Book Reviews

Book review: Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence, by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb.

Three economists decided to write about AI. They got excited about AI, and that distracted them enough that they only said a modest amount about the standard economics principles that laymen need to better understand. As a result, the book ended up mostly being simple descriptions of topics on which the authors had limited expertise. I noticed fewer amateurish mistakes than I expected from this strategy, and they mostly end up doing a good job of describing AI in ways that are mildly helpful to laymen who only want a very high-level view.

The book’s main goal is to advise business on how to adopt current types of AI (“reading this book is almost surely an excellent predictor of being a manager who will use prediction machines”), with a secondary focus on how jobs will be affected by AI.

The authors correctly conclude that a modest extrapolation of current trends implies at most some short-term increases in unemployment.

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Book review: The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-term Health, by Justin Sonnenburg and Erica Sonnenburg.

I had hoped this book would help me improve my gut health. Alas, their advice is of limited value, mostly focusing on changes that I’d already adopted based on other types of nutritional ideas, such as eating more fiber from diverse sources. That limited value is probably due mostly to the shortage of useful research on this subject, rather than to any failing of the authors. Research on these topics seems hard due to the complexity of the microbiome, and the large variation between people.

The book convinced me to eat more kimchi, and left me wondering whether to try consuming more bacteria in pill form.

The book repeats warnings that I’d read elsewhere about the dangers of antibiotics, and the problems that arise from having an insufficiently diverse microbiome, such as autoimmune diseases.

I have been placing heavy emphasis on fiber in my nutritional strategies, while having a gut feeling that the concept of fiber left something to be desired. The book pointed me to an alternative concept: microbiota accessible carbohydrates (MACs), which mostly means carbs that aren’t absorbed by the small intestine. A diverse set of MACs feeds a diverse set of microbiota, which at least correlates with good health.

Alas, it seems impossible to reliably measure MACs by analyzing food in isolation – different people’s small intestines absorb different substances. There are also complications such as erythritol, which is mostly absorbed in the small intestine (and is then removed without doing much), but about 10% of which ends up feeding microbiota in the colon. So I’m still stuck with estimating my MAC consumption via the standard fiber estimates, and taking care to get it from diverse sources.

The Sonnenburgs explain that food preparation affects absorption. Flour is absorbed faster than less-processed grain, and the meaning of “flour” has changed over the past century or so, from something that was ground coarsely and eaten soon after, to something that is ground very fine, and stays on a shelf long enough to go rancid if it is whole-grain flour. That nudged me toward a more nuanced position on grains. The “grains are not food” rule was a simple way to improve my diet, but there are clearly big differences between the best whole grains and the worst grain-derived products.

It also helps me understand how grains, as typically used, gradually morphed into mostly being junk food without an easy way to detect the worst effects. More sophisticated machines to grind the grains led to a texture that was more quickly absorbed, leaving less for microbiota. The switch away from whole grain flour was likely, in part, a gradual adaptation to a system where the flour was ground at an increasingly distance from the home, and became more likely to go rancid if the germ wasn’t discarded.

The book has a section on how infants get a microbiome, which explains why it’s really hard to find or create a good substitute for human milk.

The Sonnenburgs have unusual heuristics about when they wash their hands, designed to reduce pathogens while welcoming good bacteria. They avoid washing after gardening or petting the family dog, but are careful to wash after going to places where they could get germs from many other people – malls, petting zoos, etc.

I’m discouraged by the news that microbiome treatments such as Fecal Microbiota Transplantation (FMT) may be regulated as drugs. It seems like regulations should be modeled somewhat more closely on food, or blood transfusion, regulation. Like food, FMT should have broader goals than just combating specific diseases, should provide diverse inputs, and should bear some resemblance to what naturally enters our bodies. Like blood transfusions, FMT should be reasonably safe unless there’s something unusual about the donor.

The book’s advice overlaps a lot with paleo-like advice to go back to how our ancestors ate, played, etc., with a rather balanced approach to borrowing from our grandparents’ lifestyle versus borrowing from hunter-gatherer lifestyles. The book is solid, often at the expense of being exciting.

Book review: The Finders, by Jeffery A Martin.

This book is about the states of mind that Martin labels Fundamental Wellbeing.

These seem to be what people seek through meditation, but Martin carefully avoids focusing on Buddhism, and says that other spiritual approaches produce similar states of mind.

Martin approaches the subject as if he were an anthropologist. I expect that’s about as rigorous as we should hope for on many of the phenomena that he studies.

The most important change associated with Fundamental Wellbeing involves the weakening or disappearance of the Narrative-Self (i.e. the voice that seems to be the center of attention in most human minds).

I’ve experienced a weak version of that. Through a combination of meditation and CFAR ideas (and maybe The Mating Mind, which helped me think of the Narrative-Self as more of a press secretary than as a leader), I’ve substantially reduced the importance that my brain attaches to my Narrative-Self, and that has significantly reduced how much I’m bothered by negative stimuli.

