Life, the Universe, and Everything

Book review: A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing by Lawrence M. Krauss.

This book has a few worthwhile sections, such as a good explanation of how virtual particles imply that matter came to exist in a previously empty region of space. But the book has much less substance than Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe (in particular, Tegmark comes much closer to answering why there is something rather than nothing).

One puzzling claim he makes is that scientists of the far future (when the visible universe is 100 times the current size) are likely to falsely conclude there was no big bang. Whatever problems they might have with new experiments, why wouldn’t they use results of experiments done when the universe was younger?

Book review: Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

This book gives an interesting perspective on the obstacles to fixing poverty in the developing world. They criticize both Jeffrey Sach and William Easterly for overstating how easy/hard it is provide useful aid to the poor by attempting simple and sweeping generalizations, where Banerjee and Duflo want us to look carefully at evidence from mostly small-scale interventions which sometimes produce decent results.

They describe a few randomized controlled trials, but apparently there aren’t enough of those to occupy a full book, so they spend more time on less rigorous evidence of counter-intuitive ways that aid programs can fail.

They portray the poor as mostly rational and rarely making choices that are clearly stupid given the information that is readily available to them. But their cognitive abilities are sometimes suboptimal due to mediocre nutrition, disease, and/or stress from financial risks. Relieving any of those problems can sometimes enable them to become more productive workers.

The book advocates mild paternalism in the form of nudging weakly held beliefs about health-related questions where people can’t easily observe the results (e.g. vaccination, iodine supplementation), but probably not birth control (the poor generally choose how many children to have, although there are complex issues influencing those choices). They point out that the main reason people in developed countries make better health choices is due to better defaults, not more intelligence. I wish they’d gone a bit farther and speculated about how many of our current health practices will look pointlessly harmful to more advanced societies.

They give a lukewarm endorsement of microcredit, showing that it needs to be inflexible to avoid high default rates, and only provides small benefits overall. Most of the poor would be better off with a salaried job than borrowing money to run a shaky business.

The book fits in well with Givewell’s approach.

Book review: The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, by Johnathan Rottenberg.

This book presents a clear explanation of why the basic outlines of depression look like an evolutionary adaptation to problems such as famine or humiliation. But he ignores many features that still puzzle me. Evolution seems unlikely to select for suicide. Why does loss of a child cause depression rather than some higher-energy negative emotion? What influences the breadth of learned helplessness?

He claims depression has been increasing over the last generation or so, but the evidence he presents can easily be explained by increased willingness to admit to and diagnose depression. He has at least one idea why it’s increasing (increased pressure to be happy), but I can come up with ideas that have the opposite effect (e.g. increased ease of finding a group where one can fit in).

Much of the book has little to do with the origins of depression, and is dominated by descriptions of and anecdotes about how depression works.

He spends a fair amount of time talking about the frequently overlooked late stages of depression recovery, where antidepressants aren’t much use and people can easily fall back into depression.

The book includes a bit of self-help advice to use positive psychology, and to not rely on drugs for much more than an initial nudge in the right direction.


I recently tried larger-than-normal methylfolate supplements. I had known that my genes caused problems with processing folate (MTHFR T/T), but hadn’t noticed any effects from supplementing at 800mcg/day.

Due to a report that several milligrams/day helped with depression, I changed from 400mcg/day to 2mg/day. I felt like my mind started working better within hours (although I haven’t seen much change in behavior). I saw a clear and large improvement in my heart rate variability starting after one day.

I’ve experimented for 5 weeks randomly altering my dose from 1 to 3 mg/day. On the week when I switched from 3 to 1 mg, my mood slowly got worse. I felt much better withing hours of switching back to 3 mg. I haven’t noticed any clear difference between 2 and 3mg.


I finally found a way to buy insects in enough quantity to satisfy my desire for nutrition from insects: World Ento, which sells dried crickets and cricket flour at a price per gram of protein comparable to seafood. (H/T Holden Karnofsky.)

