Meritocracy and Doublethink

When I was in college, I depended on financial aid to afford America’s astronomical tuition bills. Every summer break, I had a long fight with the administration, because they worked very, very hard to stop me from getting any. They demanded hundreds of pages of financial documents, from me and both of my parents, which was quite hard as my parents are divorced and did not get along. Once they received the documents, they would take weeks to process them, then reject them for the slightest mistake. Even rounding errors. At one point, they convinced a rich donor to award me a “scholarship”, then used that to cut my financial aid, because I was “already funded” (for all of $500). They then told me to write the donor a letter, asking that he give the college more money. I politely declined.

I found this very frustrating, so I wrote about how absurd and unfair it all was. And many people defended the college. They told me: it’s their money. It legally belongs to them. You’re not entitled to any of it. It’s their right to give any amount they want, to whoever they want, for any reason or no reason at all. Who are you to complain? You have no more right to their money than a street hobo has to any of yours.

I believe strongly in private property rights, so this argument must be addressed. My college was a private institution. They were privately run and organized. There are lots of other colleges to choose from. Why shouldn’t they be able to set whatever financial aid policies they want? Or charge whatever tuition they want? If the local Toyota dealer started charging $10,000,000 for a Corolla, nobody would complain. They’d laugh, and then take their business elsewhere. What’s the problem?

One answer is that colleges don’t disclose their policies until after enrollment, which is arguably fraudulent. (The Toyota dealer can’t sell you a car, then suddenly double your monthly payment two years later.) But more importantly, if you really believed the above – colleges are private organizations, they can set whatever terms they want – you wouldn’t think a degree mattered. If colleges charged $10,000,000 and offered no aid, then getting in would mean absolutely nothing, except that your parents were rich. Likewise, if colleges said on their websites that they chose based on height, or eye color, or whether the admissions person had a tasty lunch, degrees would become worthless. What good is a selection process if the selection is totally arbitrary?

The problem is that colleges want everyone to “doublethink”, to borrow a term from Orwell’s 1984. To “doublethink” is to hold two contradictory ideas in your head, and believe both of them, simultaneously. Colleges want people to believe that, as private institutions, they have the unfettered ability to admit any person or group, for any reason (such as legacy students, or athletes). But they also want to believe that their degree is a fair and rigorous test of students’ abilities, and that people have degrees because they earned them. In reality, you can have one or the other, but not both. If you give trophies to whoever you please, then having a trophy doesn’t mean anything. Having one doesn’t make you different from everyone else. But if you claim that trophies are important, that having a trophy makes you the best (for some meaning of “best”), you now have a responsibility to actually do that. You can’t, ethically, just hand out trophies to all your cousins anymore. That’s hoodwinking people. If you promise fairness, you have to deliver.

College is behind me, but I now see a very similar phenomenon in Silicon Valley. When a new founder starts a company, and asks for advice, one of the first things mentioned is to not give up when investors reject you. Investors, people say, are arbitrary, and will judge based on silly things; rejection means very little. “Startups always have to adapt to the whims of investors. Ask any founder in any economy if they’d describe investors as fickle, and watch the face they make”, to quote Paul Graham. And there’s plenty of evidence of this. Elizabeth Holmes, as a 19-year-old dropout with no experience, raised eight hundred million dollars for a fraudulent company whose technology had never worked. (Largely on family influence.) Her investors certainly weren’t good judges; they lost everything. And while that’s an extreme case, any experienced founder has seen dumb companies get huge investments, or good companies get rejected for the most trivial reasons.

While that’s annoying, the real problem comes when fundraising is then simultaneously seen as the main metric of success, status, and ability. Before her indictment and arrest, and before her company had made any significant revenue, Holmes was lauded internationally because of her massive investment round and $9 billion valuation. Time included her in “Most Influential People in the World”; Forbes named her one of the “Most Powerful Women”; Fortune named her “Businessperson of the Year”; she was awarded “Woman of the Year” by Glamour, of all people.

If one really believes that investment decisions are mostly arbitrary, and that investors can’t judge companies well, then a $9 billion valuation is meaningless. It doesn’t imply that the company will be successful, and it doesn’t mean that Holmes is smart, a capable CEO, or anything else. On the other hand, if one believes that VCs are wise and have good reasons for what they do (Theranos, presumably, being an anomaly), then any investor who consistently makes bad decisions is responsible, and should be called out. They aren’t just losing their own money, in this framing; they’re dragging down the reputation of investors as a class. Either investors are responsible for making good decisions, or else they (and the press, and many others) are responsible for not treating arbitrary decisions as significant. “In doublethink, you forget, and then forget you have forgotten. In singlethink, you notice you are forgetting, and then you remember. You hold only a single non-contradictory thought in your mind at once.”

Cryonics: A Quick Overview

I have arrangements to be cryopreserved in the event of my clinical death, and I encourage everyone reading this to make similar arrangements. How cryopreservation works, and why people should sign up, is covered in great detail in the Alcor FAQ (linked below). However, for those who don’t have time to read the whole thing (it’s rather long), I’ve put together a very simplified summary here.

