Covid 9/17: It’s Worse

For those worried, yes, the halted vaccine trial from last week has resumed

I don't believe that this is true. All the articles from last week say that it's only the British trial resuming, not the American. I believe that British trial is almost full, so it's irrelevant that it resume, whereas the American trial, the biggest, has barely begun. I'm not sure how far Brazil and India have gotten. I guess India resumed on Tuesday. Here is an article about FDA not resuming.

Were vaccines relevant to 20th century US mortality improvements?

I believe that a much stronger statement is true. For almost every viral disease with a vaccine, there was a 90% reduction in mortality before the advent of the vaccine. The only graph I have on hand is measles:

measles mortality time series

Of course, if A causes a 90% reduction in mortality and B causes a 90% reduction in mortality, and they are independent, in a causal sense they are equal and you shouldn't judge their effects based on which one is deployed first. But once one is deployed, the marginal value of adding the other is only 10% as much. Even if B causes a 100% reduction, its marginal value beyond A is only 10% of the initial value of A.

(There is also a theory that measles resets your immune system and wipes out acquired immunity, so avoiding measles saves even more lives. So then a vaccine would be much more valuable than surviving measles.)

Covid 8/20: A Little Progress

It is funded by Emergent Ventures, which was founded with the purpose of being a one-man shop. I'm pretty sure he still makes the final decisions, but is that the same thing? As you say, contra Zvi's claim, Emergent Ventures has grown into a bureaucracy. What's wrong with bureaucracies? Cowen appears to have solid control over EV. If the bureaucracy fails at the legible goal of being fast, he will simply fire it. But it is doing some filtering that he used to do, which is harder to police.

Covid 8/27: The Fall of the CDC
a decrease of 3.2%

Don't say that. Say a decrease of 3.2 points. Or "percentage points," for clarity. Worst case scenario is that people are confused, which is better than wrong.

Douglas_Knight's Shortform

Sprinkling in the words "supply" and "demand" doesn't make it an argument.

I would be very happy if it were just a model, but it is not even a model. That's exactly the problem.

If you want to make an argument, you have to actually say something about supply and demand. You have to connect slavery (or any other aspect of any particular time and place) to supply or demand, or, better, both.

It is much more popular to argue that cheap labor caused the industrial revolution than that expensive labor caused the industrial revolution. Maybe expensive labor caused the agricultural revolution, which overshot and produced cheap labor, which in turn caused the industrial revolution. But if you can't tell the difference between that claim and the claim that expensive labor causing the industrial revolution, then you don't actually mean anything when you claim to have a model.

Douglas_Knight's Shortform

There's an extremely common argument that the reason that ancient Greek science didn't lead to Greek engineering is that Athens was a slave society and slave societies are brimming with labor and have no demand for labor-saving devices.

I have never been able to make head or tail of this argument. Also, the conclusion and premise of the argument are false. Conclusion: Greek engineering was better than Roman engineering. It was awesome and we're really not sure how far it went. Premise: Greek scientists weren't in Athens, but in many places in the Hellenistic world, especially Alexandria. Was Alexandria a slave society? I don't think anyone really knows. Some sources claim that it was full of slaves; some empty. Some that it had slaves everywhere, but others only in the fields, not in the workshops.

An alternate theory is that in (some) slave societies, the master is not supposed to think about the kind of work performed by slaves.

Here is a third argument that slave societies are not inventive. I just ran across Carroll Quigley:

a society whose productive system was based on slavery would probably be uninventive, because the slaves, who knew the productive process most intimately, would have little incentive to devise new methods since these would be unlikely to benefit themselves, while the slaveowners would have only a distant acquaintance with the productive processes

This argument seems too narrow to me. Is this about slavery, or about big organizations? I thought Adam Smith wrote something broader, but he actually wrote exactly the same:

A great part of the machines made use of in those manufactures in which labour is most subdivided, were originally the invention of common workmen, who, being each of them employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it. — Book I, Chapter 1
Slaves, however, are very seldom inventive; and all the most important improvements, either in machinery, or in the arrangement and distribution of work, which facilitate and abridge labour have been the discoveries of freemen. Should a slave propose any improvement of this kind, his master would be very apt to consider the proposal as the suggestion of laziness, and of a desire to save his own labour at the master's expense. The poor slave, instead of reward would probably meet with much abuse, perhaps with some punishment. In the manufactures carried on by slaves, therefore, more labour must generally have been employed to execute the same quantity of work, than in those carried on by freemen. — Book IV, Chapter 9

