On easy measurements and choice architectures

January 31, 2023


New Articles

Knowledge is just easy measurement

We often rely too heavily on the easiest measurements for a thing, calling that knowledge and then waving away the evidence that there is more to be known. The shallowest data points become the only ones we consider, and we often don’t even notice.

Everything is Choice Architecture

Nudging doesn’t work because people aren’t thinking hard enough. Everything is choice architecture, so look to the way you build things in the first place or turn to our deepest motivations—our communities.

New Marginalia:

Links and my notes on interesting content from around the web:

Britain’s ‘New Right’.

This generational divide that Baker senses and Farage seems unaware of, becomes ever more apparent. The speakers are less furious than the spoken to … Do not expect them to sculpt a future of fair dealing, pragmatism, patience, moderation or high intelligence. Expect the restless opposite of these virtues.


Social media and teenage mental health.

Estimates indicate high-speed wireless internet significantly increased teen girls’ severe mental health diagnoses – by 90% – relative to teen boys over the period when visual social media became dominant in teenage internet use. I find similar effects across all subgroups. When applying the same strategy, I find null impacts for placebo health conditions – ones through which there is no clear channel for social media to operate. The evidence points to adverse effects of visual social media, in light of large gender gaps in visual social media use and documented risks. In turn, the analysis calls attention to policy interventions that could mitigate the harm to young people due to their online activities.

Attribution: Elaine Guo Link

How squid and octopus get their big brains. With video. Essentially, very similarly to vertebrate brains. We diverged from cephalopods before brains were a thing so it is very interesting that:

two independently evolved very large nervous systems are using the same mechanisms to build them

Something about the world and the being in it seems to eventually prefer brain-like solutions at a certain level of complexity.


Machine in the ghost.

the central cultural conflict for religion in this century … [will not be] the old touchstones that configure ideological divisions between the orthodox and heterodox, the mainline and the fringe, conservatives and liberals, with arguments about abortion, birth control, gay rights and so on dominating our understanding of cultural rift … By the end of the century, there could very well be debates and denunciations, exegeses and excommunications about whether or not an AI is allowed to join a Church, allowed to serve as clergy, allowed to marry a biological human … ‘AI may be the greatest threat to Christian theology since Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species.’ … it could equally be argued that, just as evolutionary thought reinvigorated non-fundamentalist Christian faith … so too could artificial intelligence provide for a coming spiritual fecundity

Particularly poignent given the recent obsession with ChatGPT.


Not all early human societies were small scale egalitarian bands. (See also The Dawn of Everything).


List of common misconceptions curated by Wikipedians.


The social media war: open source intelligence on the battlefield.


The ghostly radio station that no one claims to run. A history of ghost radio stations as cryptography outposts—still a thing!


Why dictators are afraid of girls: rethinking gender and national security.

After all, war is an inherently human activity, and gender is a core expression of what it means to be human; to ignore gender is to ignore core dimensions of war itself.


An argument for liberal anti-intellectualism:

The instinct of the intellectuals is to solve problems. There is nothing wrong with this instinct, per se. However, “solving problems” often requires an all-powerful state to implement the “solutions,” and all-powerful states have a strange history of doing “evil and pernicious” things.

Are they really this dangerous?


Motivating creativity:

the … optimal reward scheme is maximally uncertain—the agent receives transfers for success, but their distribution has an extreme variance

It makes you try lots of things. Is this surprising? It doesn’t feel surprising, but as the author notes, does:

shed light on the non-transparent incentives used by online platforms, such as YouTube


A paean to pigweed, a modern saint.

