Readings: Dr. Google, Columbo, cheating, and distracted shareholders


  • One would think that when doctors create a plan to deal with a known patient risk, said patients would be less likely to find themselves in an emergency room. Well, hold that thought. In an interesting new study on “backfire effects” in medicine, researchers found that it actually led to a small but significant increase in hospitalizations, as doctors respond to increased risk awareness by putting more patients in hospitals, with commensurate increases in risk. As ever, Illich was right about medical iatrogenesis.
  • Despite no evidence with respect to efficacy, interest in stem cell injections for osteoarthritis is exploding, as shown by Google Trends data. We ignore Dr Google at our peril when we think about health risk, effectiveness, and costs.


  • Accounting is mostly excellent at showing you what sorts of indefensible financial things you can do and still defend it as proper accounting.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hollywood is very good at this game, as shown most recently in the entertaining tussle between  Columbo’s creators and Universal.  After deducting myriad expenses with flimsy connections, at best, to the popular show starring Peter Falk, they claimed for decades that Columbo was unprofitable, and the creators weren’t owed profit-sharing.

  • I’ve long been puzzled by the inherent conflict between social and for-profit ventures, and so it’s fun to see an explanation. It turns out that social entrepreneurs adoption of a “fantasmatic form appears to temporarily neutralize tensions and anxieties while preserving attachments to pro-social ideals”. In short, they are telling themselves stories to make themselves feel better.
  • When large investors aren’t paying attention and companies want to goose earnings, said companies race straight to cutting R&D costs, especially if their CEO isn’t very good. It suggests that a quick way of detecting companies playing accounting games might be track R&D changes.


The HIgher Education Scandal Thing

  • The college bribe scandal is turning into a lovely example of motivated reasoning, the idea that people mostly project their emotional biases when making an argument. Academics see it as a loophole in college admissions, college counselors say it isn’t the sort of thing they would do, social engineers see it as failed social engineering, and still others see it as proof that college is so easy that people don’t mind paying up in anticipate of being shuttled through. About the only thing people can agree on is that they are shocked how much they aren’t shocked by the entire affair.

Readings: Death robots, bullies, streaming, and smoothing


  • We’ve long known of the uncanny valley, the idea that people are made more squeamish by things that seem almost human than by things that are less human. It’s nice to see Kaiser Permanente testing this in a hospital context by using a video call to tell an admitted patient he was dying. This is almost as off-putting as a doctor doing this in hurried fashion during rounds, so, obviously, it’s worse.


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Readings: Google Trends, Deadoption, and Hockey Tape






Readings: Land Rovers, fake patients, complexity, and movie memes


  • Fake patients are as many as one in five people in psychiatric emergency rooms. Of course, this begs the Rosenhan-ian question of whether we know who is a patient in the first place.
  • Hidden FDA database contains reports of medicine device malfunctions and patient injuries, outside of public view. There is a future at Goldman Sachs for the FDA regulator who came up with the idea of saying that known problems can be filed out of sight, because, hey, they’re already known.


  • Complexity in large US banks has only declined marginally since the 2007 financial crisis. Like Mark Gattis said about why his bank character should be the sole survivor in Game of Thrones, the banks always survive.

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  • Plagiarism-detection company Turnitin is now a billion-dollar business, with 34-million students using it, half of whom are in China. I have this idea for a plagiarism-detection company that also own the sites that create and store fake essays, thus making the circle complete. You can’t always rely on Someone On The Internet.
  • A company turns old Land Rovers into electric 4x4s. While this either won’t work, or it will have the driving range of a Bird scooter, I still want to dream a little here, so don’t disabuse me of the idea.

DSC7290 1


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  • When highways are congested, we would all benefit from randomness in “fastest-path” routing algorithms. I’ve written on this before, the idea that over-optimization leads to under-optimization, so I’m a big fan of the notion that algorithms do better if they do worse, which is more or less the case here, sort of like HHGTTG Improbability Drive, without the tea.

Readings: Sex doctors, LIBOR, aging, and why stupid scales


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Readings: Loud music, long-lived siblings, phantom gamblers, and Facebook toxicity


Finance & Economics


Best Books Read in Early 2019: Links

I recently asked people for their favorite books of those they had read so far in 2019, and the resulting Twitter thread was kinda wonderful. Like usual, however, it was a lot of work to extract actual links to actual books, so I didn’t do it. I am therefore indebted to @proales for doing the hard work and then emailing the results to me, which I can now share.

Lonesome Dove

Thinking in Bets

The Godfather

The Beggar’s Opera

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Bad Blood


AI Superpowers

All The King’s Men

Broken Earth Trilogy

A Man Called Ove


The Sympathizer

The Wizard and the Prophet

The Fifth Risk


Being Mortal

Adaptive Markets

Camelot’s End

Why We Sleep

Mr Five Percent

Reasons to Stay Alive

The Courage to be disliked

Skunk Works

Saudi America

Billion Dollar Whale


Myth of Capitalism

Book of 5 Rings

Power Ball

Kitchen Confidential


Trial of Strength: Adventures and Misadventures on the Wild and Remote Subantarctic Islands

Darwin’s first theory

The Wright Brothers

• The Nexus trilogy (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3)