– Cryonics freezes terminally ill people who are clinically “dead” (no heartbeat or breathing) in liquid nitrogen, so they can be warmed up and revived with future medical technology. At liquid nitrogen temperatures, all metabolism stops, so the body is preserved intact and does not decay further. Cryonics is the only way to avoid eventual death from old age with current technology.

– Just because someone is at room temperature, and has no heartbeat (clinical death), does not mean they are permanently “dead”. People in this condition are revived routinely in hospitals. In fact, surgeons will deliberately cool a patient’s body and stop the heart for certain types of brain surgery (deep hypothermic circulatory arrest).

– For a person under 40 with no serious illness, being signed up for cryonics costs around $30-$150 per month, depending on various options. It is only expensive if you, or a family member, procrastinate and delay signing up until shortly before death. Please don’t do that.

– All major cryonics organizations are non-profit. No one has ever made money off cryonics except modest below-market salaries, and frequently not even that.

– At a best guess, a “clinically dead” person can last a few hours without cooling, or a few days with only water-ice cooling, before the cells self-destruct and they are truly and irrevocably dead. However, this is just a guess, and the odds are better the sooner cryonics is performed.

– Cryonics, if properly done, does not cause ice to form. Ice crystals, of course, would damage the cells. Instead, cryoprotectants are used so that tissue forms a glass-like solid at low temperatures.

– As of now, the largest tissue to have been fully cryopreserved (below dry ice temperature) and successfully revived is a rabbit kidney. (Human embryos, of course, are routinely cryopreserved.) Research is ongoing into how to revive larger tissues and entire animals.

– While the early days of cryonics saw many mistakes, and some patients were thawed out due to negligence or funding issues, this has not happened in almost forty years. Cryonics organizations are now Properly Paranoid about ensuring indefinite freezing and permanent maintenance income. Fortunately, cryonics patients require minimal maintenance (just a liquid nitrogen top-off every month).

– In addition to general patient care funds, one can set aside assets to be used for revival, or for life after revival. This is done through a special type of trust.

The Full Alcor FAQ

A tour of Alcor and cryonics procedures

Recommendations for Making Virtual Reality Videos

I decided to buy a Daydream virtual reality headset, as I already have a phone that supports that. It’s basically a face mask with a slot for your phone, and when you put it on, an app uses the phone’s display to generate a virtual world for you. The Daydream hardware is very well-built, especially for something that costs $100. A good phone display is actually higher resolution than the Oculus or Vive VR headsets, although the phone can’t power super-detailed game graphics like those can, as they’re hooked up to beefy desktop GPUs.

The YouTube VR app is well-done, and unlike some skeptics, I think immersive VR videos have a lot of potential to be better than normal videos. However, I was disappointed with the lack of good content so far. Given the hundreds of millions recently spent on VR hardware, I’d have naively expected more attention to be given to VR movies. Most of the content that does exist is of terrible quality, which is a shame, since it’s vastly easier to improve content than to improve screens or lenses or compression algorithms. In case anyone wants to fill this market hole, I figured I’d write up some tips on how to do it well, at least from my perspective:

1) Don’t think like a conventional film or video editor – minimize the number of cuts, especially abrupt cuts. The best Hollywood movies look like this clip from Lord of the Rings:

This seven-minute video is really made up of a hundred and sixty independent shots, none longer than fifteen seconds or so, which are stitched together during editing to create a fun overall experience. In theaters, this works great, but it would be very jarring in VR because of the constant perspective switches. In real life, unless you’re trapped in some kind of cosmic horror story, people don’t walk around being uncontrollably teleported from place to place to place every ten seconds. When cuts are needed, it’s much less disruptive if people and objects and the background at least roughly stay in place before and after the cut. When scene changes are needed, it’s easier to handle if there are fades or transition periods to smooth it out.

2) Likewise, don’t mix in clips of regular video with the VR/immersive video. This includes intro sequences, commercials, screenshots, and so on. With some software magic, they can be stretched to cover a full sphere, but the experience probably won’t be good because of the rapid cuts that such videos use. Many of these shots also aren’t physically realistic, eg., there is no real way to make a 2D cartoon drawing “feel” like a virtual world. Luckily, there is a trick one can use when it’s really needed: project the conventional video or image onto a flat screen, embedded within a larger 3D virtual environment. This is what Netflix does for their VR app, and it works much better than just stretching out the video file.

3) For similar reasons, during a cut, be careful to not abruptly reset the viewing angle. Part of the experience of VR is that the viewer can turn their head to look at something; don’t suddenly rotate the video perspective back to the “front”, as this kills immersion.

