Ezra Savard

What I'm Reading

It’s been a bit long since I’ve written one of these, so this one is big. My reading pace during the summer hasn’t been as high as it was in spring however, so not too big.

A History of Purple Dyes
Starting this one off with some fashion history. For example, Tyrian Purple is a really old color and historically was produced from mollusk shells. It can still be produced that way from mollusks in Oaxaca, which are now protected.

Quadratic Voting in Colorado
Always cool to see voting systems being experimented with. Quadratic-esque systems for making demands are nice in that they recognize the value strong opinions on some things without valuing having strong opinions on every single thing. The article also talks about a few other voting systems as well, for the curious.

Moral Panic about Tea
Interesting story about fraudulent tea producers in Regency England. It is partially a story of taxation and law, and partially a story of poisoning people because the tea still sold. I don’t know if there is a moral to this story.

Well Written Sad Story
Very outside of my normal reading, but I found the writer was really effective at sharing their feelings on the topic of their child being killed in a random accident. Read it if you are up for crying a little and contemplating fragility.

Brush with Death in SF Bay
Though also death themed, this is a story of someone not dying, but getting really close. I really enjoyed this piece because it touched on a few things that I’ve encountered also. First off, how easy it can be to end up in a situation vastly worse than you anticipated, and how important it is to understand whether or not the system you are engaged with has stable equilibrium that involves you not being dead, or at least knowing what fences exist to protect you. In my experiences, I’ve hurt myself in extremely stupid ways doing something that mostly seemed trivial, but danced on the edge of an unstable equilibrium point without realizing it.

The other incredibly relatable piece for me was about giving up. I’ve felt this temptation when approaching an exam or an interview, or when wrestling, etc. There is this idea that you can just give up and that is somehow better than continuing to struggle, even though it means a significant loss. My first time in university, I would succumb to this on exams I wasn’t prepared for, and simply not write them. Somehow I would decide that there was more dignity in not showing up then struggling, earning a 0, instead of a 60. Pride is stupid. I’m just glad that I gained my experience with the temptation to stop struggling without having to be freezing to death in the San Fransisco Bay.

Related: Walking the Broomway
The Broomway is basically a hard-to-follow path of silt that is walkable at low tide. The author of the piece describes his trip traveling to the Broomway and walking it. I liked the writing and the surrealness of the landscape. It’s also fun to consider that the Broomway is essentially the border Doggerland, which is fully underwater now. The Broomway and surrounding silt is surprisingly dangerous.

Interesting Take on Edge Cases for Funding
Is it better for a person’s career if their work does not get funded, if the idea was only “just good enough?” Factors other than wasting time on mediocrity could of course be at play, including learning from failures and improving, and the case where the person’s next-best idea is to leave academia for good or ill.

Side note, but looking at arxiv, I keep being surprised that there is no comments section for debating the ideas or methodology. Academia is weird.

Medieval Cognitive Strategies
People find violent, gorey, or sexual scenes very memorable. A common piece of memorization advice I’ve seen for remembering where one put something is to imagine the place exploding or something else spectacular. Apparently this is pretty old advice?

Early Days of Joe Biden
1974 Interview with Joe Biden, then a fairly new senator. Interesting how candid he is about things like having a sex life with his wife. Are we more prudish than we used to be? It is hard for me to imagine a senator mentioning having pleasurable sex with their spouse today.

Murdering Scruton on Twitter
This is a great deep-dive on how George Eaton attempted to carry out an internet character assassination of Sir Roger Scruton. I have basically no opinion on Scruton, since I haven’t read his work, but I still found the article excellent. I don’t think anything in it is terribly surprising, unfortunately, nor is this really a new thing, just new platforms and a much faster pace that changes the game a bit.

Belt and Road
Andrew Batson argues that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an expansion of local Chinese infrastructure spending (stimulus) to foreign countries’ soil. He reasons that most of the bad stuff happening with BRI is due to local incentives / local corruption and not centralized attempts to debt-trap other nations into Chinese influence. I largely agree with this take because it assumes that nobody is being an evil mastermind in this narrative.

Reading it over made me really think about the economics of BRI, as well as general government infrastructure spending and a bit on the (scary) modern monetary policy (MMT). I don’t think the BRI directly relates to any MMT concepts, unless the Chinese are printing money to fund it.

The other reason I like Andrew Batson’s narrative is that it permits the assumption that countries taking BRI loans are competent and acting in their own self-interest. They are probably not being hoodwinked en masse. I expect that ordinary corruption is behind projects being larger than necessary, the same it happens everywhere else.

Here is my take on the incentives:

BRI is about convincing host governments to fund infrastructure projects, but then capturing most of the spending with Chinese engineering firms. The target nation get the infrastructure and the debt, and China gets economic stimulus.

The host country, acting in rational self-interest, makes the trade-off of getting the infrastructure without the economic stimulus, in exchange for the loan and the possibly necessary expertise. This makes sense if the host country either doesn’t have other good options for getting loans, and/or lacks the expertise to build the project. China’s reputation for being unopinionated about how other countries govern probably makes them a preferable lender for a lot of nations.

China, also acting in rational self-interest, gets the economic stimulus at the cost of the risk on the debt. They do not however gain the physical infrastructure. This makes sense if China can afford to build more infrastructure, but doesn’t actually want the stuff. Instead, they own an investment (the debt for the host country) that might be pretty risky, but they consider it more valuable than the value of yet-another-piece-of-infrastructure in their own country.

Related: East Asian Governments as State-Level Venture Capital
This piece gives a breakdown of Japan’s strategy for becoming an economic power post WW2, and how Korea adapted the playbook successfully. It seems like one critical cultural piece was having government jobs be very high status, attracting top talent.

On Teenage Brains, Social Style, and Risk Assessment
Not much to say here, this is a great write-up about teenage brains and how they are different from adult ones. Nifty all the way through.

Related: Boy Scout Who Tried to Build a Breeder Reactor
This is the story of David Hahn’s teenage years, attempting to build a nuclear reactor in his mothers’ back yard shed. He died in 2016 from what appears to be a combination of misc. medical issues and a poor drug interaction.

Tabarrok on Cost Disease
Tabarrok, whose writing I enjoy, has created a series of posts (and a book) on cost disease, arguing that the biggest factor is The Baumol Effect. The gist of it is that sectors that don’t benefit from productivity gains will see rising costs in order to compete for labor.

SlateStarCodex has a book review for it with some good counter arguments.

Extraordinary Things are Often Errors, Very Old People Edition
In 80,000 Hours’ Replication Crisis Quiz you are tasked with guessing which studies do and do not replicate. An effective heuristic is to vote no if the result is non-obvious, and vote yes if the result is fairly obvious. If a study is shocking, it is probably wrong, and needs a lot of scrutiny before it should be considered as truth.

The same heuristic is useful for dealing with other kinds of shocking outliers, like how some regions have the world have surprising numbers of very old people. These were nicknamed Blue Zones and spawned hordes of well selling books and the corequisite misinformation.

Turns out that regions with shockingly high numbers of very old individuals also have low numbers of birth certificates.