Some more “advanced” versions of Fundamental Wellbeing also involve a loss of “self” – something along the lines of being one with the universe, or having no central locus or vantage point from which to observe the world. I don’t understand this very well. Martin suggests an analogy which describes this feeling as “zoomed-out”, i.e. the opposite extreme from Hyperfocus or a state of Flow. I guess that gives me enough hints to say that I haven’t experienced anything that’s very close to it.

I’m tempted to rephrase this as turning off what Dennett calls the Cartesian Theater. Many of the people that Martin studied seem to have discarded this illusion.

Alas, the book says little about how to achieve Fundamental Wellbeing. The people who he studied tend to have achieved it via some spiritual path, but it sounds like there was typically a good deal of luck involved. Martin has developed an allegedly more reliable path, available at FindersCourse.com, but that requires a rather inflexible commitment to a time-consuming schedule, and a fair amount of money.

Should I want to experience Fundamental Wellbeing?

Most people who experience it show a clear preference for remaining in that state. That’s a clear medium strength reason to suspect that I should want it, and it’s hard to see any counter to that argument.

The weak version of Fundamental Wellbeing that I’ve experienced tends to confirm that conclusion, although I see signs that some aspects require continuing attention to maintain, and the time required to do so sometimes seems large compared to the benefits.

Martin briefly discusses people who experienced Fundamental Wellbeing, and then rejected it. It reminds me of my reaction to an SSRI – it felt like I got a nice vacation, but vacation wasn’t what I wanted, since it conflicted with some of my goals for achieving life satisfaction. Those who reject Fundamental Wellbeing disliked the lack of agency and emotion (I think this refers only to some of the harder-to-achieve versions of Fundamental Wellbeing). That sounds like it overlaps a fair amount with what I experienced on the SSRI.

Martin reports that some of the people he studied have unusual reactions to pain, feeling bliss under circumstances that appear to involve lots of pain. I can sort of see how this is a plausible extreme of the effects that I understand, but it still sounds pretty odd.

Will the world be better if more people achieve Fundamental Wellbeing?

The world would probably be somewhat better. Some people become more willing and able to help others when they reduce their own suffering. But that’s partly offset by people with Fundamental Wellbeing feeling less need to improve themselves, and feeling less bothered by the suffering of others. So the net effect is likely just a minor benefit.

I expect that even in the absence of people treating each other better, the reduced suffering that’s associated with Fundamental Wellbeing would mean that the world is a better place.

However, it’s tricky to determine how important that is. Martin mentions a clear case of a person who said he felt no stress, but exhibited many physical signs of being highly stressed. Is that better or worse than being conscious of stress? I think my answer is very context-dependent.

If it’s so great, why doesn’t everyone learn how to do it?

  • Achieving Fundamental Wellbeing often causes people to have diminished interest in interacting with other people. Only a modest fraction of people who experience it attempt to get others to do so.
  • I presume it has been somewhat hard to understand how to achieve Fundamental Wellbeing, and why we should think it’s valuable.
  • The benefits are somewhat difficult to observe, and there are sometimes visible drawbacks. E.g. one anecdote of a manager who became more generous with his company’s resources – that was likely good for some people, but likely at some cost to the company and/or his career.

Conclusion

The ideas in this book deserve to be more widely known.

I’m unsure whether that means lots of people should read this book. Maybe it’s more important just to repeat simple summaries of the book, and to practice more meditation.

[Note: I read a pre-publication copy that was distributed at the Transformative Technology conference.]

Book review: The Longevity Diet: Discover the New Science Behind Stem Cell Activation and Regeneration to Slow Aging, Fight Disease, and Optimize Weight, by Valter Longo.

Longo is a moderately competent researcher whose ideas about nutrition and fasting are mostly heading in the right general direction, but many of his details look suspicious.

He convinced me to become more serious about occasional, longer fasts, but I probably won’t use his products.
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Book review: Tripping over the Truth: the Return of the Metabolic Theory of Cancer Illuminates a New and Hopeful Path to a Cure, by Travis Christofferson.

This book is mostly a history of cancer research, focusing on competing grand theories, and the treatments suggested by the author’s preferred theory. That’s a simple theory where the prime cause of cancer is a switch to fermentation (known as the metabolic theory, or the Warburg hypothesis).

He describes in detail two promising treatments that were inspired by this theory: a drug based on 3-bromopyruvate (3BP), and a ketogenic diet.

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Book(?) review: Microbial Burden: A Major Cause Of Aging And Age-Related Disease, by Michael Lustgarten.

This minibook has highly variable quality.

Lustgarten demonstrates clear associations between microbes and aging. That’s hardly newsworthy.

He’s much less clear when he switches to talking about causality. He says microbes are the root cause of aging, and occasionally provides weak evidence to support that.

I still have plenty of reason to suspect that much of those associations are due to frailty and declining immune systems, which let microbes take over more. Lustgarten doesn’t make the kind of argument that would convince me that the microbe –> senility causal path is more important than the senility –> microbe causal path.

He has a decent amount of practical advice that is likely to be quite healthy even if he’s wrong about the root cause of aging, including: eat lots of leaves, green peppers, mushrooms, and use low pH soap.

