Some good things, May/June 2022

Books

In the last couple months I read two of the best books I’ve read in a long time: The Dream Machine, on the very early history of Silicon Valley, and Regenesis, on the agricultural future we need to build. Both highly recommended. I also wrote a list of my five favourite books on Silicon Valley for The Economist, you can read that here.

TV

I finally started For All Mankind and it’s as good as everyone says it is.

Restaurants

40 Maltby Street continues to fire on all cylinders. In Cornwall, I had an unbelievably good strawberry and honeycomb dessert at North Street Kitchen, great spider crab croquettes at Pintxo and a phenomenal tartine at Coombeshead Farm. But the highlight of the last month was my trip to Queens Night Market in New York, which somehow managed to exceed my very high expectations. Nansense‘s chapli kebab smash burger was revelatory.

Theatre

The Father and the Assassin was very good, and revived my interest in India/Pakistan history. Ivo’s Age of Rage was also good, but the weakest of his “epic” trilogy. Hans Kesting was great, as ever, but it was very interesting to watch Édouard Louis play himself in Who Killed My Father — I think he probably did a better job than Kesting. The buzziest thing I saw was That Is Not Who I Am, which was very good, but didn’t deliver on the weird gimmick it’s framed as.

Art

The Guggenheim’s Vasily Kandinsky exhibition is great; a rare example of an artist who got better with age. But the best thing I’ve seen in ages was Cornelia Parker at Tate Britain: the art is great by itself, but her intellectual curiosity means it’s even better when you read the accompanying descriptions. Highly recommended.

Cultural philanthropy: Influencing the culture to improve the world

Disclosure: I personally know some of the people discussed in this article.

When you decide to use your money to do good, you’re presented with a plethora of options. You might purchase malaria nets, or give direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest. You could fund research on AI safety, or lobby for new climate change policies. Or you could walk down the street and give some money to a homeless person in your community.

But there is another kind of philanthropy—one that is much less common, but growing in importance. It’s based on the idea that the culture we live in influences the decisions of everyday people, entrepreneurs and policymakers. Recognising that influence, this kind of philanthropy wants to change that culture.

I’m going to call this “cultural philanthropy”. It is very distinct from other forms of supporting culture, e.g. building a new wing at the Met or paying for stage-hands’ balaclavas at the Royal Opera House (no, seriously). That kind of philanthropy is done out of a general love for the arts (and, often, a desire for status). “Cultural philanthropy”, as I use the phrase, is specifically defined by a clear theory of change: the idea is to use culture to disseminate ideas that will go on to change the world.

Stripe and its founders, the Collison brothers, are two prominent examples of cultural philanthropists. Stripe Press, a publishing division of the payments giant, produces books, articles, podcasts and films with a view to improving the world. Whether exploring why technological development has stalled or advocating for better heat systems, Stripe Press is laser-focused on diagnosing the world’s problems and offering solutions. Neither Stripe nor the Collisons will directly make money from this (though they do hope that by increasing “the GDP of the internet”, Stripe will be able to take a cut). The primary motivation is altruistic. The hope, it seems, is that distributing these ideas might make people think about things differently, encouraging them to make better decisions, which will in turn put humanity on a better path.

Sam Bankman-Fried, a crypto billionaire and effective altruist, is another advocate for cultural philanthropy. His FTX Future Fund is explicit about it: its website claims that “books and media are enormously important for exploring ideas, shaping the culture, and focusing society’s attention on specific issues.” Unlike the Collisons, who are doing much of this culture-changing-work in-house, SBF takes a more distributed approach: he’s funding a $500,000 blogging prize for “effective ideas”. This is similar to some of the work Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna, two other effective altruists, fund through Open Philanthropy, their foundation. Open Philanthropy has recently given grants to YouTubers promoting effective altruist ideas. And while it appears to be picking up steam, cultural philanthropy isn’t entirely new: the Rockefeller Foundation’s previous support for Future Perfect and the Gates Foundation’s support for The Guardian are older examples (though still quite recent!).