4) Always film everything in 4K resolution. For normal videos, 4K has a reputation as a frippery, both because 4K screens are expensive and because the extra resolution doesn’t buy you much quality. However, in a VR video, each pixel has to cover a much wider area at any given resolution. Right now, my laptop screen is about 50 cm from my eyes, and it has an area of 540 cm^2. The sphere around my head at that distance has an area of 30,000 cm^2, or about sixty times the screen size. Therefore, a 720p video looks fine on YouTube, but in VR each pixel will get stretched out to be sixty times as large, making the image extremely blurry despite being “high definition”. 1080p or “Full HD” still looks blurry, and even 4K will look like standard video, rather than “HD crisp”. Fortunately, 4K 360-degree cameras have gotten much cheaper, with many models now available for a few hundred dollars.

5) When practical, make videos longer than standard YouTube clips. A typical YouTube viewer is surrounded by distraction, from the other browser tabs on the screen, to any other people in the room, to any noises or alerts that might pop up on their monitor or phone. Therefore, viewers start dropping out from distraction if videos get longer than a few minutes or so. (And this goes double for Facebook, Lord have mercy.) In VR, of course, all distractions are blocked out, and the only thing you see and hear is the video itself. Hence, it’s good to give the viewer time to get immersed in the scene, rather than yanking them out after a minute or two.

6) For similar reasons, it’s usually good to err on the side of a smaller number of longer scenes, rather than lots of short scenes interspersed with each other.

7) Viewers will experience the scene as if their virtual “body” was attached to the camera, with their head near where the camera lenses are. It’s good to make sure the position of their “body” would make sense for someone in that situation. For example, people don’t go on amusement park rides strapped to the front of a roller coaster. They don’t go on cruises on top of a pole floating twenty feet above the boat deck. They don’t hang off the underbelly when they take a helicopter ride, and so on.

The good news is that because current standards are so low, it’s super easy to do better. Honestly, in my opinion, putting a good VR camera in Ohlone Park, pressing On, and recording the dogs playing for ten minutes would be better than 90% of existing content. If anyone reading this wants to make a VR video, I will volunteer to watch it, regardless of why or what it’s about.

George Papadopoulos Complete Timeline + Email Archive

George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to Donald Trump, was the first person to be indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. He pled guilty to one count of lying to federal investigators. The below is all public knowledge, but I haven’t seen it collected anywhere, so I’m posting it here for reference.

Early March: George Papadopoulos agrees to come on board as a member of the Trump campaign. At this time, he is living in London, England.

March 6th: Sam Clovis, the national co-chair of the Trump campaign and current nominee for Under Secretary of Agriculture, tells Papadopoulos that a primary focus of the campaign is improving American relations with Russia.

March 14th: While traveling in Italy, Papadopoulos meets Professor Joseph Mifsud, the head of the London Aacademy of Diplomacy. Mifsud has previously claimed to have had private meetings with Vladimir Putin, although this has not been confirmed. It has been confirmed that he does know Alexander Yakovenko, Russian ambassador in London. Mifsud was interested in Papadopoulos because of his Trump relationship; Papadopoulos is interested in Mifsud because of his Russia connections.

March 21st: Washington Post interviews Trump, who describes his team. Trump includes Papadopoulos: “George Papadopoulos, he’s an oil and energy consultant. Excellent guy.”

March 24th: Papadopoulos has lunch with Mifsud in London, along with a woman falsely claiming to be ‘Putin’s niece’. He sends an email to Trump campaign “officials”, with the subject line “Meeting with Russian Leadership – Including Putin”:

“I just finished a very productive lunch with a good friend of mine, Professor Joseph Mifsud. — who introduced me to both Putin’s niece and the Russian Ambassador in London [Alexander Yakovenko] — who also acts as the Deputy Foreign Minister. The topic of the lunch was to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russia ties under President Trump. They are keen to host us in a ‘neutral’ city, or directly in Moscow. They said the leadership, including Putin, is ready to meet with us and Mr. Trump, should there be interest. Waiting for everyone’s thoughts on moving forward with this very important issue.”  (The woman in question was not actually Putin’s niece.)

At this time, Sam Clovis writes an email saying, “We thought we probably should not go forward with any meeting with the Russians until we have had occasion to sit with our NATO allies.” However, this may have been selectively quoted. Sam Clovis replies that he would “work it through the campaign”, but that no commitments should be made right now. He adds, “Great work”.

March 31st: There is a meeting of the Trump national security team, including Trump, Papadopoulos, J.D. Gordon, Jeff Sessions, and numerous other campaign staff. Trump posts a photo of the meeting to Twitter. Papadopoulos says to the entire meeting, including Trump and Sessions, that he has connections to arrange a meeting between Trump and Vladimir Putin.

At this meeting, Trump says that the US should not support arming Ukraine against Russian-backed rebels. Based on this statement by Trump, J.D. Gordon later successfully pushes for pro-Ukraine language to be removed from the GOP platform at the Republican National Convention.

Early April: Papadopoulos sends more emails to the Trump foreign policy team, regarding his contacts with “the Russians” and his “outreach to Russia”.

