- Jordan Castro in Harpers on lifting. There is an entire mini-genre (from which Castro quotes) of intellectuals who take pride in being indifferent to their physical bodies, and then either discover that lifting is great, or that failing to exercise for long periods is a really bad idea. You may be a strict mind-body dualist, but good luck persuading your brain that it's not an organ in a physical body subject to all the limitations that entails. One great thing about lifting is that it's a practice where you can make quantifiable progress based entirely on your own efforts, making it both a good way to stay motivated during runs of bad luck and a nice cure for the fundamental attribution error.
- Scott Alexander on why rare events don’t justify big probability updates. Which sounds like a bland statistical point, but more specifically, his view is that you should not necessarily change your worldview based on things like pandemics and terrorist attacks. The basic mental model here is that many phenomena are distributed according to a power law, where disease outbreaks that don't kill a handful of people end up killing millions instead. But extreme examples of rare events often don't have that big an effect on the overall distribution; they just tell you that a specific year turned out to be the year when a hundred-year storm would happen. This is a very good essay to read when it's irrelevant, because people are highly resistant to this idea when the actual rare event has just happened.
- This is a great Freakonomics interview on why there's so much academic fraud (the link includes a transcript). One interesting point is that the culture of different fields can affect fraud: "Economic research is very mathy, and it comes with a lot of what they call robustness checks. There’s also a tradition of, let’s say, aggressive debate within academic economics: long before you publish a paper, you typically present it to your peers and elders at seminars, and they are only too happy to point out any possible flaw, and call you an idiot if you disagree." This is a hard tradeoff to accept (especially since some corners of economics also have their own replication issues), but it does make sense: a field with norms of niceness is a field where more people are too polite to tell you your research is flawed.
- Politico profiles Geoffrey Cowan, a Democratic activist who led the trend towards parties nominating based on primary votes rather than a consensus of party insiders: fewer than half of states held binding primaries as recently as the early 70s. The net effect of primaries is that parties tend to nominate someone who appeals to a majority of the base, rather than who appeals to the majority of the electorate—the people motivated to vote in a primary tend to be more ideological than those who opt out of the primaries. The thinking here is that making a process more representative at the procedural level can make it less so overall by increasing the weight of the most committed believers. And this probably has an effect on perceived polarization; if centrists can win an election but not a nomination, the gap between parties widens.
- Michale Dickson, a philosophy professor, writes about his experience with schizophrenia: he hears voices from people who aren't there, worries that mirrors have hidden cameras, etc.—and manages to lead what appears to be a normal, high-functioning life with an enviable job and a family. There are two threads to pull on here: one is that mental illness can correlate with other outlier behaviors, not from a direct causal mechanism in either direction, but because the other outlier behaviors create a plausible non-mental-health-related explanation for their behavior. You say "Hi" to your professor, he ignores you; you imagine he must be deep in thought wrestling with something Wittgenstein wrote, but it turns out your professor assumed you were a hallucination. The other notable thing is that the author's strategy for dealing with mental health issues can best be described as contemptuous indifference. The voices try to mess with him, but he just doesn't care about them all that much, and it turns out that, at least in this case, anthropomorphizing your mental health problems as a semi-annoying person who you can just casually shove out of the way is very effective.
- This week's Riff is actually a classic from the archives: a March 2020 conversation on Conquest's Law, Girardian analysis of financial bubbles, Austrian economics, and financial regulation. Listen with Spotify / Apple.
- And in Capital Gains, this week's edition looks at corporate mortality. There are corporations operating today that are older than most countries, universities, and other exceptionally long-lived organizations, but they are anomalies. Many corporations used to be chartered with a finite lifespan; now they age and die naturally from economic causes, and can thus be legally immortal.
- The Tyranny of Merit: What's Become of the Common Good: Prestigious schools and careers that people used to fall backwards into by virtue of selecting the right parents now involve fierce competition, relentless stack-ranking, and aggressive selection for measurable indicators of skill and effort. What if that's bad? Or, at least, what if that's suboptimal? Philosopher Michael Sandel sets out to ask this question. The Tyranny of Merit has some very helpful insights. Sandel observes, for example, that political rhetoric has quietly shifted towards a more technocratic tone: politicians started using the word "smart" in places that an earlier generation might have used "just" or "good." This coincides with a rise in rhetoric like "the right side of history," implying that the big questions have been answered to everyone's satisfaction and the goal of institutions is to efficiently implement them.
