What am I up to now?

May 31, 2024

May, 2024



My thesis is due in seven days, so a short one this month; no links or music.

Some tentative travel plans, for anyone looking to check in: I’ll head to Nepal for two weeks of trekking with MWG after submitting my thesis. I’ll be in Oxford for a couple weeks after, then most of June will be in West Africa. July will be on the east coast, mostly around DC, but further north as well.


I usually have a few book reviews laying around half-written, but I’ve exhausted all of those in the past few months. I’ve read some great books in April — notably: quite a few on Central Asia; Susannah Clarke’s Piranesi;It is excellent. I went in blind and was rewarded. She builds the character and the world very deliberately. Clarke had so much room in her first novel (800 pages). Piranesi is 200 pages, and it doesn’t feel deliberate, so it wallops you as the richness is revealed. Gabriel García Márquez’s The Scandal of the Century.

I’ve been pumping out words for my thesis, so I don’t feel like pumping out book reviews right now. Instead, here are all the newsletters I subscribe to, with short blurbs and links to my favorite posts.

Thing of Things — By Ozy Brennan, consistently high quality. The best monthly links post on the internet.A warning — if you sign up for their posts, you’ll often receive links twice. Once in the newsletter, and again from me. Inspired this blog post of mine, with this one, I think. Lots of takes on stuff I know nothing about, but also novel takes on things I think about a lot. Occasionally right on topics where I don’t want to admit it.

Studio D — some interesting thoughts; usually good links (example, example). But really I signed up because Jan talks a lot about mappingq the Afghan Pamirs, one of my favorite places in the world.

Matt Lakeman — I was turned onto Lakeman by FH. It’s mostly travel writing, but more didactic than you’re used to. His Notes on the Gambia are excellent; I experienced whatever’s the opposite of Gell-Mann Amnesia. Not just travel writing; he has range. I recently helped ZL hook a tinder match with this article on the all-time seal-clubbing champions.

Experimental History — Adam Mastroianni, an academic experimental psychologist, writes about problems with his discipline and others. Each photo is illustrated by intriguing, gorgeous pictures, all captioned by: “Photo cred: my dad.” This is the post which got me hooked. Great writing, important topics.

Biblioklept — No books were stolen in the making of this blog. His tastes in books run modernist, and his taste in art runs surrealist. Mine run neither, but I get a lot of value out of this blog. At least ten of my 2023 books were from his lists. My fear of Pynchon subsides, but not yet sufficiently. His lists of the best books for 50 years ago (here’s 1974) are goldmines.

Dynomight — A weird one. I’ll go open two random posts, and attempt to summarize them.

  1. “The main thing about P2P meth is that there’s so much of it” — this one is about a new type of meth, made from Phenylacetone, or P2P. Dynomight heard that this new type of meth is driving people crazy, follows the evidence, learns (or teaches me) what isomers have to do with it, and dismisses the hypothesis that the new meth is worse meth than old meth. There are just more addicts.
  2. “Contra four-wheeled suitcases, sort of” — this one is a list of examples of times when over-designing for the modal user fails — and times it’s necessary. Fancy, fragile vs rugged, robust.

Anyway. It’s always interesting.

Global Developments — Oliver Kim is an economics PhD student at Berkeley and writes well on things I care about. I knew Albert Hirschman’s story, but Kim’s combined bio/book review was more detailed than I ever would have gotten otherwise. I learned more about Hirschman’s work in the resistance against the Nazis, and that Paul Klee was his favorite artist. That alone was worth the price of admission.

Mr. And Mrs. Psmith’s Bookshelf — A pseudonymous married couple write book reviews together. I’ve read their entire archives, and I’m yet to come across an explicit Wodehouse reference.The Psmith books are an excellent place to start with Wodehouse, and everyone should start with Wodehouse at some point. John Psmith posts excellent reviews of math-y books, including textbooks; Jane posts about books on trees and archeology. My favorite post, on the metric of “I’ve never heard of this, and probably wouldn’t have otherwise, and I’m glad I did,” was The Man Who Rode the Thunder.