April 7th: During a visit to Israel, Papadopoulos gives a foreign policy speech. He discusses Trump’s friendliness with Russia, saying that Trump sees Putin as a “responsible actor” and “potential partner”. In the speech, he says that Trump believes that the US should ally with Russia against China, and should work together to fight Islamic extremism.

April 10th: Papadopoulos emails ‘Putin’s niece’, saying he is “Donald Trump’s advisor”. He says, “we met with Professor Mifsud in London. The reason for my message is because Professor Mifsud sent an email that you tried contacting me. It would be a pleasure to meet again. If not, we should have a call and discuss some things.”

April 11th: ‘Putin’s niece’ replies that she was “now back in St. Petersburg”, but would be “very pleased to support your initiatives between our two countries and of course I would be very pleased to meet you again.”. Papadopoulos replies to her and Mifsud that “I think a good step would be for me to meet with the Russian Ambassador in London [Yakovenko] sometime this month. I’d like to discuss with him, or anyone else you recommend, about a potential foreign policy trip to Russia.” Mifsud replies, “This is already been agreed. I am flying to Moscow on the 18th for a Valdai meeting, plus meetings at the Duma.”

April 12th: A reply from ‘Putin’s niece’ says: “I have already alerted my personal links to our conversation and your request. The Embassy in London is very much aware of this. As mentioned we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump. The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be officially announced.”

April 13th: Steele dossier source, businessman, and former Russian government translator Sergei Millian tells Russian media that he actively communicates with Trump and “his assistants”, most recently a few days before. Millian says that Trump “will be able to agree on how to resolve political conflicts, agree on Syria and Ukraine”. Millian was confirmed to be in touch with Papadopoulos, and was one of his 240 Facebook friends.

April 18th: Professor Mifsud emails Papadopoulos and Ivan Timofeev, director at the Russian International Affairs Council. Timofeev previously worked for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“I had a long conversation in Moscow with my dear friend about a possible meeting between the two of you. Ivan Timofeev is ready to meet with you in London (or USA or Moscow). I am putting the two of you in touch to discuss when and where this potential meeting can actually take place.”

Papadopoulos replies that he will “try and come to Moscow”, and sets up a Skype call with Timofeev. Timofeev tells Papadopoulos about his Russian government connections.

April 19th: Mifsud speaks at the Valdai Club in Moscow, a Russian think tank with close ties to Putin. Mifsud reportedly attended the Valdai Club every year since 2014, an event which Putin “usually visits”.

April 22nd: Timofeev thanks Papadopoulos “for an extensive talk”, and proposes “to meet in London or Moscow”. Papadopoulos suggests that “we set one up here in London with the Ambassador [Yakovenko] as well to discuss a process moving forward.”

April 25th: Papadopoulos emails an unidentified “Senior Policy Advisor” for the Trump campaign, saying: “The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready. The advantage of being in London is that these governments tend to speak a bit more openly in ‘neutral’ cities.”

Late April: Unpublished emails and Skype conversations between Timofeev and Papadopoulos. They discuss setting “the groundwork” for a “potential” meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian officials.

April 26th: Papadopoulos and Mifsud have breakfast at a London hotel, where Mifsud describes his trip to Moscow and his connections to Russian officials. Mifsud tells Papadopoulos that, on his trip on the 18th, he learned that Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of emails”.

April 27th: Another email from Papadopoulos to the “Senior Policy Advisor” says, “I have some interesting messages coming in from Moscow about a trip when the time is right.” He also emails campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, asking “to discuss Russia’s interest in hosting Mr. Trump. Have been receiving a lot of calls over the last month about Putin wanting to host him and the team when the time is right.”

April 27th: Trump holds an event at the Mayflower hotel, meeting Russian Ambassador Kislyak giving a foreign policy speech. He says in his speech, “We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia…we are not bound to be adversaries. We should seek common ground based on shared interests…an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia is possible..[I hope to] make a deal under my administration that’s great for America but also good for Russia.”

April 29th: Papadopoulos emails ‘Putin’s niece’. He says, “I am now in the process of seeing if we will come to Russia. Do you recommend I get in touch with a minister or embassy person in Washington or London to begin organizing the trip?” She replies, “I think it would be better to discuss this question with Professor Mifsud.” He responds, “Ok. I called him.”

April 30th: Papadopoulos thanks Mifsud for his “critical help” in arranging Russian meetings, saying “it’s history making if it happens”.

May 4th: Timofeev emails Papadopoulos, saying he had “just talked to my colleagues from the [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs]. [They are] open for cooperation. One of the options is to make a meeting for you at the North America Desk, if you are in Moscow.” Papadopoulos replies that he is “glad the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] is interested”.

Papadopoulos forwards these emails to Corey Lewandowski. He asks Lewandowski, “What do you think? Is this something we want to move forward with?” To another campaign official, he writes: “Regarding the forwarded message, Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.”

May 5th: Clovis has a phone call with Papadopoulos, who forwards him the Timofeev email from May 4th.