The book is a bit weaker on the question of who deserves success and how much of it is random. For example, Sandel notes that someone who is born into a well-off family, attends selective schools, has access to private tutors, etc. can't take full credit for their outcomes. On the other hand, many parents structure a lot of their lives around improving their kids' prospects, so there's an important question of whether reducing meritocracy actually means unjustly depriving parents of bragging rights they've worked long and hard for. It's a peculiarly atomized view of humanity that holds that everything that happens to someone outside of their control is random, even if it happens specifically because someone else wills it to. Things look different when you take them out of context and hold them unnaturally still. Sometimes the book feels like reading an entomologist who thinks of butterflies as an intricately-patterned inert substrate out of which metal pins often grow.
Mercifully, Merit does not indulge in much of the classic meritocracy criticism of noting that the term "meritocracy" was originally coined satirically. This always struck me as a bogus complaint (the concept of PowerPoint templates was the result of complaints that users wanted PowerPoint to do all of their thinking for them—"autocontent wizard" was literally a joke name at first, but was also the name when the feature shipped). Instead, the book argues that many of the criticisms in that satirical essay did, in fact, come true; a member of a hereditary aristocracy knows that their position is a matter of luck, but someone who has passed test after test to get where they are will attribute more of their outcomes to skill, and have less sympathy for people who didn't get such high scores.
Merit proposes a few solutions that seem more like hobbyhorses than practical plans. For example, it suggests a ban on high-frequency trading—which amounts to a job protection guarantee for loud, sweaty people at exchange trading floors who have since been replaced by cheaper and more effective robots. But one proposed solution is worth considering: elite schools should consider admitting at least a subset of their students through a lottery with a cutoff—if someone's test scores and record indicate that they're plausibly Princeton material, they get .25 of a Princeton admission instead of 1 or 0. One reason this works is that, at the tails, evaluating talent through a standardized test tends to be luck-based unless the test is designed specifically to be sensitive that far out. Once a perfect score is achievable, the difference between perfect and near-perfect often comes down to a single mistake or a single lucky guess. If that's hard to fix, better to make the luck obvious to lucky beneficiaries.
Companies in the Diff network are actively looking for talent. See a sampling of current open roles below:
- A systematic hedge fund is looking for portfolio managers who have experience using alternative data to develop systematic strategies (NYC).
- A company building ML-powered tools to accelerate developer productivity is looking for software engineers. (Washington DC area)
- An investment company using AI to accelerate investment in esoteric asset classes is looking for a fullstack engineer with Python and Typescript experience to build internal tools for ingesting and analyzing data (Bay Area, remote also a possibility).
- A well-funded startup is building a platform to identify compliance risks associated with both human- and AI-generated outputs. They are looking for a frontend engineer with React/Typescript experience to join their team of world-class researchers. (NYC)
- A diversified prop trading firm with a uniquely collaborative team structure is looking for experienced traders and PMs. (Singapore or Austin, TX preferred)
Even if you don't see an exact match for your skills and interests right now, we're happy to talk early so we can let you know if a good opportunity comes up.
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From last week’s Open Thread on corporate behaviors that seem irrational, freebee34 offers:
Corporate philanthropy. There is no logical reason on earth that I can think of why shareholders would want a C corp to donate money on their behalf. They are loosing tax benefits and by definition the donation cannot perfectly match the preferences of all shareholders. There are edge cases that I can think of (e.g. oil company contributing to encourage local support for a project) however in practice those are a tiny minority of the money spent. I have seen this as a form of internal rent seeking where an executive can get a $5k personal benefit for spending millions.
This is a bit similar to the theory that nicer academic fields will have more fraud: it feels rude to complain that money is being diverted to worthy causes when it really belongs to cold-hearted capitalists, but a) it’s true, b) executives can donate their own money, and c) the tax advantages and timeframes of charitable endowments mean that they are increasingly the recipients of both the proceeds of high-turnover market-neutral trading strategies and illiquid private equity ones.
- Drop in any links or comments of interest to Diff readers.
- If we must choose an elite based on some legible selection criteria, what should we be emphasizing more of and what should we get less of?