You might draw parallels between this and the billionaires who philanthropically own news outlets, such as Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post, Marc Benioff with Time and Laurene Powell Jobs with The Atlantic. But this is different. For one, those organisations are still run somewhat like a business—profit is not an afterthought. More importantly, Bezos, Benioff and Powell Jobs all seem interested in the idea of journalism in and of itself, as being key to a healthy democracy. They are less interested in the specific ideas those publications disseminate, and they don’t have nearly as much editorial control over them.1

Nor is it quite like the Murdochian approach to media. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets are certainly no stranger to advocacy, but I don’t think they promote those ideas because he wants the world to be a certain way. He instead chases audiences, profit and power for its own sake. (The Sun switching from supporting the Tories to Labour and back again is a good example of this, as is his reluctance to back Trump at the beginning of his 2016 campaign. Murdoch just wants to back winners.)

If there is an analog to the Collison-SBF-Moskovitz approach, it is billionaire funding of think tanks. In both cases, the hope is to spread valuable ideas. But rather than doing all the work in house and taking a narrow focus on who might receive the ideas, the new approach takes a more bottom-up approach, finding ideas where they might arise, and hoping they take root in the culture.2 (It is not a coincidence, I think, that two of the people leading Stripe Press’s Works In Progress are former think-tankers; nor that the Collisons, SBF and Open Philanthropy all also fund the new Institute For Progress think tank).

The strategy has a plausible, if uncertain, theory of change. Matthew Yglesias summed it up quite well while discussing Future, a much-hyped online publication from Andreessen Horowitz:

“I think to make pro-tech, pro-markets, pro-innovation sustainable, you need a public culture that reflects those values. That means publications that propound them.”

Like many of the philanthropists funding this work, I have a pro-tech, pro-markets and pro-innovation worldview—which means I view this sort of cultural philanthropy as something that could be really good for the world. But, as with all things, views differ. Reasonable people might dislike the views of SBF, Moskovitz and the Collisons. And some people funding similar projects have very different views: most notably Peter Thiel, who promotes views I find repellent (and, in the case of René Girard’s mimetic theory, just plain weird). And while I believe most of these people—including Thiel!—have good intentions and genuinely want to make the world better, that will not always be the case. It is entirely plausible that people will masquerade as cultural philanthropists while actually spreading ideas that serve only their interests.

That isn’t necessarily a problem: people ought to be allowed to back whatever ideas they want. But we need to emphasise transparency. As money pours into cultural philanthropy, certain ideas will gain traction that otherwise wouldn’t have. Yet without transparency, the average person—even the average lawmaker—might not know that the only reason they’re suddenly hearing about a certain policy is because a couple of Silicon Valley billionaires wanted it to be heard. And if they did know that, maybe they’d think about it a bit more critically. While this problem is important, it is by no means a dealbreaker. Something as simple as clear, prominent disclosures on the bottom of each philanthropically-funded article would help, I think—as would clear statements from the philanthropists on what they are doing, and why they’re doing it.3

But transparency aside, I am broadly optimistic about the potential of cultural philanthropy. As FTX notes, culture plays a key role in how both the ruling class and the masses understand the world, and subtly shifting it in a more positive direction could have significant gains. A world in which “cheems mindset” is common parlance and serious consideration is given to the benefits of frontier technologies like artificial wombs strikes me as a very appealing one. The cultural philanthropists might help us get there.

Footnotes

1. Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition fits in this category, too: if his stated motivations are true, he is buying the platform because he thinks it is crucial to a modern democracy, rather than because he wants to promote any specific ideas. (There is some evidence, though, that he is in fact buying it to promote more right-wing ideas, which would push it in the direction of cultural philanthropy.)

2. When I talk about the “culture”, I don’t necessarily mean popular culture. All of these philanthropists seem particularly concerned with shaping, for lack of a better term, “elite” culture—policymakers, entrepreneurs and journalists who are in a position to have a potentially large impact. But they don’t limit themselves to targeting these people, and there’s an understanding that getting mass adoption of these ideas would help things along (it’s just much harder).

3. The Blogging Prize complicates things, because people are writing with the hope of receiving funding, rather than receiving funding before writing. I also have a suspicion that some people are going to write and publish takes they don’t fully believe, purely in the hope of winning the prize. Given the prominence of the prize and the people backing/paying attention to it, this could have a fairly large distorting effect on the “marketplace of ideas”, as it were. A potential solution might be for the Prize to require all entrants to put e.g. “This blog is an entrant for the Blogging Prize, funded by the FTX Future Fund” on each post, though that’s a little crude and a pain to enforce.