May 8th: Timofeev emails Papadopoulos and Mifsud, about putting him in touch with the “Ministry of Foreign Affairs head of the US desk”.

May 13th: Professor Mifsud emails Papadopoulous with “an update” on “their recent conversations”. He says “We will continue to liaise through you with the Russian counterparts in terms of what is needed for a high level meeting of Mr. Trump with the Russian Federation.”

May 14th: Papadopoulos emails Lewandowski, saying “the Russian government has also relayed to me that they are interested in hosting Mr. Trump.”

May 21st: Papadopoulos emails Paul Manafort, shortly to become Trump’s campaign manager, with the subject “Request from Russia to meet Mr. Trump.” He includes the May 4th email from Timofeev, and adds “Russia has been eager to meet Mr. Trump for quite sometime and have been reaching out to me to discuss.” Manafort forwards the Papadopoulos email to his deputy Rick Gates, adding: “Let’s discuss. We need someone to communicate that [Donald Trump] is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal.”

Late May: Further emails and Skype calls between Timofeev and Papadopoulos.

June 1st: Papadopoulos emails Lewandowski again, asking about Russia. Lewandowski refers him to Clovis, who is “running point”. Papadopoulos then emails Clovis, subject line “Re: Messages from Russia”, saying “I have the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs asking me if Mr. Trump is interested in visiting Russia at some point. Wanted to pass this info along to you for you to decide what’s best to do with it and what message I should send (or to ignore).”

June 14th: The Washington Post reports that Russian hackers have penetrated Democratic National Committee servers. This is the first public news that Russian hackers are targeting the 2016 US election.

June 19th: After more emails and Skype conversations with Timofeev, Papadopoulos emails Lewandowski, with the subject “New message from Russia”. Papadopoulos says, “The Russian ministry of foreign affairs messaged and said that if Mr. Trump is unable to make it to Russia, if a campaign rep (me or someone else) can make it for meetings? I am willing to make the trip off the record if it’s in the interest of Mr. Trump and the campaign to meet specific people.”

July 14th: Email from Papadopoulos to Timofeev proposes “a meeting for August or September in the UK (London) with me and my national chairman [Paul Manafort], and maybe one other foreign policy advisor and you, members of President Putin’s office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to hold a day of consultations and to meet one another. It has been approved from our side.”

July 15th: Facebook message from Papadopoulos to Timofeev says “We can chat on this, this weekend if you can’t tonight.” Timofeev replies with a ‘thumbs up’.

July 21st: Another Facebook message, saying “How are things Ivan [Timofeev]? Keep an eye on the speech tonight. Should be good.”

July 22nd: Another Facebook message to Timofeev, asking whether Timofeev knew an unidentified ‘particular individual’. He said, “if you know any background of him that is noteworthy before I see him, kindly send my way.”

Late July: Trump’s national security team disbands, after having never been paid. However, Papadopoulos stays on with the Trump campaign.

August 15th: After further conversations about “off-the-record” Russian meetings, Clovis emails Papadopoulos, saying “I would encourage you” and another foreign policy advisor (possibly Carter Page?) “to make the trip [to Russia], if it is feasible.” Papadopoulos did not actually visit Russia. Carter Page is confirmed to have met Papadopoulos multiple times, but he may or may not be the “advisor” mentioned here.

October 1st: Papadopoulos sends Professor Mifsud an article from, a Russian news website, via Facebook message.

November 8th: Campaign ends, Trump elected President of the United States.

January 27th, 2017: Papadopoulos is interviewed by the FBI, lies about key facts.

February 16th: Interviewed by the FBI again.

February 17th: Papadopoulos deletes his twelve-year-old Facebook account to hide suspicious communications, immediately opens another one.

July 27th: Federal agents arrest Papadopoulos at Dulles Airport.

July 28th: Indictment filed against Papadopoulos under seal, charging false statements and obstruction.

October 5th: Papadopoulos pleads guilty to one count, admits lies, agrees to be a “proactive cooperator”.

October 25th: On Twitter, Papadopoulos posts a photo of him in London wearing a suit, with the hashtag “#business”.

October 30th: Indictment, arrest, and cooperation revealed publicly.

Blogs by Friends

Here’s a list of blogs that I enjoy written by friends. This doesn’t include blogs by people I haven’t met (eg. Marginal Revolution), or anonymous blogs. Of course, the topics and posting frequency vary a lot, so the categories are rough.