According to Organic Value Recovery Solutions, crickets have impressive amounts of the nutrients I’ve found the hardest to get good amounts of. Here are examples of how much I’d get if I got my 2000 calories a day from crickets:

  • B12: 20 times the RDA (more than 3 times that of eggs)
  • Folate: 5 times the RDA (3 times that of eggs)
  • Zinc: 9 times the RDA (5 times that of eggs)

(using data for eggs from pastured chickens).

They have plenty of fiber and good amounts of most minerals and B vitamins.

The cricket flour tastes ok in brownies, but I’ll want some other recipe for regular use.

Update 2015-01-05: ThailandUnique has a better selection of insects. My favorite so far is the Big Cricket.

Book review: The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene.

This book has a lot of overlap with Tegmark’s Our Mathematical Universe

Greene uses less provocative language than Tegmark, but makes up for that by suggesting 5 more multiverses than Tegmark (3 of which depend on string theory for credibility, and 2 that Tegmark probably wouldn’t label as multiverses).

I thought about making some snide remarks about string theory being less real than the other multiverses. Then I noticed that what Greene calls the ultimate multiverse (all possible universes) implies that string theory universes (or at least computable approximations) are real regardless of whether we live in one.

Like Tegmark, Greene convinces me that inflation which lasts for infinite time implies infinite space and infinite copies of earth, but fails to convince me that he has a strong reason for assuming infinite time.

The main text is mostly easy to read. Don’t overlook the more technical notes at the end – the one proposing an experiment that would distinguish the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics from the Copenhagen interpretation is one of the best parts of the book.


Yet another soylent competitor has appeared: Ambronite.

It’s higher quality and high price than Soylent or MealSquares. It has more B12 than MealSquares even though it’s vegan.

It’s low enough in saturated fat that I probably want to add an additional source of saturated fat to my diet, but that’s a nice problem to have – I’d want to add chocolate anyway. My biggest reservation is the high level of polyunsaturated fat – if I could get a version without the walnuts I’d probably be satisfied there.

Most ingredients look like what our ancestors evolved to eat, but the first two ingredients listed are oats and rice protein.

Book review: Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, by Max Tegmark.

His most important claim is the radical Platonist view that all well-defined mathematical structures exist, therefore most physics is the study of which of those we inhabit. His arguments are more tempting than any others I’ve seen for this view, but I’m left with plenty of doubt.

He points to ways that we can imagine this hypothesis being testable, such as via the fine-tuning of fundamental constants. But he doesn’t provide a good reason to think that those tests will distinguish his hypothesis from other popular approaches, as it’s easy to imagine that we’ll never find situations where they make different predictions.

The most valuable parts of the book involve the claim that the multiverse is spatially infinite. He mostly talks as if that’s likely to be true, but his explanations caused me to lower my probability estimate for that claim.

He gets that infinity by claiming that inflation continues in places for infinite time, and then claiming there are reference frames for which that infinite time is located in a spatial rather than a time direction. I have a vague intuition why that second step might be right (but I’m fairly sure he left something important out of the explanation).

For the infinite time part, I’m stuck with relying on argument from authority, without much evidence that the relevant authorities have much confidence in the claim.

Toward the end of the book he mentions reasons to doubt infinities in physics theories – it’s easy to find examples where we model substances such as air as infinitely divisible, when we know that at some levels of detail atomic theory is more accurate. The eternal inflation theory depends on an infinitely expandable space which we can easily imagine is only an approximation. Plus, when physicists explicitly ask whether the universe will last forever, they don’t seem very confident. I’m also tempted to say that the measure problem (i.e. the absence of a way to say some events are more likely than others if they all happen an infinite number of times) is a reason to doubt infinities, but I don’t have much confidence that reality obeys my desire for it to be comprehensible.

I’m disappointed by his claim that we can get good evidence that we’re not Boltzmann brains. He wants us to test our memories, because if I am a Boltzmann brain I’ll probably have a bunch of absurd memories. But suppose I remember having done that test in the past few minutes. The Boltzmann brain hypothesis suggests it’s much more likely for me to have randomly acquired the memory of having passed the test than for me to actually be have done the test. Maybe there’s a way to turn Tegmark’s argument into something rigorous, but it isn’t obvious.

