May 26, 2024

🍿 Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire (2024) showed yet again that more is not better. There are too many characters, too many plot lines, too many Serious Things Happening, and not enough heart. If there is a third — and Phoebe is too good of a character for there not to be one — they better tone it down.

May 25, 2024

Anyone who is saying that LLMs are overrated hasn't used them for writing code

ChatGPT has been a godsend for custom Mathematica functions, especially simple ones that may take 10–15 minutes to write but still take me out of the Thing I’m Actually Trying to Do.

Are they the most efficient functions there are? Probably not. But they are well-written, easy to debug, and let me put small flourishes that ultimately make my life easier but that I wouldn’t bother with if I had to do everything on my own.

A recent example is Mathemathica’s built-in Tally function which takes in a list and puts out the frequency of each element (e.g. {Yes, No, Yes, Yes} in and {{Yes, 3}, {No, 1}} out). I usually deal with longer lists where percentages would also come in handy, so having percentages also listed (i.e. {Yes, 3, 25}) would be nice. I asked ChatGPT-4o, and what it gave was good enough: This was, of course, only a part of the response. It tends to be professorial when answering code-related questions, which is very much appreciated.

TallyWithPercentages[list_] := Module[
  {tallied, total},
  tallied = Tally[list];
  total = Length[list];
  {#[[1]], {#[[2]], N[#[[2]]/total*100]}} & /@ tallied

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted because the output was {Yes, 3}, 25} instead of {Yes, 3, 25}, but that was easy to change with a simple intervention — Flatten the output then re-Partition it — without thinking too much about Mathemathica’s sometimes incomprehensible short-code which I forget after a few days of not needing it.

Could I have done this with a quick online search? Of course! But the cognitive load of doing it this way is essentially zero, as is the chance of getting distracted by something else happening on the page.

May 24, 2024

We recently bought a condo in DC and made a conscious effort to avoid houses like this one, which always looked like they were made out of sawdust and glue. Well:

… inspection report found about 70 code violations. The most severe: The building lacked lateral bracing for its exterior walls, causing it to sway. Without this bracing, relatively weak door frames and interior partition walls were load-bearing, holding up the weight of the structure without adequate support. “I was very scared for those people,” Englebert says. “You need those braced wall lines to stop the building from moving. If that building were to rock in the right direction, it could fall over on itself.”

Criminal negligence from builders to the initial city inspection. I feel for the home owners who have to live through this horror show. Most alarming of all: the contractor is still at it, shielded from lawsuits thanks to an LLC. Caveat emptor! (ᔥr/washingtondc)

May 23, 2024

The Junk Charts blog sometimes links to charts that are not junk at all, today being one of those times. The link is to some beautiful storytelling on the many neighborhoods of New York City and now I wish the Washington Post had something similar for DC.

May 22, 2024

Why clinical trials aren't Steinway pianos

Today I learned about ambroxol, a cold medication available over-the-counter, much like Mucinex and Robitussin, but unlike those two ambroxol may actually work. It’s been available in Europe for almost 50 years and costs around $5 per box, but alas:

You can’t get ambroxol in the U.S. because of the failure of the Food and Drug Administration to grant reciprocal recognition to generic medications approved by its European counterpart, the European Medicines Agency, when they have long been proven safe and effective. To get FDA approval for the sale of ambroxol in the U.S., a drug company would need to sponsor extensive and costly clinical trials. Since it is a generic, as cheap as aspirin, no drug company would bother.

If the drug is that good and that cheap a trial should be neither extensive nor costly — it would certainly be cheaper than the $10 billion the American tax payer gave for Paxlovid, with potentially many more people benefiting. So why not have the NIH run the trial and the FDA approve the drug? Would that not be faster than trying to pass any legislation through the United States Congress?

More generally, I would like economists, politicians and the general public to understand that well-run clinical trials do not have to be complicated and expensive. They are not a limited resource going up in price because of low availability and high demand, requiring us to think of workarounds. In fact, there are more patients than ever, more researchers than ever, and more technology than ever to make them economical and efficient.

Of course, if your notion of a clinical trial is one that includes mountains of paperwork and research bloodwork gathered on the off chance it may someday be needed then yes, it can get pricey. But that is like complaining that pianos are really expensive and unaffordable because the price of a Steinway piano has gone through the roof since the early 1900s. You can play music on a Casio just fine, and if I were an economist I would really want to know why on Earth almost everyone in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry was getting grand pianos instead of electronic keyboards.

(↬Alex Tabarrok, who as an economist interested in drug pricing may want to look into the cost of clinical trials)

May 21, 2024

Speaking of Sivers, his book on How to Live is my go-to gift for people who read. A step-up from that — and it is a yuuuge step — is Nassim Taleb’s Incerto, but I have to know someone really well because a five-book set is a bit of an obligation.

And speaking of Taleb, it looks like we were in the same building yesterday. Small world.

There is a phrase in Serbian when someone is bamboozling you that they are “trying to sell you a horn for a candle”. I have no idea how it came about, but here are some researchers trying to sell us social media for the internet and the phrase came to mind. (ᔥTyler Cowen)

May 20, 2024

🏀 With the Nuggets and the Knicks both knocked out of the playoffs on the same day, my basketball-watching season is officially over. Let’s see what 2024/25 brings to everyone, the Wizards in particular.

A short list of authors and books that by all accounts I should have found wonderful, or at least interesting, but ended up with a feeling of — meh — at best and often genuine dislike

That’s it! I tend not to abandon books half-way through, but I just couldn’t swallow these three.

Should I revisit? Emerson had some good quotes, apparently, and Campbell (seems to have) inspired many good stories although his own did not persuade me.

But Catch-22, dear oh dear. You could not pay me to start reading that piece of work again.

Inspired by Derek Sivers, I now have a Now page. Thank you, Derek.