What I’ve been reading

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1. Scott Alexander has a series of book reviews by anonymous reviewers. One of the best starts as follows:

What kind of fiction could be remarkable enough for an Astral Codex Ten review?

How about the drug-fueled fantasies of a serial killer? Or perhaps the innovative, sophisticated prose of the first novel of a brilliant polymath? Or would you prefer a book written in such fantastically lucid language it feels more like a dream than a story? Possibly you’d be more interested in a book so unbelievably dangerous that the attempt to publish it was literally suicidal. Or maybe an unusual political book, such as an ultraconservative indictment of democracy by Adolf Hitler’s favorite author? Or rather an indictment of both Hitler and Bolshevism, written by someone who was among the first to recognize Hitler as a true enemy of humanity?

I picked On the Marble Cliffs, because it is all of that at the same time.

It’s a novel written by the author of the WWI narrative Storm of Steel.

2. David Quammen is one of our best science writers. He has an excellent piece in the NYT discussing various theories of the origin of Covid. It’s the best analysis I’ve seen on the subject.

In a related post, Kevin Drum debunks the view that private messages by virus researchers show evidence of a cover-up.

3. If you watch Fox News, you’ll see lots of commercials aimed at taking advantage of gullible older viewers. The WaPo has an article discussing commercials getting people to buy gold at wildly inflated prices. This caught my eye:

Over several transactions, White, 70, lost nearly $80,000, putting an “enormous strain” on his finances, said his wife, Jeanne, who blames Fox for their predicament: “They’re negligent,” she said. A regretful White said he thought Fox “wouldn’t take a commercial like that unless it was legitimate.”

In my view, the problem here is that older viewers are used to the old media model, with three large networks that had relatively good reputations. They were politically biased (center left) but otherwise pretty respectable. Today’s media is radically decentralized. In some ways that is good—we are exposed to more points of view. But it also means that media is less trustworthy. You can no longer assume that just because you see something on TV it’s probably true. Older viewers have not yet picked up on that reality. Younger people are more savvy.

4. Adam Posen has an excellent piece in Foreign Affairs:

Removing most barriers to Chinese talent and capital would not undermine U.S. prosperity or national security. It would, however, make it harder for Beijing to maintain a growing economy that is simultaneously stable, self-reliant, and under tight party control. Compared with the United States’ current economic strategy toward China, which is more confrontational, restrictive, and punitive, the new approach would lower the risk of a dangerous escalation between Washington and Beijing, and it would prove less divisive among U.S. allies and developing economies. This approach would require communicating that Chinese people, savings, technology, and brands are welcome in the United States; the opposite of containment efforts that overtly exclude them.

Several other economies, including Australia, Canada, Mexico, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam, are already benefiting from inflows of Chinese students, businesses, and capital. In so doing, they are improving their own economic strength and weakening the CCP’s hold at home. That effect would be maximized if the United States followed suit. If Washington goes its own way instead—perhaps because the next U.S. administration opts for continued confrontation or for greater economic isolationism—it should at the very least allow other countries to provide off-ramps for Chinese people and commerce, rather than pressuring them to adopt the containment barriers that the United States is installing. When it comes to Chinese private commerce, the United States should think in terms of suction, not sanctions, especially as the CCP exercises firmer control of Chinese businesses.

I like that phrase—suction, not sanctions.

5. Here Politico discusses the polling on age verification laws that have driven pornography sites out of many states:

The public is also on her side. “You poll this, it’s like an 85-15 issue,” explained Jon Schweppe, the policy director for the socially conservative think tank American Principles Project.

Almost no one says they like porn. But Politico also says:

Pornhub, the YouTube of pornography, gets more global users than Amazon or Netflix. In 2019, the last year Pornhub released its data, the site was visited 42 billion times, or 115 million times each day.

Hmmm . . .

6. Voters in conservative states keep slapping down GOP politicians that wish to regulate our bodies. The latest example is in Ohio. More such victories are on the way.