Hard science, physics, biology, etc.:

Andart, Anders Sandberg
Semantic Scribblings, Chelsea Voss
Eukaryote Writes Blog, Georgia Ray
ForeXiv, Jess Riedel
AI Impacts, Katja Grace
AI Alignment, Paul Christiano
Otium, Sarah Constantin
Parenting With Evidence, Sarah Constantin
Shtetl Optimized, Scott Aaronson
Geroscience, Tegan McCaslin
Deep Safety, Victoria Krakovna

Soft science, economics, sociology, etc.:

Reflective Disquilibrium, Carl Shulman
Overcoming Bias, Robin Hanson
Slate Star Codex, Scott Alexander
Optimize Everything, Spencer Greenberg
Don’t Worry About the Vase, Zvi Mowshowitz

Politics and morality:

Pedestrian Observations, Alon Levy
Almost No One is Evil, Almost Everything is Broken, Jai Dhyani
Concept Space Cartography, Jim Babcock
Giving Gladly, Julia Wise
The Unit of Caring, Kelsey Piper
The Consequentialist, Matthew Gentzel
Nothing is Mere, Rob Bensinger
Fire and Pulse, Roxanne Heston

General thoughts and philosophy:

Compass Rose, Ben Hoffman
Teal Tensor, Elizabeth Morningstar
Aceso Under Glass, Elizabeth van Nostrand
Unstable Ontology, Jessica Taylor
Meteuphoric, Katja Grace
Minding Our Way, Nate Soares
Minds Aren’t Magic, Paul Crowley
Saner Than Lasagna, Sam Rosen and Eloise Rosen
Apophany, Tegan McCaslin
Becoming Eden, Will Eden and Divia Eden


Ben Kuhn
Buck Shlegeris
Eliezer Yudkowsky
Holly Elmore
Jeff Kaufman
Luke Muehlhauser
Malcolm Ocean
Nancy Hua
Paul Christiano
Satvik Beri

Can Trump Fire Mueller?

Many have predicted that Trump might fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Right now, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is recused from the Russia investigation. But if Trump fired Sessions, and appointed a new attorney general, then the next one probably wouldn’t be recused. Trump could then order the next attorney general to fire Mueller, and if he was a Trump fanatic, he might obey that order.

While this might have been Trump’s plan, it’s unlikely to work now. Nothing is certain, but here are some obstacles for Trump.

Problem #1: General Kelly, recently appointed Trump’s chief of staff, most likely wouldn’t stand for it. Trump is technically his boss, so in theory he could fire Kelly. But for some mysterious reason, Kelly has been able to walk into the Trump White House and start ordering everyone around. Hence, given how much power Kelly has now, we can reasonably infer that Kelly has some kind of leverage to block decisions he opposes.

Problem #2: If Sessions quit, or was fired, a new attorney general would need Senate confirmation. The Republicans have a slim majority, and the Senate is down one member because of McCain’s cancer treatment. Getting a Trump loyalist past Senate confirmation hearings would be a three ring circus.

Problem #3: The Republicans in the Senate are writing a bill to explicitly protect the special counsel’s position. If the bill passes, Mueller couldn’t be fired by anyone without good cause (reviewable in court). The Russia sanctions bill passed Congress almost unanimously, showing that virtually no one there stands with Trump on Russia. Trump’s feuding with the Senate won’t help.

Problem #4: Even if Trump vetoed that bill, and managed to fire Mueller, Congress could then turn around and appoint Mueller as head of a congressional investigation, doing all the same things he was previously doing.

Problem #5: Right now, it’s in the interest of everyone who hates Trump and has damning information to keep it secret, to not compromise the investigation. For example, suppose I know for a fact that Trump met with Russians on a certain date. If I announce that publicly, then Trump can say yeah, I was there, but we “just talked about adoptions”, some excuse. If I keep it quiet, then an investigator can ask Trump, “so, what were you doing on day X?”. And Trump might try to lie, since he doesn’t know that I already have proof. If he does lie, I can then show proof that he’s lying. That’s an instant 18 USC 1001 felony charge, and it’s still a felony even if the meeting itself was legal. If the Mueller investigation is derailed, then this incentive for secrecy goes away. So then, a whole bunch more of it would leak to the press.

Problem #6: Without Mueller there, nobody in politics can use the excuse of “we’re just waiting for the special prosecutor to finish, don’t ask us to do anything, it’s not our department”. Politicians would either have to take action against Trump, or not do so and face the consequences. And those consequences can be very long term. In 1973, Solicitor General Robert Bork obeyed Nixon’s order to fire Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox. Fifteen years later, Reagan nominated Bork for the Supreme Court. But his firing of Cox was used against him, and Bork was denied Senate confirmation. That Supreme Court seat was filled by Anthony Kennedy, who still sits in it today.

Problem #7: If the federal investigation is blocked, Mueller can likely finangle a way to pass it to the state attorneys general also investigating him, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman. Trump has no control over them, and any charges they brought could not be pardoned, since presidents can only pardon federal crimes.

Problem #8: If Trump did get rid of Mueller, and another investigator was appointed afterwards, Trump has just created additional obstruction of justice charges for himself. He’s also created additional proof of previous obstruction charges, which require evidence of “corrupt intent”.

Problem #9: It’s hard to predict the specifics, but there would also be a likelihood of general chaos, rioting, and so on. This might not happen at all, but it might also escalate unpredictably, as in the Egyptian revolution of 2011. MoveOn is organizing hundreds of Schelling points in advance, to make coordinated action easy if Mueller ever is fired.

