December in Review: Part II
Previously: December in Review, including what we're doing here.
Part II (this part) will cover medicine, lifehacks, effective altruism, and collected miscellany. Part I covered, inter alia, mathy stuff (quantum computing, math proper, AI theory), computer security, free speech law, liberalism, economics, and Wall Street.
Meta-index: (skip to first)
- Otium, Sarah Constantin discusses "machine learning, cognitive science, and philosophy"...and in this installment, the state of cancer research in 2015. (Ot.1) "Regulatory Problems with Cancer Research"; (Ot.2) On epistemic hygiene in medicine (though Sarah doesn't use exactly that terminology).
- Minding Our Way, Nate Soares writes on applied rationality, and other amusements. (MOW.1-2) Simple-sounding but important practical advice. (MOW.3) More reflections on the good in humanity. (MOW.4) On seasons.
- Malcolm.O Blog, Malcolm Ocean writes about the art of just doing things. (MO.1) "Why I Blog" (note that this is Malcolm speaking, though I agree in parts) (MO.2) "Interfacing at the Speed of Thought" (MO.3) "Needles you can't move with your hand"
- Thing of Things, Ozy Frantz writes about applied morality and doing the write thing, often in the context of social justice. (TT.1) "We Can Be Heroes" (TT.2) Against [the concept of] moral obligation (TT.3) On gender cisphoria.
- Jaibot, Jai writes some of the best prose poetry addressing important issues that I've had the pleasure to read. (Jb.1) "The Thing You Can Change" is in that reference class.
- GiveWell Blog, The organizational blog of donor-funded, evidence-based charity evaluator GiveWell. (GW.1) "December 2015 update on GiveWell’s funding needs". (GW.2) Staff members’ personal donations for giving season 2015.
- GatesNotes, Bill Gates gives both book recommendations and dispatches from the making-the-world-better front. (GN.1-2) Two book recs; (GN.3-4) Six ways in which the world is getting definitively better.
- Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander is a host unto himself. As long as he can operate a keyboard, he's a boon to the world. (SSC.1) "How Bad Are Things?", a counterpoint to Gate's message of good news. (SSC.2-3) On AI risk. (SSC.4) On "the sovereign is the one who sets the null hypothesis". (SSC.5-6) Linkwraps. (SSC.7) Scott Alexander starts writing fiction.
- Unequally Yoked, Leah Libresco is almost certainly the blogger that I have linked to the greatest number of times, and for good reason. (UY.1) Leah tells the story of her conversion from a rationalist atheist to a rationalist Catholic. (UY.2) On the moral stories of Terry Pratchett. (UY.3-4) Book reviews and 2016 reading list.
- Making Magic, Mark Rosewater writes on being Head Designer of Magic: the Gathering. (MM.1) One of the most fundamental notational changes in the past 10 years, premiering in the newest expansion. (MM.2) A retrospective on 2015 in Magic design. (MM.3) A retrospective on Magic design, since the beginning. (MM.4) A from-the-trenches story of a whole set which got designed, then thrown out.
- Sorting Hat Chats, Kat and Inky write a re-work of the Hogwarts house-sorting which actually makes sense. (SHC.1) Sorting the characters of Hamilton. (SHC.2) Sorting the characters of Star Wars.
- Zen Pencils, Gavin Aung Than pairs quotations and poetry with comic illustrations, to beautiful effect. (ZP.1) "To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" (ZP.2) "On the Mindless Menace of Violence"
- Calvin & Muad'Dib, Just cutting out the middlemen and pairing quotes from the best book series with the best comic strip. (CMD.1) "People, not commercial organizations or chains of command, are what make great civilizations work."
Raymond Chandler is credited with the quote "Everyone has to write a million words of crap before they can start producing good fiction." I have zero background to speak to its veracity w/r/t fiction, but I definitely have found that something similar is applicable in blogging -- the stuff you have to get out of your head now is frequently not the thing that you really want to (be ready to) write.
In any case, I started reading Sarah Constantin's Otium at Ben Kuhn's recommendation. She self-describes her blog as "on machine learning, cognitive science, and philosophy...and other things that catch my fancy," but the first long arcs of her blog (running since October) has been a dive into the contemporary state of cancer research that I have enjoyed immensely.
The most recent two installments have been:
- Otium | Regulatory Problems with Cancer Research -- a call to...something?
- Otium | Contra Science-Based Medicine -- on epistemic hygiene in medicine.
Also, I am reminded that Otium | Simple, Upstream, and Decisive: a Heuristic for Medical Progress is excellent read for one thesis on why we have failed to win the War on Cancer.