So you wanna talk about race

Culture Code

All the Light We Cannot See

A World Undone

The Periodic Table

Three body problem

Prophet of Freedom


Wild Bill

13.8 The quest to find the true age of the universe

The Border

Giovanni’s Room

Last Samurai

Lord of Finance

The Scarecrow

The Longevity Solution: Rediscovering Centuries-Old Secrets to a Healthy, Long Life

Energy and Civilization: A History

Red Notice

The Swerve

The Goodness Paradox

Guns, Germs and Steel


The Art of Racing in the Rain

How Children Succeed

Can’t Hurt Me

The Myth of the Rational Market

Jeff Buckley: From Hallelujah to the Last Goodbye

The Leopard (Gattopado)

• King killer Chronicles (Book 1, Book 2)



One of Ten Billion Earths

The Dark Forest

Shoe Dog

There Will Be No Miracles Here

The Sunset Limited

Just Mercy

The Dream Machine

Skin in the Game

Cadillac Desert




Radical Candor

The Discovery of Slowness

The Man Within My Head

Sir Vidia’s Shadow

American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassins

Beyond the 100th Meridian

Atomic habits


Reporter (by Sy Hersch)

Creative Selection

The Painter By Peter Heller

Who is Michael Ovitz

Master of the Senate

The beginning of infinity

• From the Diaries of John Henry (???)

The Gene: An Intimate History

The Reformation

Empire on the Edge

Educated by Tara Westover

If We Can Keep It

The History of Love

Rise and kill first

The Day the Bubble Burst


Nolo contendere

Total Anecdotal

Rules of Civility


Weight of the Earth: Tape Diaries of David Wojnarowicz

The Witch Elm


Bird by Bird

Far field

John McPhee, Draft No. 4


A Confederacy of Dunces

Meta: Where I’m going with this newsletter thing

I doubt that many of you lovely people are sitting there thinking, Hey, I wish Paul would write something about where he is going and what he is doing with this newsletter thing. Never one to resist the opportunity to piss strangers off, this is that.

I started this newsletter, as the joke goes, ten times for every once I actually turned it concrete. A commitment phobe of a particularly extreme form, the idea of doing anything on a regular basis — beyond personal grooming, and even that, in my view, can be let slide a few days given sufficient new snow — is more or less anathema to me, especially if it’s something people think I should be doing because that’s what other people do in the same context. I know, I know, but still.

Nevertheless, this is now a newsletter thing, complete with a surprising number of subscribers, and there are a bunch of people in the Schrödingerian state that is having subscribed to something briefly lovely, but that will almost certainly turn tedious, predictable, and solipstic — that is, you’ve subscribed, but like me, you’re just waiting for an opportunity to unsubscribe — causing you to regret your brief and unjustified foray into optimism that made you subscribe to Another Damn Newsletter in the first place.

I’m here for you. I get you. I feel the same way. But, you know, screw it, right?

So, having taken a year off Twitter, and then gone largely broadcast-only on Twitter, I got to thinking: Twitter is too short for some of the longer things with which I would like to burden people. Sure, tweeting out periodic “tl;drs” with snarky summaries of research papers is fun, and I like stretching the boundaries of Twitter’s 280-character limited with lists of links, but it still feels like dancing about architecture, as the saying goes. Having stalled long enough, meandered a little, and retailed some hoary jokes, where do I want to go with this? Good question. Here is what I’m currently thinking:

  1. Regular links of things, with comments about why it appealed to me, in areas that interest me, but may not interest you. Finance, math, and medicine interesting me most, but I can’t guarantee there won’t sometimes be snow forecasts or critiques of zero-drop trail shoes.
  2. A weekly single other thing. Currently those other things are videos — and by “currently”, I mean “twice”, which is how often I’ve actually done this so far. (Notice how quickly I end-run the whole having done something to reminisce how I have done something. Let that be a lesson to all of you in po-mo efficiency.)
  3. Less regular essays. I have a backlog of Long Thoughts About Things that I mostly wrote for me, and then didn’t do anything with. I also have a bunch of things like that I’m in various stages of writing. (Notice how carefully I avoid calling these Long Thoughts About Things “blog posts”. This is not an accident, given that the word “blog” gives me hives.)
  4. Other things. I have other things I want to do, some of which are entirely automated and I’ve always wanted to inflict on people on a regular basis. I’m planning to charge millions and millions of dollars for this feature, as you can imagine.

This is usually the point at which right-thinking people say something like, Let me know what you think, or Send me an email with other ideas, etc. But, honestly? I could do that, but I don’t really care. Not because I don’t think you’re all lovely people, deserving of every good thing that has happened to you in life, path dependency issues aside. I just can barely keep up with my own inadequacies, and I don’t need other people to add to the list. So, imagine me asking you for suggestions, imagine you sending them, and then let’s both not do that.



P.S. I promise not to do this sort of “meta” thing very often.

Readings: Cheating casinos, dumb spouses, codgers, and the future of life

Finance & Economics





Video of the Week: The ecology of society, from microbes to public goods

Ecological and economic systems are alike in that individual agents compete for limited resources, evolve their behaviors in response to interactions with others, and form alternately exploitative and cooperative interactions. The talk looks at the evolution of resource allocation and the evolution of cooperation in dealing with public goods, common pool resources and collective movement. It includes examples from bacteria and slime molds, to vertebrate, to insurance arrangements. Dense, but fascinating stuff, from a recent Santa Fe Institute talk. 

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