Sam Bowman

Ads Don’t Work That Way

When Corona beer advertises how laid back people who drink it are, it isn't trying to convince you that drinking it will make you feel laid back. Instead, Kevin Simler says, it's trying to create “common knowledge” that will make other people view you as laid back when they see you with it – and not, say, an All-American patriot, or a knowledgeable beer connoisseur (which you might drink something else to signal). Simler’s model makes sense of how a lot of ads are written, and of why they are where they are. The ones that run on public billboards, instead of being targeted to us through our phone screens, are often out there so that you know the rest of the world knows the kind of person who drinks Corona.

What you think about landfill and recycling is probably totally wrong

Putting rubbish into a landfill is much better for the world than people think, writes Robert Wiblin. Landfills are cheap, not too bad for the environment because – in the developed world – they're lined with plastic, and they prevent trash from ending up in the ocean, which a lot of people worry about. Even if you’d recycle your trash instead, that can be so energy-intensive that it could be more wasteful and bad for the environment than just sending it to a landfill.

The Two Lies that Killed Nuclear Power

Jack Devanney is an engineer interested in why nuclear energy has been a flop. The answer, he says, is that we've built in neverending cost rises to nuclear power by demanding that any and all productivity gains have to go straight into stricter and stricter safety controls. But that approach stems from one of the ‘big lies’ he writes about: the misconception that releases of radioactive materials are much more deadly than experience shows they really are.

Book Review: Albion’s Seed

I suppose it's obligatory to have a post by Scott Alexander in this newsletter, so here's mine: the best book review I've ever read, that mainly takes a few dozen of the most interesting facts from the book it's about and lists them. Did you know that the American Quakers introduced laws prohibiting people from mocking other religions? Or that, as well as the famous ‘scarlet A’ for adultery, "Puritans could be forced to wear a B for blasphemy, C for counterfeiting, D for drunkenness, and so on"? I wish all book reviews were like this.

A crisis of politics, not economics

This article by the late Jeffrey Friedman completely overturned my view of the financial crisis, and plausibly attributes it to the incredibly unfortunate interaction of well-meaning regulations intended to encourage \_prudence\_ by banks. If this is correct, it is extremely challenging for how we think about financial regulation and regulation more generally, because it suggests that sophisticated interventions intended to reduce risk can backfire with the opposite effect, in this case catastrophically.

How the Dutch Did it Better

Anton Howes's economic history investigates the inventors and inventions that made the Industrial Revolution happen. His Substack is one of the best around. He argues that an "improving mindset" led to a flowering of innovation and entrepreneurship across a huge number of domains – not just things like steam power and steel, but also watches and musical instruments. If true, it is one of the most important claims imaginable, because it suggests that culture is the underlying variable that made the modern world. This post looks at some of the factors that led to the Dutch Golden Age, the time and place where modern capitalism first began to take shape.

Why we didn't get a malaria vaccine sooner

From my own magazine, Works in Progress, is a long essay on the development of the malaria vaccine. Saloni Dattani, Siddhartha Haria and Rachel Glennerster track how we got to a working malaria vaccine. They detail things like the invention of a machine for mass decapitation of mosquitos (to harvest malaria from their salivary glands, the point at which it is most useful for vaccine production), through the 23 years of trials that were often delayed because of a lack of funding, to where we are today: rolling out tens of millions of doses of a vaccine that reduces child mortality from the disease by more than half, eventually saving tens of millions of lives. They highlight how ‘advance market commitments’ could encourage the development of new vaccines like it for other diseases, by getting governments and NGOs to pledge to buy tens of millions of doses of treatments that don’t yet exist - if someone can create one that works.

Yet Another Amazon Antitrust Paradox

Amazon and other large tech platforms are sometimes accused of being too closed and giving unfair preference to certain products (like their own). But from a consumer perspective Amazon might be \*too\* open, writes Ramsi Woodcock. While platforms’ openness allows them to grow to a gigantic size, it can come at a big cost, as anyone who uses Amazon will know. The site is full of junk products from fake brands, with reviews you can't trust. The curation that Amazon does, like other retailers, is a natural response to the abundance of choice that the open market offers, and naturally makes them smaller as well, since merchants that lose out from the curation will eventually leave the platform. The “paradox” is that measures designed to make Amazon and other platforms more open and neutral might actually reinforce their monopoly positions, by keeping them as large as possible, even if they are worse to use.

Historical analogies for large language models

LLMs will do to human writers what freezers did to the ice trade. No, actually – what tractors did for farmers, or maybe what calculators did for accountants. Or how about what mass production did to hand-made goods? Dynomight, one of my favourite Substackers, writes about the many historical analogies we have to choose from, which are so varied that you might end up concluding that such analogising isn’t very useful to begin with.