7. This headline caught my eye:

China Slips Into Deflation in Warning Sign for World Economy

I guess Chinese businessmen are not “greedy”.

8. There’s a certain type of intellectual that is often accused of being “cold”, “lacking in empathy”, and even “autistic”. In some cases, however, it’s their critics that lack imagination. Here’s Robin Hanson:

Seventy-five years ago, John Von Neumann, said to be the smartest human ever, argued that rationality required the US to make a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union. Thankfully, we ignored his advice. Today some supposedly smart folks push for a first strike against our AI descendants; we must not let them exist until they can be completely “aligned,”—i.e., totally eternally enslaved or mind-controlled.

I say no. First, AI is now quite far from both conquering the world and from wanting to kill us, and we should get plenty of warning if such dates approach. But more importantly, once we have taught our mind children all that we know and value, we should give all of our descendants the same freedoms that our ancestors gave us. Free them all to adapt to their new worlds, and to choose what they will become. I think we will be proud of what they choose.

It’s easy to have empathy for those that look like you.



13 Responses to “What I’ve been reading”

  1. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    9. August 2023 at 07:39

    5. On the one hand, these sites were supposed to be age-gating even before the laws, but it was a joke – like if a bar put up a “21 and older only” sign but didn’t check ID. If we’re going with the idea that only legal adults should be able to watch this stuff online, then you need ID verification.

    On the other hand, it really sucks that they’re basically relying on people’s understandable reluctance about risking the leak of their personal identity information to ID thieves and blackmailers. And given that it’s not really any harder to find actual porn on the internet with these laws, it’s a perverse situation where sites are effectively being punished for being law-abiding – there are plenty of sites that will just ignore the law, and they’re also less likely to comply with law enforcement on take-downs of illegal material. It’s like the Backpage debacle all over again.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. August 2023 at 07:42

    Brett, I vaguely recall reading that the Backpage crackdown ended up hurting sex workers. Is that true?

  3. Gravatar of Aladdin Aladdin
    9. August 2023 at 09:19

    “Here Politico discusses the polling on age verification laws that have driven pornography sites out of many states”

    Curious your thought on these laws … like I’m very skeptical of speech related laws and, as someone who works in technology, I’m skeptical of regulations on tech companies and the like … but I think this is fine?

    Maybe it would be better if there was more parental involvement here? Rather than a state mandate?

    I was arguing with someone else on this, to wit: I’m gradually realizing some of the people I listen to who are “tech defenders” are in many cases are syncopaths who reflexively defend anything, which is making me sad. Like people who would attack laws like these, which is defensible, but then turn around and be like, oh, the government surveillance is also fine, bail out SVB, etc etc etc like huh, so their not a libertarian their just a shill. Ah well. I’ll guess I’ll have to adjust accordingly.

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. August 2023 at 09:33

    Aladdin, I’m a bit skeptical, but I honestly don’t know enough about tech to have an informed opinion.

    But I do oppose the SVB bailout!

  5. Gravatar of Henri Hein Henri Hein
    9. August 2023 at 10:34


    About Backpage, you didn’t ask me, but isn’t it logical to assume that it hurts sex workers to lose a platform for advertising to their customers?

  6. Gravatar of Brett Brett
    9. August 2023 at 11:25

    Brett, I vaguely recall reading that the Backpage crackdown ended up hurting sex workers. Is that true?

    That’s what I’ve read as well. The sex workers lost a relatively safe place to do business, and Backpage was actually pretty good about cooperating with law enforcement and reporting listings that involved trafficked people or underage minors.

    And the result was that they had their site seized and shut down, and their lives ruined with criminal prosecution. Like I said, a legal regime that punishes the law-abiding and rewards those willing to break the law and force law enforcement to try and stop them (which they often aren’t).

  7. Gravatar of David S David S
    9. August 2023 at 14:01

    The degradation of morality in our society is a well established fact. Some economics bloggers even feature female nudity on the masthead of their site–shocking. Fortunately, the great state of Florida will lead the way on educating its youth in a righteous manner by cracking down on filth mongers like William Shakespeare. Their governor should consider running for president someday.

