This was a good year for reading, since I spent it sitting with my Kindle on airplanes. (Kindles are great — like tablets, but without all those fussy little apps that distract you from reading.)
Of the ~150 books I read this year, these are the ones that come to mind when I think of the word “best”. They are very different, and you won’t like all of them, but they all do something well.
For a list of every book I remember reading, check my Goodreads account.
Best List of All the Books
In no particular order, save for the first four, which I liked most of all.
- Rememberance of Earth’s Past (series, all three books)
- The Steerswoman (series, all four books)
- Chasing the Scream
- Rationality: From AI to Zombies
- The Last Samurai
- The Fifth Season
- The Found and the Lost
- The Future and its Enemies
- On the Run
- The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
- The Partly Cloudy Patriot
- Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air
- Machete Season
- How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia
Genius.it is one of the year’s better inventions.
Right now — right this moment — you can turn any web page into a cross between a Kindle book and a page of lyrics on Rap Genius. Other people can read your annotations alongside the article, and add their own comments.
I plan to use this invention often. It’s the best way to deal with the fact that someone is always wrong on the internet.
Below is the first article I’ve “annotated” in this way:
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Ezra Klein and Phil Libin are both smart people. But I think that they make some mistakes in their depiction of how experts on artificial intelligence think about the risks of this powerful technology.
Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?
30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.
He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?
–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert
Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!
What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.
Can We Do Any Better?
There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better.
Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?
But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?
My friend Jack Newsham, a reporter for The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:
Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)
My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.
I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.
Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.
Each year, Edge.org asks a few hundred very smart people how they’d answer a certain question. The results are always a mixed bag, but it’s one of the most exciting mixed bags in the intellectual world.
This year’s question dug into one of my own interests: “What do you think about machines that think?”
In other words: What does the increasing power of artificial intelligence (AI) mean for humans, for the universe, and for the machines themselves? What will happen if and when AI becomes “general” or “superintelligent”, outperforming humans at almost every task?
The answers to this question would fill a book (and will, since Edge publishes one book each year). But even if you don’t have time to read a book, you should sample the content, because there’s always a ton of interesting material.
This post is my attempt to gather up some of the best answers and individual quotes, while responding to a few misconceptions about AI safety that popped up in the responses.
At least, not a name I could find on this handy list of fallacies.
Hopefully, that means I get to name it myself. I’d like to call it “the Aaron Fallacy”, because I’m writing this post, and because the person who brought it to my attention was also named Aaron (though he was not me). But it seems counterproductive to have a fallacy named after oneself, so instead, I will call it “the Fallacy of Trust”.
(Edit: Shoot, Murray Gell-Mann beat me to the punch. As did Michael Crichton. Still, no point in taking the rest of this down. Maybe it still contains insight?)
Welcome to the first article in the Badass Baby Names series! In an attempt to give your future child a more awesome life, I am writing about the most badass names I can find: The way they sound, the nicknames they offer, the famous people to whom they were given, and the lifestyle they might promote.
The first name in the series is “Salazar”. With a sinuous “S”, soft “L”, and commanding “Z”, Salazar hints at power wielded from the shadows — but with a good purpose in mind. Salazars overcome challenges by slithering around them, or turning them to personal advantage, rather than smashing them to bits with brute force.
Is “Salazar” the right name for your child? Read on…
Yale’s Environmental Health and Safety office recently sent an email to all students with the headline “The Dangers Are Real”.
While the email included useful information on important topics like “the history of pedestrian right-of-way in Connecticut”, this was my favorite part:
“Distracted pedestrians are being injured at an increasingly alarming rate.”
“Increasingly alarming” is a beautiful phrase.
The Yale Environmental Health and Safety office does not imply that the rate of injury among distracted pedestrians is increasing — only that the employees of the office are becoming progressively more alarmed.
There are many reasons this could be happening. Maybe the injury rate really is increasing. Or maybe the injury rate is decreasing, but the average injury has gotten worse.
It is also possible that the author of this email is suffering from unrelated feelings of alarm, but attributes this alarm to the current rate of distracted pedestrian injury in Connecticut, whatever that rate may be.
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The phrase “increasingly alarming” can be applied to literally any set of time-series data while remaining subjectively accurate.
- “The global temperature is rising at an increasingly alarming rate.”
- “Bears are attacking Canadians at an increasingly alarming rate.”
- “George Clooney is aging at an increasingly alarming rate.”
And so on.
I feel like this phrase ought to have an Urban Dictionary entry, or at least a national holiday in the United States. On “Increasingly Alarming Day”, citizens would go about their business as usual, but would feel slightly more anxious than on other days.
Already, the idea has support from doctors, environmentalists, and Piers Morgan. I sense the seeds of a grassroots movement.
“Increasingly Alarming”: Your one-stop solution for statistically dubious panic.
My third guest post for Applied Sentience is up!
This one wasn’t very original, but I thought it turned out well. Essentially, I took some of Less Wrong’s fantastic material on How to Actually Change Your Mind, then threw in some examples from my own experience. Plus, you get some fun mental training exercises to go along with the stories!
Credit goes to Paul Chiari, editor extraordinaire, for the photos and captions.
Here’s an excerpt:
From the ages of 13-16, I spent a lot of time arguing with people on this political forum. I changed my mind a few times in the process, but by the time I left the site, I was pretty sure I’d found the “correct” side of every major political issue, even though I never had that thought explicitly.
If you’d asked me: “Do you actually think you’re right about everything?” I would have answered no. But if you’d asked “What are some things youactually think you might be wrong about?” I’d have stared at you for a while and then started to mope. (At least, that’s what happened whenever I asked myself that question.)
If you can only click one link from the guest post, make it “Steelmanning”, by Chana Messinger. It’s much more fun to argue with people when you pretend their arguments are better than they really are, as opposed to worse.
(It’s also a relief when other people show you the same courtesy.)
In which I steal an idea from Venkatesh Rao and publish a series of thoughts that are too short, and perhaps not logical enough, to be full posts.