One confusing recommendation is to limit our protein intake to moderate levels.

He provides a nice graph of mortality as a function of BUN (see here for more evidence about BUN), which hints that we should reduce BUN by reducing protein intake.

He also notes that methionine restriction has significant evidence behind it, and methionine restriction requires restricting protein, especially animal proteins.

Yet I see some suggestions that protein (methionine) restriction is likely only helpful in people with kidney disease.

My impression is that high BUN mostly indicates poor health when it’s caused by kidney problems, and doesn’t provide much reason for reducing protein consumption, and least in people with healthy kidneys.

Lustgarten has since blogged about evidence (see the 7/11/2018 update) that higher protein intake helps reduce his homocysteine.

I have also noticed a (noisy) negative correlation between my protein consumption and my homocysteine levels. But that might be due to riboflavin – when I reduce my protein intake, I also reduce my riboflavin intake, since crickets are an important source of riboflavin for me. So I want to do more research into dietary protein before deciding to reduce it.

The book is too quick to dive into technical references, with limited descriptions of why they’re relevant. In many cases, I decided they provided only marginal support to his important points.

Read his blog before deciding whether to read the minibook. The blog focuses more on quantified-self-style reporting, and less on promoting a grand theory.

Book review: Principles: Life and Work, by Ray Dalio.

Most popular books get that way by having an engaging style. Yet this book’s style is mundane, almost forgetable.

Some books become bestsellers by being controversial. Others become bestsellers by manipulating reader’s emotions, e.g. by being fun to read, or by getting the reader to overestimate how profound the book is. Principles definitely doesn’t fit those patterns.

Some books become bestsellers because the author became famous for reasons other than his writings (e.g. Stephen Hawking, Donald Trump, and Bill Gates). Principles fits this pattern somewhat well: if an obscure person had published it, nothing about it would have triggered a pattern of readers enthusiastically urging their friends to read it. I suspect the average book in this category is rather pathetic, but I also expect there’s a very large variance in the quality of books in this category.

Principles contains an unusual amount of wisdom. But it’s unclear whether that’s enough to make it a good book, because it’s unclear whether it will convince readers to follow the advice. Much of the advice sounds like ideas that most of us agree with already. The wisdom comes more in selecting the most underutilized ideas, without being particularly novel. The main benefit is likely to be that people who were already on the verge of adopting the book’s advice will get one more nudge from an authority, providing the social reassurance they need.

Advice

Some of why I trust the book’s advice is that it overlaps a good deal with other sources from which I’ve gotten value, e.g. CFAR.

Key ideas include:

  • be honest with yourself
  • be open-minded
  • focus on identifying and fixing your most important weaknesses

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Book review: Time Biases: A Theory of Rational Planning and Personal Persistence, by Meghan Sullivan.

I was very unsure about whether this book would be worth reading, as it could easily have been focused on complaints about behavior that experts have long known are mistaken.

I was pleasantly surprised when it quickly got to some of the really hard questions, and was thoughtful about what questions deserved attention. I disagree with enough of Sullivan’s premises that I have significant disagreements with her conclusions. Yet her reasoning is usually good enough that I’m unsure what to make of our disagreements – they’re typically due to differences of intuition that she admits are controversial.

I had hoped for some discussion of ethics (e.g. what discount rate to use in evaluating climate change), whereas the book focuses purely on prudential rationality (i.e. what’s rational for a self-interested person). Still, the discussion of prudential rationality covers most of the issues that make the ethical choices hard.

Personal identity

A key issue is the nature of personal identity – does one’s identity change over time?

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Book review: Artificial Intelligence Safety and Security, by Roman V. Yampolskiy.

This is a collection of papers, with highly varying topics, quality, and importance.

Many of the papers focus on risks that are specific to superintelligence, some assuming that a single AI will take over the world, and some assuming that there will be many AIs of roughly equal power. Others focus on problems that are associated with current AI programs.

I’ve tried to arrange my comments on individual papers in roughly descending order of how important the papers look for addressing the largest AI-related risks, while also sometimes putting similar topics in one group. The result feels a little more organized than the book, but I worry that the papers are too dissimilar to be usefully grouped. I’ve ignored some of the less important papers.

The book’s attempt at organizing the papers consists of dividing them into “Concerns of Luminaries” and “Responses of Scholars”. Alas, I see few signs that many of the authors are even aware of what the other authors have written, much less that the later papers are attempts at responding to the earlier papers. It looks like the papers are mainly arranged in order of when they were written. There’s a modest cluster of authors who agree enough with Bostrom to constitute a single scientific paradigm, but half the papers demonstrate about as much of a consensus on what topic they’re discussing as I would expect to get from asking medieval peasants about airplane safety.

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Book(?) review: The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, by Tyler Cowen.

Tyler Cowen wrote what looks like a couple of blog posts, and published them in book form.

The problem: US economic growth slowed in the early 1970s, and hasn’t recovered much. Median family income would be 50% higher if the growth of 1945-1970 had continued.

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