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Self in Society Roundup 51

Progress, Biden, Diamond Age, Boaz, book bans, nuclear threats, the alt-right, AI, Covid deaths, and more.

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
July 9, 2024

Roots of Progress: It's holding a conference in October, with keynote speakers Patrick Collison, Tyler Cowen, Jason Crawford, and Steven Pinker. Looks cool.

Calls for Biden to Drop Out: In Colorado, Mike Littwin and Diane Carman. Elsewhere, Sam Harris, David French, Robert Tracinski, and many others. At this point it looks to me as though Biden will stay in.

Smith Anticipates Trump: Noah Smith thinks Trump probably will win. However, he doesn't think this will be as bad as some people fear, because Congress passed the Electoral Counts Act, the Supreme Court will push back, and Trump is too narcissistic to do much damage. Not too comforting!

Biden's January 6 Ad: As Robert Tracinski notes, the ad about January 6 is "the only election ad that ought to be needed."

Critiquing the Primer: Andy Matuschak has an interesting take on the AI-driven Young Lady's Illustrated Primer from Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age (via Cowen). Matuschak's first critique is that the primer sets an agenda for Nell (the girl using it). This points to the debate between the unschoolers and those favoring a classical or otherwise rigorous education. I'll have to read the novel again to see what I make of this. But all education aims to teach a child things the child "should" know. "Unschooling" ultimately is not coherent; every environment is prepared in some way, and that preparation necessarily entails some vision of what the child should be learning or doing. A child cannot make meaningful choices prior to learning anything at all. The key is to let the child in on the educational process and stay focused on the genuine interests of the child.

Immunity: Jacob Sullum is not happy about the Supreme Court's ruling in presidential immunity. Neither is Ilya Somin.

Boaz: Listen to David Boaz's last public talk. He'll be missed.

Smith on Maternal Mortality: Noah: "The U.S. maternal mortality increase was fake. . . . In 2021, Joseph et al. published a paper in Obstetrics & Gynecology demonstrating that the entire recorded increase in maternal mortality since 2003 was due to a change in the way data was gathered."

Theocrats: Steve Rabey: The so-called "Courage Tour" combines conspiracy mongering with evangelical politics.

Book Bans: Jenny Brundin: "The CU Boulder study found that more than half of all banned books [at schools and libraries] were children's books about historical figures and those featuring diverse characters, including LGBTQ+ and people of color. Nonfiction books about social movements and historical figures were the next biggest category for banning. Young adult queer romance novels made up only 10 percent of banned books. Fantasy and science fiction books made up another 10 percent."

The Nuclear Threat: Far and away the biggest danger to humanity is the possibility of nuclear war. Annie Jacobson has a new book about this, and she appeared on a Vox podcast. The initial blasts are only the start of the problem. In a wide-scale exchange, those would be followed by economic and environmental collapse, leading to widespread famine. Most people would starve to death or be murdered for their supplies. Those who made it through would face primitive conditions, and human civilization would be set back at least for centuries, perhaps permanently. In related news: "China pursuing 'significant' expansion of nuclear arsenal, report says."

Plastic Recycling: Frank Celia: "Only about nine percent of plastic worldwide gets recycled, and the US manages only about six percent. . . . According to an emerging field of study, the facilities that recycle plastic have been spewing massive amounts of toxins called microplastics into local waterways, soil, and air for decades."

Sort-Of Persuasive LLMs: A Cornell study, via Cowen: "[M]odel persuasiveness is characterized by sharply diminishing returns, such that current frontier models are barely more persuasive than models smaller in size by an order of magnitude or more. . . . [M]ere task completion (coherence, staying on topic) appears to account for larger models' persuasive advantage. These findings suggest that further scaling model size will not much increase the persuasiveness of static LLM-generated messages."

Brook on Alt-Right: It's good to see the main Objectivists keeping their wits about them. Here is what Yaron Brook said about American politics, as reported by Nikos Sotirakopoulos (edited for flow): "The next big thing in freak politics in the US will NOT come from the Left. The left's nihilism and moral bankruptcy (Hamas-apologism, racial thinking, etc.) have put them at a dead end. Nowhere to go from there. It's the new Right that now has the energy and the intellectual initiative. Christian nationalists, nat-cons, trad-cons. . . somewhere there lies the possibility of an American dictatorship within decades."

Genetic Modification Difficulties: Krista Kafer mentions the "unintended edits such as what happened in the Holstein horn case." A 2019 MIT Technology Review article explains: "Food and Drug Administration scientists . . . discovered its genome contains a stretch of bacterial DNA including a gene conferring antibiotic resistance." Kafter also discusses the perils of human genetic modification.

Jurassic Park After All? I was listening to a paleontology podcast (maybe Weird & Dead?), and the scientists on hand mentioned that DNA decomposes even in the best of circumstances after a few tens of thousands of years. So bringing back the Mammoth might be possible, but bringing back the T-rex, it seems, is impossible. But not so fast! As AI develops along with gene-editing technology, it occurred to me that perhaps AI could start coding DNA sequences based on described physiological and behavioral characteristics. Birds are dinosaurs so they have a lot of ancestral DNA too. So, eventually, it might be possible to code up something a lot like the original T-rex, not because we know precisely what the original genes were, but because we can create a plausible reconstruction of the genes. A world in which that were possible would be very different from our world!

Housing: Stateline: "The United States has added almost 5 million housing units since 2020, most heavily in the South." Bryan Caplan writes about his Build, Baby, Build (which I've reviewed), "The book . . . manages to cover almost every important angle. With one inexcusable omission: I forgot to call for the privatization of government-owned land. . . . [T]he share of land owned by U.S. federal and state governments is shockingly high."

Covid Deaths: A CU release says, "Changing people's behavior until a vaccine could be developed prevented roughly 800,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., far more than many scientists predicted was possible, according to new CU Boulder and UCLA research." Here, to me, is the key line: "Without vaccines, behavior alone would have postponed infections, but in the end, nearly everyone would have been infected and subject to a high infection fatality rate from that first infection." To me, this points to the need for rapid vaccine development, approval, and deployment. We especially need "human challenge trials" to speed up the process.

Bee Mites: There's a new bee mite, probably headed to North America, that is extremely deadly.

AI Utopia: Nick Bostrom imagines what might happen if AI development goes as well as possible. Basically his argument for there continuing to be meaningful work boils down to people having a preference for certain things being done by humans. But I think he's just radically overestimating the potential for AI to improve our lives. Anyway, I almost certainly won't live long enough to see the question answered definitively.

It's the Gun: AP: "Man stabs 6 people to death in Sydney shopping center before fatally shot by police."

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