The Joy of Links

Below are some interesting links I posted to Facebook this year. I’m putting them all here so they won’t vanish into the Facebook black hole. Facebook is also super inconsistent about what gets visibility, so many of these might not have been seen before. Links are roughly in chronological order.

There are many, many problems with the “EmDrive” reactionless propulsion idea. Despite media hype, the overwhelming majority of physicists don’t consider it credible.

The average age of scientists at Los Alamos was 29. In modern times, a grad student once told me that his advisor, one of the most-cited chemists ever, felt disrespected because he was “too young” at age 50. Source: Alex Wellerstein’s fantastic blog, Nuclear Secrecy.

There are separate Wikipedias for hundreds of languages, including Scottish. It’s close enough to English to be readable, but almost every word is spelled differently. Some exceptions are long, formal words, like “coterminous”, “metropolis”, “measurement”, and “international”.

Why zombies would have no chance against any modern military. The Mk-19, the automatic-fire grenade launcher shown here, isn’t even really a heavy weapon. It’s man-portable, so it can be carried into battle and used by a single infantry squad.

The Inner Ring“, a great essay on how social groups work, by CS Lewis.

That time the Catholic Church smuggled 300,000 copies of an anti-fascist essay into Nazi Germany, so they could all be read simultaneously at church on Palm Sunday, before the Gestapo knew what was going on.

The US military has officially confirmed that “Roswell UFO” stories came from the coverup of a secret high-altitude balloon program, codenamed “Project Mogul“. The aim of Project Mogul balloons was to carry microphones into an atmospheric layer with long-distance sound propagation, to detect of Soviet nuclear tests. When one balloon crashed, the government falsely claimed it was a weather balloon to ward off suspicion.

The idea that medieval people only drank wine or beer, not water, is a myth. They were more likely to talk about drinking alcohol (as people are today), but there is no reason to think they drank less water than modern people.

The biggest landlord in Berkeley exploited his wealth and influence to run a child sex slave ring. After getting out of prison, he simply resumed being a landlord. Don’t rent from “Everest Properties” or “Raj Properties”.

Litigation Abuse Under CEQA“, or the California Environmental Quality Act, by law firm Holland & Knight. Choice quote: “Anti-abortion protesters used a CEQA lawsuit in an attempt to block a Planned Parenthood clinic proposed to be located in an existing building in a neighborhood that already offered abortion services, asserting that the city violated CEQA by failing to appropriately consider the noise nuisance that the protesters would themselves create in the neighborhood if the clinic was allowed to open.”

By far the most successful pop-music songwriter is a middle-aged Swedish guy named Martin Karl Sandberg, stage name “Max Martin”.

9% of all trolling and personal abuse on Wikipedia comes from 34 “highly toxic” editors.

Thomas Jefferson on how “nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper“, 1807.

Anyone can file a restraining order against companies sending junk mail. If they violate the order, it’s a federal criminal offense. This started when a law passed letting people block “lewd and obscene” mail, with the recipient having “sole discretion” to determine what was offensive. Some clever people decided that, since they could be offended by whatever they wanted, they’d use it to opt out of catalog mailings. This went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Rowan v. USPS that this loophole abuse is 100% legit.

Drone company Lily Robotics was raided, is under criminal investigation after failing to deliver its promised product.

In California, Daylight Savings Time still legally starts in April. The government can’t change it without a state-wide referendum.

That time the United States invaded Russia. American troops parading in Vladivostok, 1918.

In 1975, the San Francisco Police Department went on strike. Courts ruled against the strikers, but the police ignored all court orders while terrorizing the city. Mayor Alioto conceded to police demands, overriding the Board of Supervisors, after a bomb was detonated at his house.

Zvi Mowshowitz’s comprehensive guide to pizza.

Lightsail Energy’s wind power storage project in Liverpool, Canada has been delayed. Founder Danielle Fong says the company is pivoting towards producing high-pressure gas storage tanks.

Distill is a new journal dedicated to clear explanations of machine learning.

American trust in the mass media is on a steady long-term decline, from 55% in 1999 to 32% in 2016. “What cannot continue forever must stop.”

Arbital, a web knowledge project by Eliezer Yudkowsky and Alexei Andreev, is going into maintenance mode.

RIP Harry Huskey, a computer pioneer who helped build ENIAC back in 1945. He was one of the last living people to have worked on computers with Alan Turing. He might have been the first person to have a commercially-built computer in his house (the Bendix G-15, in 1956).

San Francisco will soon finish the Transbay Terminal, one of the most expensive train stations in the world. It will cost $2.6 billion, and use five blocks’ worth of downtown land. However, there will be no trains for at least ten years, and almost certainly longer. The station was built despite not having any money to put tracks into it, and nobody knows where funding for tracks would come from. After four months’ delay, San Francisco allocated $5 million for a “tunneling options study”. In the meantime, the station will be used as a bus stop.