(Minding Our Way)
If you enjoy Eliezer Yudkowsky's writings on rationality, but want something a little less...manifesto-like (or even just current instead of eight years old), then I cannot recommend enough Nate Soares, executive director of the Machine Intelligent Research Insititute. Good in December:
- Minding Our Way | Obvious Advice -- as in, "have you tried just following the...?"
- Minding Our Way | Moving Towards the Goal -- "When I have a big problem that I want solved, I have found that there is one simple process which tends to work. It goes like this..."
- Minding Our Way | Reflections [Solstice 2015] -- another reflection on the light in humanity, despite the extant violence and war and suffering.
On a significantly lighter note, Minding Our Way | There are Only Two Seasons. And no, this isn't some sort of metaphysical metaphor -- it's a serious claim that "June 21 is the first day of summer" is a bad labeling system for weather.
Malcolm Ocean also blogs in the genre of "here's some rather-obvious-in-hindsight advice for doing things", and is another one of my favorite new blogs this year. Malcolm.O | Just Do A Thing (nobody's expecting you to do) is rather typical (though it was technically a November post...), and the things I most enjoyed in December were:
- Malcolm.O | Why I Blog -- a lot of Malcolm's reasons overlap with mine, though I'd like to get around to writing a similar post at some point, just to explore the important differences.
- Malcolm.O | Interfacing at the Speed of Thought -- Thoughts on the design of interfaces, how to find better ones, and why so many cleverly-designed ones suck. Related, external: A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, excellent thought-provoking reading.
- Malcolm.O | Needles you can't move with your hand
(Thing of Things)
Ozy Frantz is an excellent human being with excellent thoughts which often cash out to proper rationalist steelmanning of social justice positions. Unfortunately(?) none of their stand-out posts from December have been in that vein, but instead, two on applied morality:
- Thing of Things | We Can Be Heroes
- Thing of Things | Against Moral Obligation -- reminded me of Malcolm.O | Growing a Garden with a Broken Bodum and, of course, Minding Our Way | "Should" considered harmful
Another genre of Ozy's posts take the form "here is a way that The Socially Just can be More Socially Just (which don't involve beating up on Not Socially Just People)". e.g.:
Good reading for those of us who are trying to be kinder to people with lived circumstances we have never understood from the inside.
This is a joint effort that I am joining.
Posts on that forthcoming.
GiveWell is an organization that I've mentioned before; they research and analyze charities and report on which they believe are most effective at making the world a better place on a limited pool of resources. It is largely on their recommendation that I chose the Against Malaria Foundation as the recipient when I chose to donate 9% of my summer salary to charity.
I gave a further 1% to GiveWell themselves, to make sure that they were secure to keep making updated recommendations to other altruists for years to come, so I was interested to read their GiveWell | December 2015 update on GiveWell's funding needs. (tl;dr They're relatively financially secure, assuming contributions remain in line, and if it turns out that they have excess cash on hand, they plan to just donate it to fighting malaria.)
I was also interested in GiveWell | Staff members' personal donations for giving season 2015. In particular, reading various GiveWell staff members' reasons for supporting GiveDirectly or GiveWell itself with a fraction of their contribution were interesting, even though all but one staff member ultimately directed at least half of their annual donation to AMF.
Legendary altruist Bill Gates reads a lot (or, at least "about 50 books a year"), and his reviews run the gamut from "Well, I'm glad that I don't have to read that book now..." to "Wow; I guess I need to read that book now!" In the latter category:
- GatesNotes | Lessons From Eradication -- Eradication: Ridding the World of Diseases Forever, Nancy Leys Stepan.
- GatesNotes | The Two Adams -- The Road to Character, David Brooks.
But he also blogs about other stuff, too:
- GatesNotes | Neil deGrasse Tyson Defends Science in 272 Words -- a cartoon animation of a piece of Tyson's commencement address this year at Elon.
- GatesNotes | The Top 6 Good-News Stories of 2015 -- namely, polio, Tyson's speech, Nobel prizes for health innovators, free online education, the rise of mobile banking, and the elimination of Rubella from the Americas. Important counterpoint to Slate Star Codex | How Bad Are Things?
(Slate Star Codex)
Slate Star Codex is a blog about many things. SSC | How Bad are Things?, just mentioned, is one of his, but also:
- SSC | Should AI be Open? -- a post which one might call "the most important post of the year" and not be totally wrong. See also SSC | Things that are Not Superintelligences.
More mainstream (for Slate Star Codex, that is), though, was SSC | Setting the Default, which digs a bit into the maxim "the sovereign is the one who sets the null hypothesis".
Scott also has a fondness for wide-ranging linkwraps:
...though his titles often carry unfortunate puns. Sorry about that.
Finally, Alexander has started a webserial: Unsong, which is already off to an excellent start.