Five restaurant recommendations for visitors to London

In a recent, excellent, Vittles post, Jonathan Nunn asked people for the top five places visitors to London should eat at. Here are mine, based around the criteria of getting things you can’t get elsewhere/understanding the “soul” of London:

St John, but just for starters and puddings (whoever says the food at Rochelle Canteen is better is wrong, I always leave the latter feeling ripped off). You could substitute this with F.K.A.B.A.M., which offers an insight into both Turkish and nose-to-tail cooking, but the food is less consistent and the atmosphere is less fun.

40 Maltby Street, for the other side of Modern-British-Cooking.

Dishoom: not for the food, which is awful, but because it gives you a better insight into how white people view British Asians than almost anything else.

Bake Street, which gives you a better insight into how brown people view being British Asian than almost anything else.

Taste of Pakistan on your way back to Heathrow. Pack leftovers for the plane and annoy everyone on your return flight.

Some good things, April 2022

Books

I have been very bad at finishing books this month, but I am enjoying Stuart Richie’s Science Fictions, which is both fascinating and terrifying; and Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which is beautifully written but so far lacks a compelling plot.

Films

The Worst Person in the World was excellent, though it hasn’t particularly stuck with me. The same is true for Ghost In The Shell, which I saw for the first time at the BFI IMAX (not really the best format for it, in hindsight). The best film I’ve seen recently was The Northman, which I think might have a better story than Hamlet (the two share the same Norse myths as inspiration). I saw that in a bad cinema (I always forget how awful Barbican Screen 1 is) and want to watch it again.

TV

There’s a lot of good stuff on at the moment. Severance is as excellent as everyone says, Winning Time and Atlanta both deserve more attention, and Better Call Saul is off to an incredible start. I’m also enjoying the very, very cute Old Enough.

Restaurants

Two set menu bargains stood out in the past month: the “Scratch” menu at Spring and the lunch menu at Noble Rot. The former is a meal worth many, many times the price; the latter is supremely comforting. Arcade Food Hall lived up to expectations, and I expect to become something of a regular. I am now unquestionably a regular at Jolene Colebrooke Row.

Theatre

I’ve been a Punchdrunk obsessive since I first saw The Drowned Man in 2014. The Burnt City doesn’t quite match its London predecessor, but is excellent nonetheless. I’ve already been twice and I expect to return many more times. I went to Jerusalem with similarly high hopes, having seen and loved a student production many years ago. It was, unsurprisingly, even better in the West End: Mark Rylance and Mackenzie Crook are phenomenal, the set’s great, and the whole show is beautifully crafted.

Music

I’ve been trying to get more into classical music, with varying degrees of success. I find the older stuff a lot harder, though Bach’s Goldberg Variations are impressive. The modern stuff is more up my street, especially Max Richter’s Recomposed Four Seasons, John Cage’s In a Landscape and Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet Duet. Mostly, I’m learning just how abysmal Spotify is for listening to classical music; Apple’s dedicated classical app can’t come soon enough. Elsewhere, I find myself coming back to Underworld’s Frankenstein soundtrack again and again.

13 musings from EA Global

  1. An awful lot of people are interested in effective altruism.
  2. A lot of people want to use journalism as a tool for magnifying EA’s impact.
  3. A lot of EAs (including very senior ones) are absolutely terrified of journalists and think that shutting them out is a good thing to do.
  4. There are more women in EA than I realised/expected, though they are still underrepresented.
  5. There is a lot of interesting work going on at the intersection of agriculture / climate resiliency / global development / existential risk reduction.
  6. The Barbican is a fantastic conference venue.
  7. A sizeable number of people worry that effective altruism is too dominated by discussion of AI safety.
  8. There are a lot of very bright and motivated students in EA. They are much better at networking than I ever was.
  9. We are very lucky that Kremer et al did a meta-analysis of water treatment, despite GiveWell previously deeming it to be cost ineffective. We need to figure out how to encourage more of this kind of work.
  10. Despite the large amounts of attention longtermism gets, the bulk of EA money in the next few years is expected to fund work in global health and development.
  11. Vegan food, when prepared well, is very good. Meat substitutes have got a lot better in the last couple of years, but vegan food that doesn’t try to imitate meat (which is often food inspired by Asian cooking) is always better.
  12. EA needs to adopt a “startup mindset” of aiming for high-value outcomes, even if they are unlikely to be achieved. It needs to get very comfortable with the idea of failure.
  13. Will MacAskill is absolutely ripped.

