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August 2023 BenGoldhaber(.com) Newsletter
Gone Fishing Edition
This is going to be a shorter than normal edition of the BenGoldhaber(.com) newsletter as I’m writing to you just before I head off into the wild for a week of camping. But rest assured, I am braving the hot days and cold nights, far from civilization and AC, in order to find more great content for this newsletter.
The placebo effect is mostly not real? Most reports of a placebo effect are in fact the results of regression to the mean - for instance if you take a group of sick people and split them into a treatment and control group, many in the control group will still get better on their own. Reports on placebos attribute that to the fake interventions the control groups are given - the “sugar pills” they eat - but in fact it’s just a natural return to normal.
Thoughts on sharing information about language model capabilities: I found this to be a particularly persuasive post from Paul Christiano, that in the current regime of AI development we should share information on AI systems relatively widely and that language model based agents are a potentially safer path to AGI than other systems.
LM agents are an unusually safe way to build powerful AI systems. Existing concerns about AI takeover are driven primarily by scaling up black-box optimization, and increasing our reliance on human-comprehensible decompositions with legible interfaces seems like it significantly improves safety. I think this is a large effect size and is suggested by several independent lines of reasoning.
I’m not convinced that developing AI agents is worth the cost in destroying bright line norms against creating intelligent autonomous agents, but I’m more uncertain than I previously was. And in other Paul Christiano AI news, he lost a bet on self-driving cars - having predicted seven years ago they’d be deployed in ten US cities by now. I sympathize, as I was very optimistic in 2018 I’d be able to hail robotaxis in SF or NYC by 2021. Still, the future is getting closer, with both Waymo and Cruise offering paid services now.
How one man created a multimillion-dollar resale market for Buc-ee’s snacks: Buc-ee’s is my number one association with Texas, and this story of how an entrepreneur brought Buc-ee’s online is frankly very Texan.
“It is an absolutely crazy place. You drive by and see all these pumps, a weird beaver logo, and you’re like, ‘What is happening?’” he says. “You walk in, and it’s just a palace of stuff. They have a whole BBQ restaurant. A whole station making fresh fudge. A wall of jerky with dozens of flavors. A wall of candy. Then, you go to the bathroom and it’s like the Sistine Chapel in there.”
How I use memory systems: Michael Nielsen is a great researcher and writer, and I love the way he thinks about how he structures his memory practice and reflection.
Memory systems make memory a choice. They're also a choice about who you will become, a way of sculpting your future self. The practices I report here have been developed with an eye toward the future self I want. This has many implications, but one of the most important is: I try to only add cards where I care about the content. Of course, sometimes it's sometimes difficult to tell: I'm making an informed bet that in the future I will be very glad that understanding is a part of me.
Transcript of Surreptitiously Taped Conversations among German Nuclear Physicists at Farm Hall (August 6-7, 1945): After the bombs were dropped on Japan, the US informed a group of captured German physicists and secretly recorded their discussions and reactions. Reading contemporaneous reports drives home just how much of a conceptual shock the reveal of the atomic bomb was.
KORSHING: The Americans could do it better than we could, that's clear.
HEISENBERG: The point is that the whole structure of the relationship between the scientist and the state in Germany was such that although we were not 100% anxious to do it, on the other hand we were so little trusted by the state that even if we had wanted to do it, it would not have been easy to get it through.
I encountered this through the Real Time WWII twitter account, which just wrapped up its six year run of tweeting WWII events.
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse: I loved it, one of the best films I’ve seen. The art direction and soundtrack are both superb, and the film continued in the footsteps of the first of handling meta narrative plot lines well without losing character drama. I learned that the movie was led by the creator of Avatar the Last Airbender, which really makes sense - best animated creator of our time?
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: The fifth and final season came out months ago, and I had been delaying, in part because the fourth season was a bit of a disappointment and in part because I’ve been strapped for time. But I finally got a chance to finish it and it was worth it; beautiful finish that wraps up the story well, and in a very touching fashion.