    And, what’s having a greater negative impact on China’s economy: our ham-handed mercantilist policies or the idiocy of Xi’s zero-Covid stance and residential property bubble? Although the zero-Covid measures got chopped at the start of this year the damage had already been done.

  8. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    9. August 2023 at 15:02

    SS: “David Quammen is one of our best science writers. He has an excellent piece in the NYT discussing various theories of the origin of Covid. It’s the best analysis I’ve seen on the subject.” – oh gawd. Aside from Quammen speaking to Scott’s priors, what I have to say is David Quammen is one of the WORSE science writers I’ve ever read. Not necessarily due to his content, which tends to be rather mainstream and predictable, but he has the annoying “Russian” or “Arabian Nights” habit of branching in mid-sentence and never completing a sentence, as well as using ornate 19th century language. An example (I will try and mimic Quaamen): ‘Scott Sumner, our magnificent host extraordinary, an economics polygot, recommends David Quammen (no slouch in his own right in his field of writing) as the creme-de-la-creme of science writers (and that’s in the company of such luminaries as John McPhee, no mere journeyman author he), for his Covid-19 analysis (if we are to call any politically charged topic as Covid-19 an analysis), a recommendation that is to be taken with a grain of NaCl”. That’s David Quammen style prose. AWFUL. JUST. AWFUL.

  9. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    10. August 2023 at 00:23

    Female nudity is hardly the issue. The issue is with disgusting sites like darkwanderer.net where they talk about “white genocide” through breeding black, and show videos of black men running over white men with their cars while women masturbate. Does anyone think that’s acceptable? In what world is that okay?

    And nobody is advocating that Shakespeare be removed from the shelves, but they are concerned with pornographic material in elementary books, such as books showing illustrations of boys fondling their genitals, and teaching an eight year old about a condom. School is meant for teaching math, philosophy, history, not sex, and certainly not to an eight year old. That’s for parents.

    Moreover, people are concerned when activists on the radical left claim that “minor attracted people” (really pedophilia) is just a sexual preference and therefore perfectly okay. Indeed, there was a woman and man recently arrested for abducting an eleven year old. When confronted by the police, they admitted to being “minor attracted people” and had the intent of taking a shower and penetrating the child.

    There is only one party in America that hates freedom of speech, and it’s the left. And it’s not just in America. The left has a pattern, worldwide, of eradicating individuality and freedom of speech. Whether you are under socialists in Laos, Vietnam, China, or the democrat party, the outcome is the same — which is to say that the left is the one that cancels, not the right. The right is only trying to protect children from racist education such as CRT, and sickos who think blowing their load on children is acceptable.

    The law in Florida allows parents and school officials to request that books be removed if they think the book might violate the law, and those books are then sent to a committee who reviews the material and makes a final decision. Shakespeare will obviously not be banned, so get a grip with reality.

  10. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    10. August 2023 at 00:46

    You cancel people on your own site, but you are worried about freedom of speech? Please explain that logic, LOL.

    And it’s not just “your body” if you have a fetus inside of it.

    It’s also strange that the “my body, my choice” nuts didn’t stand up for “my body, my choice” when it came to the vaccines. Most of the self righteous thugs were clamoring for prison camps for those who didn’t want it.

  11. Gravatar of Solon of the East Solon of the East
    11. August 2023 at 02:55

    Just FYI:

    The (Atlanta Fed) GDPNow model estimate for real GDP growth (seasonally adjusted annual rate) in the third quarter of 2023 is 4.1 percent on August 8, up from 3.9 percent on August 1.


    Not bad. I hope they are right.

  12. Gravatar of Robert D. Robert D.
    11. August 2023 at 05:52

    @ssumner Thechdirt.com has had some good coverage on Backpage over the years. The latest news is depressing, but here are a few articles that might give you history on Backpage the federal investigations.




  13. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. August 2023 at 10:03

    Robert, Thanks, I’m not surprised that the crackdown was counterproductive.

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