Some recent articles

I occasionally write about this blog’s themes for The Economist, here are a few recent pieces:

On nuclear fusion

Recent developments have made some people optimistic that “net energy gain” reactions—the holy grail where a nuclear fusion reaction produces more energy than it consumes—could soon be achieved.

On biological weapons

If a pathogen was engineered to be particularly virulent and lethal, it could kill millions of people across the globe. Researchers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute think such a weapon could even lead to human extinction.

On surviving nuclear war

Potassium iodide can help, but only up to a point. It stops the thyroid, a gland in the neck, from absorbing radioactive iodine. The pills have been distributed in the aftermath of nuclear power-plant meltdowns, and there is evidence to suggest they work.

My colleagues are constantly writing excellent pieces, too; you should subscribe to read them all.

My review of “Whole Earth” and “We Are As Gods”

I reviewed the new biography and documentary about Stewart Brand. The best part of both is where they dive into the tension between Brand’s techno-utopianism and environmentalism (even though I tend to side with Brand that the two can and should co-exist).

You can read the whole thing at The Economist, here’s an excerpt:

Mr Brand’s technophilia helped shape Silicon Valley. But it drove a wedge between him and his ecologically minded friends. He had always been an outlier, enjoying Ayn Rand’s libertarian books at university. His fascination with humans settling in space—he financed the subject’s first major conference in 1974—widened the divide. In 2009 Mr Brand distanced himself from his fellow environmentalists, advocating for genetically modified organisms and nuclear power. As for the eco-warriors, he labelled them “irrational, anti-scientific and very harmful”. In response George Monbiot, an activist, suggested that Mr Brand was a spokesperson for the fossil-fuel industry. The criticism echoed Mr Kesey’s remark decades earlier: “Stewart recognises power. And cleaves to it.” 


Notes on “The End of Invention”

Sam Bowman (and others) have made an excellent radio documentary on why the pace of scientific innovation has slowed, and what we can do to fix it. The whole thing is well worth listening to; these are some notes I’ve made on the bits I want to make sure I remember.

Ideas are becoming harder to find, research suggests; Nicholas Bloom’s 2020 paper on this found that “research productivity is declining sharply”. Moore’s Law proves to be a good example of this: “the number of researchers required to double chip density today is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s”. Not good!

“Eroom’s Law” is a clever term for the problem plaguing drug development; Jack Scannell coined the term to refer to his finding that “the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years since 1950”. (“Eroom” is “Moore” backwards.) In the show, Scannell blames this in part on older drugs going off-patent and becoming generics: “You’ve got an ever improving back catalog of almost free medicine against which new medicines have to compete.”

Corporate research isn’t very good at developing truly revolutionary ideas, as those are often hard to monetise (the Internet is a good example). And so it’s concerning that government R&D, which can be quite good at funding those sorts of ideas, is falling as a share of overall R&D.

Scientific journals aren’t well-suited to encouraging revolutionary ideas, either. Margit Osterloh says that peer reviewers “agree more on scientific work which is garbage”, with more unorthodox (and revolutionary) ideas garnering more disagreement. As papers need multiple peer reviewers’ support to be published, that’s a problem. Osterloh thinks that introducing random selection could help solve the problem. She says that in the 18th Century, the University of Basel increased its reputation by randomly selecting professors. Today, some funding bodies (including New Zealand’s health research council and Switzerland’s national science foundation) are experimenting with similar methods. (As a big believer in the benefits of randomisation I find this very exciting!).

Again, the whole programme is worth listening to, you can find it here.

More good things (books, films, restaurants)

Books

The Planet Remade by Oliver Morton — I’ll write more on this soon, but it is a very good, wide-ranging and surprisingly poetic book.

Whole Earth: The Many Lives of Stewart Brand by John Markoff — will also have more on this soon, but if you’re interested in Brand (and you should be), this is worth reading.

From Satori to Silicon Valley by Theodore Roszak — a short and very readable overview of the links between Silicon Valley and the ’60s counterculture.

Various Batman graphic novels — Year One was the highlight for me, though The Dark Knight Returns and Hush are good too. Neither are as good as The Long Halloween, Arkham Asylum or The Killing Joke, though. I also read The Black Mirror and The Court of Owls, neither of which impressed me very much.

