book on aging is a bit more ambitious than the previous two that I reviewed, but still rather modest compared to Aubrey de Grey’s book that heralded the start of serious attempts at fighting aging.

Ageless is relatively balanced, well-organized, and comprehensive.

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Book review: The Alignment Problem: Machine Learning and Human Values, by Brian Christian.

I was initially skeptical of Christian’s focus on problems with AI as it exists today. Most writers with this focus miss the scale of catastrophe that could result from AIs that are smart enough to subjugate us.

Christian mostly writes about problems that are visible in existing AIs. Yet he organizes his discussion of near-term risks in ways that don’t pander to near-sighted concerns, and which nudge readers in the direction of wondering whether today’s mistakes represent the tip of an iceberg.

Most of the book carefully avoids alarmist or emotional tones. It’s hard to tell whether he has an opinion on how serious a threat unaligned AI will be – presumably it’s serious enough to write a book about?

Could the threat be more serious than that implies? Christian notes, without indicating his own opinion, that some people think so:

A growing chorus within the AI community … believes, if we are not sufficiently careful, the this is literally how the world will end. And – for today at least – the humans have lost the game.

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