As we seek to survive in an age of ecological collapse and cultural chaos, perhaps it is to the weeds we should look for advice. I think of Pigweed, invading Europe as Europe colonized America. As Europeans took over America, Pigweed flowed back on the ships, into the countries that were invading its original ecosystem. It performed a reverse colonization. Pigweed originally only from the Americas is now dispersed across Europe and Asia. Pigweed says plant me in disturbed landscapes, dirty soil, chemical sludge. Plant me where the pain lives and I will learn how to survive. I will learn how to turn this poison into greenery, into stalk and seed and a tap root so long and sturdy it is almost a sword, capable of sucking up water not available the shallow rooted soy and cotton plants. My body needs to learn how to adapt to an increasingly chaotic environment. It needs a saint that teaches me how to get I touch with the wily, cunning knowledge of place. My saint is a seed on the wind. A vegetal plague. Pigweed.


What we get wrong about emotions.

In the past decade, scientists have begun to understand precisely how emotions and rationality act together. The key insight is that before your rational mind processes any information, the information must be selected and evaluated. That’s where emotion plays a dominant role. Each emotion—fear, disgust, anger—causes certain sensory data, memories, knowledge, and beliefs to be emphasized, and others downplayed, in your thought processes.

In case you weren’t already convinced by on emotion, autopoiesis, predicting human behaviour, emotion and the mind, etc.


On Zen kōans: a good video on the unsolvable riddles some Zen buddhists use to achieve transcendence.


You don’t think in any language:

The idea is that behind the words of a language lie concepts and behind the sentences of a language lie combinations of such concepts. To have a belief or a thought is to have a particular combination of concepts in mind. To believe that a man is running, then, is to have the relevant mental concepts, e.g., MAN and RUNNING (concepts are usually written in capital letters in cognitive science), and to have the capacity to put them together (i.e., MAN RUNNING). In this sense, the language of thought is the common code in which concepts are couched, thus explaining how speakers of different languages can at all entertain the same sort of thoughts. We all think in roughly the same mental language, a system composed of concepts that allows us to represent and make sense of the world.


On zombie science:

zombie science as mindless science. It goes through the motions of scientific research without a real research question to answer, it follows all the correct methodology, but it doesn’t aspire to contribute to advance knowledge in the field. Practically all the information about hydroxychloroquine during the pandemic falls into that category, including not just the living dead found in preprint repositories, but also papers published in journals that ought to have been caught by a more discerning eye … Zombie science bestows an aura of credibility on results not answering real scientific questions.

With many more examples. Science to avoid.


The sad decline of heresy:

today’s heretics, who betray remarkably little interest in metaphysics. Indeed, the closest most of them ever come to anything resembling genuine theological speculation is in their naive, and largely tacit, belief in universal salvation (not to be confused with the theological virtue of hope, which it in fact mocks). Few if any of them would run afoul of the proscriptions of the ancient councils or of the terrifying sentences of the Quicunque Vult, if for no other reason than that they are unacquainted with them.

It’s a cute article.


Malcolm X on racism, capitalism and Islam.


Mind control from a distance (really):

Now, scientists at the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford University have developed the first non-invasive technique for controlling targeted brain circuits in behaving animals from a distance. The tool has the potential to solve one of the biggest unmet needs in neuroscience: a way to flexibly test the functions of particular brain cells and circuits deep in the brain during normal behavior — such as mice freely socializing with one another.

The research was published March 21, 2022 in Nature Biomedical Engineering by Guosong Hong and colleagues at Stanford and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. Hong is a Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute Faculty Scholar and assistant professor of materials science and engineering in the Stanford School of Engineering who uses his background in chemistry and materials science to devise biocompatible tools and materials to advance the study of the brain.


Where does memory information get stored in the brain?

memory information in the brain is commonly believed to be stored in the synapse … However, there is a growing minority who postulate that memory is stored inside the neuron at the molecular (RNA or DNA) level - an alternative postulation known as the cell-intrinsic hypothesis

And more inside.


What is innate and what is learned in human nature?

common intuitions about what our ideas are and how they arise – from nature or nurture – constitute a psychological theory. For the most part, this theory is tacit: few of us ever stop to ponder these questions. But this tacit psychological theory encompasses our self-image. It depicts human nature as we see it. This is who we think we are.

we, humans, are in a double bind. Not only do we fail to grasp our psychological reality, but we are often oblivious to our nearsightedness. We assume that abstract ideas must be learned, but we are all too happy to presume innate emotions, for instance. How do these attitudes arise? And why does the notion of ‘innate ideas’ have the ring of an oxymoron?