Again, what's special about slaves? Why would the master think any differently of the slave than of the apprentice? Doesn't "at his master's expense" apply both times? Is the master's reaction supposed to be correct or prejudiced? Perhaps the master should be willing to let the underling try out cheap experiments, but should be cautious about investing in building the machine. The master tradesman is different from the slave driver in having more experience in the task, but that's mainly a question of the depth of the hierarchy, not the legal status. My memory was that Smith went on to say that the master was right that the apprentice was crying wolf and that real progress required the apprentice to set up his own shop and try out his inventions at his own expense, with skin in the game. I wouldn't be surprised if he does say something along these lines elsewhere, but not connected to this passage.

Bonus: here are the sentences before and after the second quote. They sound rather odd to me, perhaps like the first theory I rejected above:

the great body of the people were in effect excluded from all the trades which are, now commonly exercised by the lower sort of the inhabitants of towns. Such trades were, at Athens and Rome, all occupied by the slaves of the rich, who exercised them for the benefit of their masters, whose wealth, power, and protection made it almost impossible for a poor freeman to find a market for his work, when it came into competition with that of the slaves of the rich. [Slavery and invention.] The Hungarian mines, it is remarked by Mr. Montesquieu, though not richer, have always been wrought with less expense, and therefore with more profit, than the Turkish mines in their neighbourhood. The Turkish mines are wrought by slaves; and the arms of those slaves are the only machines which the Turks have ever thought of employing. The Hungarian mines are wrought by freemen, who employ a great deal of machinery, by which they facilitate and abridge their own labour.

First, there is the mystery of why the Turks don't copy the Hungarians next door. It's one thing to ignore innovations from slaves, but why do they ignore proven innovations? Second, if the Hungarians can compete with the Turks, why can't free tradesmen of Athens and Rome compete with the slave tradesmen? One possibility is vertical integration ("for the benefit of their masters"). Another is that something outside of economics has been smuggled in with the words "power and protection." It seems like most of the sentences exists to refute the first few, so what's going on?

Douglas_Knight's Shortform

How much of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics is just feudalism?

That is, that is, taking on a patron-client relationship is a discrete change with abrupt ethical consequences.

I think that feudalism explains a lot about the ethics of employment. In particular, the employer is responsible for a living wage, not supplemented by charity, which is for wards of the state; and the employer is responsible for the sins of the ward. I'm not sure it explains the examples Jai's original post. He did a good job of producing diverse examples that aren't explained by a common factor like employment. But I wonder whether it is an echo of feudalism.

Matt Botvinick on the spontaneous emergence of learning algorithms

I asked you if you were talking about starving to death and you didn't answer. Does your abstract claim correspond to a concrete claim, or do you just observe that anorexics seem to have a goal and assume that everything must flow from that and the details don't matter? That's a perfectly reasonable claim, but it's a weak claim so I'd like to know if that's what you mean.

Abrupt suicides by anorexics are just as mysterious as suicides by schizophrenics and don't seem to flow from the apparent goal of thinness. Suicide is a good example of something, but I don't think it's useful to attach it to anorexia rather than schizophrenia or bipolar.

Long-term health damage would be a reasonable claim, which I tried to concede in my original comment. I'm not sure I agree with it. I could pose a lot of complaints about it, but I wouldn't. If it's clear that it is the claim, then I think it's clearly a weak claim and that's OK. (As for the objection you propose, I would rather say: lots of people take badly calibrated risks without being labeled insane.)

Matt Botvinick on the spontaneous emergence of learning algorithms

I'm objecting to the claim that it fits your criterion of "catastrophic." Maybe it's such a clear example, with such a clear goal, that we should sacrifice the criterion of catastrophic, but you keep using that word.

Douglas_Knight's Shortform
The essence of systems thinking: Every persistent biological or cultural structure exists because of a positive feedback loop. Sometimes it’s hard to see. But to understand the structure, you must understand the loop.
Kevin Simler


Positive loops by themselves are unstable, yes, and both are needed for stability, but positive loops are primary. Without a positive loop, there would be nothing for a negative loop to stabilize.
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