Money Stuff — I’ve probably read more of Matt Levine’s words than anyone in the past five years.Other contenders: George Orwell, Emily Dickinson (if we count re-reads), MWG, or MWG (iykyk). I have over 100 saved articles of his; here’s one at random. This is from March 2022 about whether Russian debt could be serviced due to sanctions:

At some point yesterday some compliance person at JPMorgan Chase & Co. got a question from an operations person. “Hey,” said the operations person. “You know the account that we hold for the Russian government? The one that is subject to harsh sanctions in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world? They just asked us to make a $117 million payment out of that account. What should we do? By the way this is an interest payment on Russia’s dollar-denominated sovereign debt, and if we hold up the money Russia will have defaulted on its foreign debt for the first time since 1918. Let me know!”

And the compliance person sat down to read the text of the sanctions and conferred with some in-house lawyers hahahaha no I’m kidding obviously a very senior person at JPMorgan called a very senior person at the U.S. Treasury and said “can we pay this?” and Treasury said “yes” and so JPMorgan did. (Also probably this discussion happened well before yesterday’s payment request, which has been scheduled for some time.)

The second paragraph makes an important but non-trivial point, in a laugh-out-loud, straightforward run-on sentence. Even the parenthetical is pithy. There are so many moments like this. I don’t care about corporate finance! At all! I’ve tried. But I would read Matt Levine’s descriptions of lawnmower maintenance.

He’s not just a great writer tho — he is the premier commenter on his bailiwick. The single most important piece of FTX coverage came six months before the crash, when Levine interviewed SBF on Odd Lots. Here’s a transcript; search for “farming.” SBF explains yield farming, which was FTX’s largest revenue source. After SBF details the mechanism in the abstract, we get this all-time response from Levine:

I think of myself as like a fairly cynical person. And that was so much more cynical than how I would’ve described farming. You’re just like, well, I’m in the Ponzi business and it’s pretty good.

Statecraft — I listen to podcasts when I have to, but I don’t like it. I would much rather read your interview. Santi Ruiz at the Institute for Progress only posts the transcripts, and they’re all on how people achieve policy goals. I’m certainly in the American top 1% of knowledge on OTA and FAR, but this interview was the best both introduction and expert-level discussion of OTA I’ve read. Ruiz is an excellent interviewer, especially given many of his subjects are not often in such venues. Highly recommended for ambitious people in DC.

The ZviZvi has the most prodigious output of anyone on this list. He posted thousands of words on Covid every week until 2023, when he pivoted to doing the same on AI. He has a very particular, safetyist, LessWrong viewpoint; he’s not used to being wrong. His primary opponent is the Jones Act. I learn a lot from every post, but I check twitter too much whenever I read him.

Bits About Money — By Patrick McKenzie, or patio11, the Matt Levine of payments infrastructure. I know everything I know about credit cards because of him. “The optimal amount of fraud is non-zero” is surprisingly load-bearing for my day-to-day work. His post on salary negotiation is “responsible for ~$9 million a year in marginal improvement to compensation;” I’ve shared it with friends who negotiated thousands of $ more in compensation because of it. Besides all of this, he’s an excellent anthropologist of Japan.

Admiral Cloudberg — The Matt Levine of airplane crashes. Already covered here.

The Browser — for everything else. The only one I pay for on here, and very worth it. I don’t want to give examples, because each piece is unique. The topics and viewpoints are fully diverse.

These are various interesting or fun things I’ve found on the internet this month.



April, 2024

March, 2024

February, 2024

January, 2024

December, 2023

November, 2023

October, 2023

September, 2023

August, 2023

July, 2023

June, 2023

May, 2023

April, 2023

March, 2023

February, 2023

December, 2022

November, 2022

October, 2022

September, 2022

August, 2022

November, 2021

October, 2021

September, 2021

July, 2021

June, 2021

May, 2021

What am I up to now? - May 31, 2024 - Joseph Levine