Leah was one of the bloggers most influential to me as a writer, and also, as I wrote in my November linkwrap, "the single person who I believe has the best practical ideas about how to be a human being in this world." As an example that left me with my mouth literally hanging open:
- Unequally Yoked | The Opposite of Kicking People In the Shins -- The most utterly staggering (to me) part of this talk she gave about her conversion to Catholicism is the number of times she uses the word "love" in earnest. (Why is it, exactly, that atheists tend not to do that?) And I think that her way of phrasing the propositional truth of Catholicism in the claim "Morality [exists [and is beautiful] and] loves me." makes it very clear (to me) why I find her interpretation of Christianity so intensely appealing (and yet, indelibly one half-step off from what I believe).
Elsewhere, she wrote on Terry Pratchett's Discworld books as a lens for morality:
The piece is certainly worth reading throughout, but the crux of Leah's thesis here really became clear to me in the interplay between two quotations:
"There's no grays, only white that's got grubby. I'm surprised you don't know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That's what sin is."
"It's a lot more complicated than that—"
"No. It ain't. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they are getting worried that they won't like the truth. People as things, that's where it starts."
"Oh, I'm sure there are worse crimes—"
"But they starts with thinking about people as things..." (...)
This I've heard from her before, but the second quote, a few paragraphs down, threw me for a loop:
And none of [her victories over the manifest flaws of others] can be permanent, or else she'd have wound up treating the person she's saving as just another thing to be carefully mended and put aside. (emphasis mine)
Also, she's an avid reader:
Leah's Unequally Yoked was one of the first blogs that I began to read regularly in college, but the actual first blog I read, back in high school, was Mark Rosewater's Making Magic. (Yes; that's Magic: the Gathering -- if this offends your sensibilities, feel absolutely free to skip to the next section now.)
At some point, I was reading the entire two-posts-a-day output of the Magic Daily website, but when I went off to school and stopped slinging cardboard every Friday night, I pretty much stopped. And then in late 2015, I started reading Magic Daily again because, well, I already had a lot of reading in my feed, and why not? That said, I won't be bringing Magic into the regular subject matter on Faults.
That said, there's nothing stopping me from covering it in this mega-linkwrap.
If, like me, you played some Magic in your childhood but have since drifted away from it, then there's one big change that was introduced in the most recent set, but I'll give Mark the chance to reveal it to you: Making Magic | A Solemn Oath, Part 1
Lastly, Making Magic | Phooey is the sort of story-from-the-trenches that I read Making Magic for. Teaser: "Yes, our time travel block with an alternate timeline also had in it a set with an alternate timeline [in the design cycle]."
(Sorting Hat Chats)
(At this point, I declare defeat at stringing sections together, and I'll just give my last three blogs and get out of here.)
First, if you haven't heard of The Sorting Hat Chats, but have had the thought "Man, the Hogwarts house system seems pretty oversimplified...", then SHC is definitely the sort of thing you should check out. (SHC | The Basics) The short version is that, instead of being sorted into one of four generic groups, your personality is parametrized by a "Why?", a "How?", each with 8-ish choices, and potentially accompanied by 1-2 "Sometimes I pretend to..." factors. It 'sorts' characters in a way that explicitly allows them to be more than one-dimensional.
"Sounds kind of like that Myers-Briggs..." you might say, but I personally find M-B utterly dry and unappealing, and I adore the SHC model. It sheds the pseudoscientific glamour of M-B, instead rooting its models of personality in examples from fiction that make each possible classification feel appealing on a deep emotional level, albeit to a hypothetical me who wasn't, you know, me.
When the blog's co-authors sit down and sort the characters of a contemporary work of fiction, it often leads to me seeing sides of characters that I hadn't noticed the first time, but which feel absolutely obvious in retrospect. Two examples from December:
Another odd-duck entry in my Feedly, Gavin Aung Than's ZenPencils comics are a running series of quotations and poetry taken from famous sources and set to new-drawn comic illustrations. December's:
- ZenPencils | To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time -- poem by Robert Herrick. Related: YouTube | "We are food for worms, lads."
- ZenPencils | On the Mindless Menace of Violence -- by Robert F. Kennedy.
(Calvin & Muad'Dib)
Quotes from Frank Herbert's Dune, set to drawn comics from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. It is every bit as glorious as it sounds. December had just C&M'D | Great Civilizations, but I think my favorite of all time is C&M'D | Problems.
Incidentally, The Ham Wing exists and is self-recommending.
Whew! And that was the December that was, at least in my neck of the Internet. Feel free to sound off in the comments with the best thing you've read recently, or a blog you think I'd enjoy picking up!
Also, do let me know if you enjoyed this approach to my coming off hiatus, because as it is, I'm leaning toward "How about...I never do that ever again?"
(My reading recommendations will continue to gather at My Faults My Own | Reading Feed -- if you enjoyed this, check it out!)