There are many engineering obstacles to molecular assemblers, as envisioned by Eric Drexler. However, this frequently gets confused with weak criticisms from people with no technical background, like “physics proves any atomic assembler is impossible” (even though that would disprove biology), or “macro scale principles don’t work at the nano scale” (Drexler spends a whole chapter on scaling laws, so it’s not like he didn’t know that). This blog post lays out some of the real, technical challenges Drexlerian manufacturing would face, from someone who has read the relevant papers and is familiar with the field. It’s somewhat out of date (2005), but is vastly better than most easily-Googleable, easily-readable material on this subject.

Why Germany Lost, an informative and entertaining talk by Prof. Jonathan House. Busts some common myths, like “Hitler could have won if he listened to his generals”, or “the Soviets out-numbered the Germans five to one”.

United We Blame“. Everyone to blame for airline problems, courtesy Zvi Mowshowitz.

A startup is now offering unlimited private jet rides for $11,000 a year, plus $4,000 sign-up fee. Catch: the scheduling is a lot more limited than with commercial flights, so there might not be a flight on any particular day, or even one at all. (Except for chartering a plane, but that’s not included in the price and is super costly).

Security deposits are heavily regulated under California law. Know your rights as a renter.

Real train robberies have returned to the Old West. Next, we’ll have gun duels at high noon, and pirates prowling the waters of San Francisco Bay. That would at least be cool.

May 1st, International Victims of Communism Day.

Patrick McKenzie on doing business in Japan, which at times sounds like a caricature of the 50s. “It is socially mandatory that your boss, in fulfillment of his duties to you, sees that you are set up with a young lady appropriate to your station. He is likely to attempt to do this first by matching you with a young lady in your office. There are, at all times, a number of unattached young ladies in your office. Most of them choose to quit right about when they get married or have children.”

How To Count Past Infinity, an introduction to infinities and the ordinal numbers. Also, a proof of the famous Banach-Tarski theorem in video form.

Jamaica: Come for the beaches, stay for the teen kidnapping.

Problems with the famous “fire in a crowded theater” quote thrown around in free speech discussions.

Raqqa, the capital of ISIS, is under siege by the Syrian Democratic Forces, with US support. Over half of the city has been captured to date.

No Scrum“, a music video by Jess Sorrell at UCSD. Also, an accurate and hilarious video guide to Scrum. “If, for example, your product serves a large number of customers at once, it’s recommended that you fuse them together under spectacular heat to form one giant supercustomer.”

Trump’s political strategist, Roger Stone, was the youngest person involved in Watergate. He has Richard Nixon tattooed on his back, and has the world’s largest private connection of Nixon memorabilia. Get Me Roger Stone, a recent Netflix documentary, shows just how much Stone self-identifies as a villain.

International Energy Agency projections keep underestimating solar power. Every year since 2002, they’ve undershot solar growth, adjusted upwards, and then undershot again.

BART Withholding Surveillance Videos Of Crime To Avoid ‘Stereotypes’“.

The “hungry judge” effect in parole hearings was almost certainly overestimated.

No matter what Twitter says, Elon Musk did not get government approval for Hyperloop. More on the technical, financial, and political problems with Hyperloop.

Apprente, my new AI startup. Still in stealth mode.

Yet another Bitcoin indictment. The operator of BTC-e, Alexander Vinnik, was a Russian national arrested in Greece on money laundering and other charges.

AltspaceVR, a social VR startup co-founded by Gavan Wilhite, is closing down.

My attempt to take a train from the 2017 eclipse back to Berkeley, as recorded by the great Alon Levy.

A weather guide for all solar eclipses until 2024. Don’t get clouded out! The next “easy” total eclipse is April 2023 in Exmouth, Australia, which has lots of good hotels and a commercial airport.

Laura Deming’s Longevity Fund has raised another $22 million for anti-aging R&D. To quote Jon Snow, “We’re all on the same side. We’re all breathing.”

There’s an extremely strong correlation between the rate of housing construction in a city, and how expensive housing is there. This is true both across all US cities, and for tech hubs specifically.

Extra History is a great YouTube “cartoon documentary” show, on some of history’s obscure-but-fascinating parts. The current series is on the Great Northern War and the end of the Swedish Empire.

Deir ez-Zor, the biggest city in eastern Syria, has been under siege by ISIS for over three years now. ISIS has attacked dozens of times, and they’ve split the city into two pockets, but the defenders continue resisting. The 2017 Syrian offensive against ISIS has been very successful, so hopefully the city will be relieved in the next few months.

Inside Robert Mueller’s Army” describes the elite team of lawyers investigating Trump, his family, his campaign staff, his business partners, and his administration. This investigation is now huge. It covers dozens of topics, and has as many federal prosecutors as might normally be assigned to whole states. Wikipedia has more details.

Winlink is a free email provider that sends and receives messages over long-distance radio. With some equipment, it can be accessed from anywhere in the world.