On prosocial flaking.

Quite often, I will make an agreement, and then find myself regretting it. I’ll commit to spending a certain amount of hours helping someone with their problem, or I’ll agree to take part in an outing or a party or a project, or I’ll trade some item for a certain amount of value in return, and then later find that my predictions about how I would feel were pretty far off, and I’m unhappy.

With suggestions on how to rectify in a very rationalist way. Amusingly overcomplicated, but also insightful.


Everything is better than death? I’m left highly unconvinced by this. Here is an extract:

There is a popular idea that some very large amount of suffering is worse than death. I don’t subscribe to it

I predict that most (all?) ethical theories that assume that some amount of suffering is worse than death - have internal inconsistencies. 

My prediction is based on the following assumption:

  • permanent death is the only brain state that can’t be reversed, given sufficient tech and time

  • The non-reversibility is the key. 


How to be lucky:

being alert to the unexpected is vital for creating smart luck, there is another key factor: preparation. This is partly about removing the barriers to serendipity, both mental (your mindset) and physical (the spaces you live and interact in), such as: overloaded schedules; senseless meetings; and the inefficiencies throughout your day that rob you of time, curiosity and a sense of joy. You can prepare by strengthening your mental readiness to connect with opportunity, and creating an environment that enables the use of your skills and available resources to act on the moment. An unprepared mind often discards unusual encounters, thereby missing the opportunities for smart luck. But this is a learned behaviour. Preparation is about developing the capacity to accelerate and harness the positive coincidences that show up in life.

And so on.


On spiritual exercise for wellbeing.


How popperian falsification enabled the rise of neoliberalism.


The root of time itself is in fertile nothingness: how ancient Chinese Daoism shatters our illusions about time and being.


What might mushroom hunters teach the doctors of tomorrow? Algorithms and artificial intelligence are a helpful aid to doctors. But they still need to learn the arts of noticing.


On the philosopher John Gray’s critique of liberal humanism.

For Gray, ‘liberal humanism’ – the belief system that led us to Iraq – is a quasi-religious faith in progress, the subjective power of reason, free markets, and the unbounded potential of technology. He identifies the Enlightenment as the point at which the Christian doctrine of salvation was taken over by a secular idealism that has developed into modern-day liberal humanism. (Gray argues that global capitalism has its origins in positivism, the secular cult influenced by the late-18th-century French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, who believed that science would end all human ills.) Interestingly, Gray identifies the Enlightenment as the point where our utopias became located in the future, rather than in the past or in some fantasy realm, where it was clear they were exactly that: fantasies. With the failures of Iraq, Afghanistan, the 2008 financial crisis, the climate crisis and now the COVID-19 pandemic, faith in the future utopia that liberal humanism once promised is waning. It’s being replaced by beliefs that again look backwards in history, through the distorting lens of nostalgia, to imagined better times to which we hope to return.

Reminds me of slouching toward utopia.


Adjusting your attitude is easier than you think:

Between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space. In this space, you have freedom. You can choose to try remodeling the world, or you can start by changing your reaction to it.

Another nice way of saying it. See also emotion and the mind, interruption theory.


Vitalik’s post on political preferences:

what if there are other incredibly un-nuanced gross oversimplifications worth exploring?

The merits of a bulldozer vs vetocracy continuum:

Let us consider a political axis defined by these two opposing poles:

  • Bulldozer: single actors can do important and meaningful, but potentially risky and disruptive, things without asking for permission
  • Vetocracy: doing anything potentially disruptive and controversial requires getting a sign-off from a large number of different and diverse actors, any of whom could stop it

Note that this is not the same as either authoritarian vs libertarian or left vs right. You can have vetocratic authoritarianism, the bulldozer left, or any other combination.



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That’s all from me! Enjoy.

Warm regards,

Dorian | btrmt.