Films

That comic binge was brought on by anticipation for The Batman, which was much better than I expected. It’s probably my favourite Batman film, though The Dark Knight is arguably a better film in and of itself. (I also watched a few animated films, and would recommend both Under the Red Hood and Mask of the Phantasm if you liked The Batman.)

We Are As Gods is a very good documentary about Stewart Brand, and by extension about the ’60s, de-extinction, and techno-utopianism.

I also watched Dune for the fourth time, this time at home, which confirmed my suspicions that it derives a lot of its power from the big screen (particularly IMAX). Still good, though.

Restaurants

Bake Street has started doing biryani on Sundays, and if the first batch was anything to go by this is now one of London’s best meals. Everything else there is still fantastic too, obviously. I’m very excited that Feroz is opening a new outlet in the promising-looking Arcade Food Hall.

Towpath reopened the other week, and a sunny lunch of taramasalata, carrot-top fritters and peas was pretty much perfect.

A lunch at Dosa Express was particularly memorable for the snacks — pani puri, samosa chaat, dhai vada. The dosas were good too, particularly the crispy rava ones.

The Black Axe Mangal x St John meal kit was worth it just for the t-shirt; the excellent food was the icing on the cake.

Music

I’ve been listening to a lot of Acid Arab, Michael Giacchino’s The Batman soundtrack, Floating Points’ new single, and Music from Saharan Cellphones.

fabric at the Opera was a very clever and fun event, which I hope they do a lot more of. Rival Consoles and Frank Wiedemann stole the show.

In defence of astrology, tarot and divination

I’ve noticed a resurgence in the popularity of astrology over the last few years (particularly an increased prominence in bookshops) which I’ve judged quite harshly. I have found it depressing that so many people are willing to believe objectively false things, and that bookshops which are otherwise dedicated to knowledge are willing to promote nonsense.

But a couple of essays in LessWrong’s excellent “The Engines of Cognition” series have changed my view. I still don’t think astrology is “real”: I don’t think the placement of celestial bodies at your birth or otherwise affect your life. But I do think it and other “woo” beliefs can be useful.

Here’s Joseph Henrich in “The Secret Of Our Success” (via Scott Alexander), emphasis mine:

When hunting caribou, Naskapi foragers in Labrador, Canada, had to decide where to go. Common sense might lead one to go where one had success before or to where friends or neighbors recently spotted caribou. However, this situation is like [the Matching Pennies game]. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers. That is, hunters want to match the locations of caribou while caribou want to mismatch the hunters, to avoid being shot and eaten. If a hunter shows any bias to return to previous spots, where he or others have seen caribou, then the caribou can benefit (survive better) by avoiding those locations (where they have previously seen humans). Thus, the best hunting strategy requires randomizing. Traditionally, Naskapi hunters decided where to go to hunt using divination and believed that the shoulder bones of caribou could point the way to success … these divination rituals may have provided a crude randomizing device that helped hunters avoid their own decision-making biases.

In “Steelmanning Divination”, Vaniver tries a form of divination for about a month. They consult random chapters of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese divination text. Here’s what happened, emphasis mine:

daily divination almost filled the same role as daily retrospectives or planning sessions; I was frequently thinking about all the different parts of my life on a regular interval, using a variety of random access to filter things down … having a prescribed ritual for what sort of cognition needs to be done encourages reflection and popping out of the obvious frame … It encouraged experimentation by partially decoupling one’s mood and one’s decisions … This approach has also served me well with other forms of divination I’ve since tried; a Tarot deck works by focusing your attention on a situation, and then randomly generating a framegiving one access to parts of the space that they wouldn’t have considered otherwise

When it comes to introspection, it’s very easy to get stuck in classic thought patterns — unless we’re explicitly prompted to think about something in a new way. (Much of cognitive behavioural therapy is about trying to break out of classic, harmful thought patterns, in my experience.) Seen in this light, astrology and divination start to look like useful practices: they encourage you to think about things in a way you haven’t considered. And their lack of basis in reality is actually an advantage: because horoscopes and tarot readings really are random, each time you use them you’ll be forced to think about something in a new way.

I don’t think this ends up as a defence of the industry, or a defence of people that seriously believe in astrology and divination. As Vetiver shows, it is perfectly possible to find them useful without believing they offer “truth”. It continues to be bad that people believe in false things. But it does suggest that the practices aren’t irredeemable, and that you might even benefit from trying them.