Topic 7 August: Cost Disease

Core reading is this very long and very good essay on “Cost Disease” by blogger Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex.  Cost Disease is the dramatic rise in costs for things like healthcare and education. Scott outlines the problem,  offers eight explanatory hypotheses and finds none of them explains the data.

Here’s an example of cost disease:

(For those who have not read SlateStarCodex before: Scott is a rigorous researcher and provides links to all of the data he uses to draw conclusions. 183 of us like his work well enough to pay, in aggregate, $261 per post for him to keep producing stuff. If you find his work as worthwhile as I do, I encourage you to subscribe through iPatreon–there’s a link on his home page.  Most of what he gets goes to other content creators.)

SSC has an active readership and there are 1022 responses to the post. Scott moderates the responses and throws out anyone posting crap, so the discussion is civil, well-informed, and often as valuable as the post.

Scott wrote a follow-up post “Highlights from the comments on Cost Disease” where he says:

I got many good responses to my Considerations On Cost Disease post, both in the comments and elsewhere. A lot of people thought the explanation was obvious; unfortunately, they all disagreed on what the obvious explanation was. Below are some of the responses I found most interesting.

[Note: my emphasis in the quote]

I’m sure that on Monday, a lot of us with find our own obvious explanations and many of us will disagree with one another about the obvious answer. Sadly, I will not be there in body but will be in spirit.

Scott later turned the discussion into an article published here. It’s pretty much the same post but I think it makes the “we don’t know why this is happening” conclusion a little clearer.

About 6 months later in this post,  Scott reports that he’d found something that he liked. He says:

“Center For A Stateless Society has probably the best response to my cost disease post I’ve seen so far, which suggests the problem is something like oligopolies, plus weird accounting rules that treat “costs” and “revenues” in confusing and inappropriate ways.”

I think it’s a pretty interesting, non-obvious, and at least partly correct explanation.

Topic for 31 July 2017: David Deutsch, knowledge, science, and optimism

12 July 2017 is the day that I first heard physicist David Deutsch (Wikipedia, home, twitter) talk about knowledge, science, and the nature of the universe. (Here’s the first talk I heard — also linked below) He’s at Oxford, is considered the father of  quantum computing, is one of the leaders in understanding the implications of quantum theory, and the increasingly accepted many worlds interpretation, and is creating a  new field called “constructor theory.

Deutsch is enthusiastic, articulate, knowledgeable, and witty. He is optimistic, but not naive. (Talk at RSA on Optimism) He acknowledges that things may go horribly wrong as–he points out–they have done for hundreds of thousands of years. But we’ve reached a point where the future before us is unlimited—but we must take care and successfully avoid disaster.

I majored in mathematics and minored in physics at MIT, have pursued my love of these subjects for half a century and spent my whole career working with computers. In an embarrassingly short time, Deutsch convinced me that my understanding of mathematics and science were deeply flawed; that my epistemology was defective; that some of my certainties were wrong, and that my understanding of the implications of computation was shallow.

(Deutsch article “Why it’s good to be wrong” Yes, it is!)

Here’s a taste, excerpted and edited from the first TED talk below:

I want to start with two things that everyone already knows. The first one is something that has been known for most of recorded history, and that is, that the planet Earth is uniquely suited to sustain our present existence, and most important, our future survival.

This idea has a dramatic name: Spaceship Earth. Outside the spaceship, the universe is implacably hostile, and inside is all we have, all we depend on, and we only get the one chance: if we mess up our spaceship, we’ve got nowhere else to go.

The second thing that everyone already knows is that human beings are not the hub of existence. As Stephen Hawking famously said, we’re just a chemical scum on the surface of a typical planet that’s in orbit around a typical star, which is on the outskirts of a typical galaxy, and so on.

The first of those two things is kind of saying that we’re at a very un-typical place,  and the second one is saying that we’re at a typical place.

If you regard these two as deep truths to live by and to inform your life decisions, then they seem a little bit to conflict with each other.

But that doesn’t prevent them from both being completely false.

So here are some talks by and with Deutsch and links to his books (both excellent).

(Also at TED, with a transcript)

Also at TED with a transcript

Podcast: Surviving the Cosmos with Sam Harris        (Transcript)

Podcast: Finding our way in the Cosmos

Deutsch’s books: (click on images to go to Amazon)



Notes 24 July 2017

Poland’s overlooked Enigma codebreakers – BBC News 

Poland’s judiciary reform is Europe’s biggest headache – Here’s why 

Voter turnout 1789 -> present
Partisanship in the US Congress (PLOS1)
Susan Collins “ideology score” (

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