Issue 25: the rationalist row

Industrial policy, WHO report, ICBM's, carbon capture and our vulnerable world

Dear reader,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time such as climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who could be interested.

This week a long awaited New York Times article appeared: the one on Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex (SSC).

Alexander is a key blogger in an online community called the rationalists, who have overlapping interests with this newsletter. And even though they can be annoying at times, interesting ideas do circulate on SSC and in the rationalist community, that can help us think better about the big issues of our time.

Then a NYT reporter decided to write a piece about Alexander (a pseudonym), which in turn caused a row over his real name being revealed. This led Alexander to take his blog offline, leading to a massive backlash among his fans against the NYT. Alexander eventually changed his day job though, and started a Substack newsletter under his real name. This week, the feared piece was then released, to quite big criticism online.

The article is quite fumbled and low-quality for the NYT. It doesn’t seriously engage with rationalist ideas, and mainly wants to prove SSC is a gateway to the alt-right. This is, of course, a legitimate question to explore, but the article does this in a haphazard way, that doesn’t really prove the point, makes several gaffes along the way and mainly just tries to condemn the blog based on some vague insinuations.

To me it seems like the journalist first wanted to write a broader, largely positive, profile of SSC, but after the name controversy either he or his editors decided to push the alt-right angle up, without having the sources to really back it up.

There’s a lot of drama going on about this right now, with it becoming a flashpoint for the quite weird conflict between Silicon Valley and certain top-level US media, but I recommend Matt Yglesias’ newsletter post about it.

Anyways, let’s try to get away from the internet drama for now, here’s the links for this week.

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NYT - The Biden Team Wants to Transform the Economy. Really.

After the rationalist gaffe, this piece shows the NYT does still produce great journalism. It charts the, behind-the-scenes, transition of the new Biden administration towards industrial policy, where the state tries to stimulate certain strategic sectors of the economy, in this case mainly electric vehicles and renewables. As a companion you can read this short blog. Competition with China is forcing the notoriously free market US politics to accept a more steering role for the state, essentially making the US more like China.

Nature - ‘Major stones unturned’: COVID origin search must continue after WHO report, say scientists

The WHO team investigating the origins of COVID-19 have released a preliminary report, which caused quite a stir. This Nature piece gives a good overview, but largely goes along with the team’s conclusions. In other media, however, in line with US-China tensions, there’s more critical coverage that notes how China denied the investigators evidence. At the same time certain bio-risk researchers don’t want to throw away the thesis of COVID-19 having escaped from a lab.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - The United States would be more secure without new intercontinental ballistic missiles

Interesting article about US ICBMs, and why they shouldn’t be replaced. The US nuclear strategy is based on a triad of nuclear bombers, nuclear submarines and nuclear land-based missiles (ICBM’s). That last category is due for a, very expensive, overhaul, while they actually present a destabilising force in nuclear deterrence. This article details why de-emphasising these missiles would be a good thing.

Noahpinion - Carbon removal is how we make climate change fair

Pretty interesting newsletter on carbon removal technologies by Noah Smith. These technologies essentially suck carbon from the air, after which we, for example, bury it. Elon Musk recently invested in a prize for carbon capture, which was greeted with either jokes about tech bros reinventing trees, or fears that this allows big corporations to pollute without boundary. Smith in contrast makes a pretty interesting argument about why carbon capture technology is actually a good thing from the perspective of global fairness.

Aeon - How vulnerable is the world?

This essay adapts an earlier, more academic, paper by Nick Bostrom on the philosophy behind existential risk. The premise is quite mind-bending, but looks at how we might invent technologies in the future with which it would be very easy to destroy ourselves, and how we could prevent that. I don’t agree with everything Bostrom says, but if you want have a “whoa dude” moment this Sunday, go read this essay.


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