He gives a surprising argument that the differences between the Everett and Copenhagen interpretations of quantum mechanics don’t matter much, because unrelated reasons involving multiverses lead us to expect results comparable to the Everett interpretation even if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct.

It’s a bit hard to figure out what the book’s target audience is – he hides the few equations he uses in footnotes to make it look easy for laymen to follow, but he also discusses hard concepts such as universes with more than one time dimension with little attempt to prepare laymen for them.

The first few chapters are intended for readers with little knowledge of physics. One theme is a historical trend which he mostly describes as expanding our estimate of how big reality is. But the evidence he provides only tells us that the lower bounds that people give keep increasing. Looking at the upper bound (typically infinity) makes that trend look less interesting.

The book has many interesting digressions such as a description of how to build Douglas Adams’ infinite improbability drive.

Nutritional Meals

I’ve been thinking more about convenient, healthy alternatives to Soylent or MealSquares that are closer to the kind of food we’ve evolved to eat.

Here’s some food that exceeds the recommended daily intake of most vitamins and minerals with only about 1300 calories (leaving room for less healthy snacks):

  • 4 bags of Brad’s Raw Chips, Indian
  • 1.5 bags of Brad’s Raw Chips, Sweet Pepper
  • 6 crackers, Lydia’s Green Crackers (vitamin E)
  • 1 oz Atlantic oysters (B12, zinc) (one 3 oz tin every 3 days)
  • 1 brazil nut (selenium)

Caveats: I’m unsure how accurately I estimated the nutrition in the processed foods (I made guesses based on the list of ingredients).

This diet has little vitamin D (which I expect to get from supplements and sun).

It’s slightly low in calcium, sodium, B12, and saturated fat. I consider it important to get more B12 from other animal sources (sardines, salmon or pastured eggs). I’m not concerned about the calcium or sodium because this diet would provide more than hunter-gathers got and because I don’t have much trouble getting more from other food. And it’s hard not to get more saturated fat from other foods I like (e.g. chocolate).

I don’t know whether it has enough iodine, so when I’m not having much fish it’s probably good to add a little seaweed (I’m careful to avoid the common kinds that have added oil that’s been subjected to questionable processing).

It has just barely 100% of vitamin E, B3, and B5 (in practice I get more of those from eggs and sweet potatoes).

It’s possibly too high in omega-3 (10+ grams?) from flax seeds in the Raw Chips (my estimate here is more uncertain than with the other nutrients).

The only convenient way to get oysters that keep well and don’t need preparation is cans of smoked oysters, and smoking seems to be an unhealthy way to process food.

Note that I chose this list without trying to make it affordable, and it ended up costing about $50 per day. I don’t plan to spend that much unless I become too busy to cook cheaper foods such as sweet potatoes, mushrooms, bean sprouts, fish, and eggs.

In practice, I’ve been relying more on Questbars for convenient food, but I’m trying to cut down on those as I eat more Brad’s Raw Chips.

The Quantified Self 2013 Global Conference attracted many interesting people.

There were lots of new devices to measure the usual things more easily or to integrate multiple kinds of data.

Airo is an ambitious attempt to detect a wide variety of things, including food via sensing metabolites.

TellSpec plans to detect food nutrients and allergens through Raman spectroscopy.

OMsignal has a t-shirt with embedded sensors.

The M1nd should enable users to find more connections and spurious correlations between electromagnetic fields and health.

Ios is becoming a more important platform for trendy tools. As an Android user who wants to stick to devices with a large screen and traditional keyboard, I feel a bit left out.

The Human Locomotome Project is an ambitious attempt to produce an accurate and easy to measure biomarker of aging, using accelerometer data from devices such as FitBit. They’re measuring something that was previously not well measured, but there doesn’t appear to be any easy way to tell whether that information is valuable.

The hug brigade that was at last year’s conference (led by Paul Grasshoff?) was missing this year.

Attempts to attract a critical mass to the QS Forum seem to be having little effect.