Monthly Curations – April 2022

The airship U.S.S. Macon under construction, about a hundred years ago …

Note: as mentioned last time, this is now based on the “Curated” category in my micro.blog

Not-so-uniquely stupid

From Jonathan Haidt’s recent article in the Atlantic:

The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.

The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel.

… three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.

Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day

Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

… the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere it reached. He noted that distributed networks “can protest and overthrow, but never govern.”

with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together

the new dynamics of the post-Babel era, in which outrage is the key to virality, stage performance crushes competence, Twitter can overpower all the newspapers in the country, and stories cannot be shared (or at least trusted) across more than a few adjacent fragments—so truth cannot achieve widespread adherence.

A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since

In the 20th century, America built the most capable knowledge-producing institutions in human history. In the past decade, they got stupider en masse.

Western societies developed an “epistemic operating system”—that is, a set of institutions for generating knowledge from the interactions of biased and cognitively flawed individuals. English law developed the adversarial system so that biased advocates could present both sides of a case to an impartial jury. Newspapers full of lies evolved into professional journalistic enterprises, with norms that required seeking out multiple sides of a story, followed by editorial review, followed by fact-checking. Universities evolved from cloistered medieval institutions into research powerhouses, creating a structure in which scholars put forth evidence-backed claims with the knowledge that other scholars around the world would be motivated to gain prestige by finding contrary evidence.

This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight.

The problem is that the left controls the commanding heights of the culture: universities, news organizations, Hollywood, art museums, advertising, much of Silicon Valley, and the teachers’ unions and teaching colleges that shape K–12 education. And in many of those institutions, dissent has been stifled: When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain. And unfortunately, those were the brains that inform, instruct, and entertain most of the country

Confused and fearful, the leaders rarely challenged the activists or their nonliberal narrative in which life at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie, and the people on top got there by oppressing the people on the bottom. This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian––focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities. It is unconcerned with individual rights.

American politics is getting ever more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are getting less intelligent. The problem is structural. Thanks to enhanced-virality social media, dissent is punished within many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas get elevated into official policy

… three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era. We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age

Depression makes people less likely to want to engage with new people, ideas, and experiences. Anxiety makes new things seem more threatening. As these conditions have risen and as the lessons on nuanced social behavior learned through free play have been delayed, tolerance for diverse viewpoints and the ability to work out disputes have diminished…

A democracy cannot survive if its public squares are places where people fear speaking up and where no stable consensus can be reached. Social media’s empowerment of the far left, the far right, domestic trolls, and foreign agents is creating a system that looks less like democracy and more like rule by the most aggressive.

And the buried lede, IMO:

America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society.

Monthly Curations: Mar 2022

A million-light-years wide radio ring
  • Interesting find that pushed back the Homo Sapien “culture timeline” quite a bit.

  • The Richat Structure: Nearly perfect concentric circles, nearly 30 miles wide! (yes, I had to go look it up on Google Maps, it’s very real)

  • “25 years of SmallTalk”, from 20 years ago

  • Found this a good overview of the trends and limitations of computing hardware over the decades.

  • Fascinating account of someone’s “life story of programming languages”; Inspiring, I should write my own some day 🙂

  • An account of the now-forgotten “Buran” fully automated space shuttle, and the “Energia” heavy-lift rocket.

  • On how “the perfect system, the perfect app” is a mirage

  • Ernest Shackleton’s lost ship is found

“For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” – Sir Raymond Priestly, Antarctic Explorer and Geologist.

World War I had no good guys, no winners, just mediocre, small-minded politicians unable to step back from the brink

Monthly Curations- Feb 2022

_123190761_jetinteriorwithsuperimposedplasma
The JET reactor
  • On the dream of nuclear fusion
  • The Star Wars sequels as “the anti-trilogy”
  • Things (apps, services, products) to look forward to in 2023
  • On “Residential programming”
  • On the world’s longest immersed tunnel
  • A bunch of old hypertext papers
  • Thoughts on markdown
  • Writing a children’s book for programming, in 1991: “Professor Fortran

    AT: We hoped to make some money. But the fees came only a year after the book was published – under the terms of the contract. If we were paid immediately, we could buy a car. But there was a monetary reform and the fee was enough only to drink coffee.

  • The biggest galaxy
  • Came across yet-another-meditation-app, but this time slightly better, from the Monroe Institute
  • A story about body-shopping
  • A planet was found near Proxima Centauri. But more interesting than that is how it was found:

    This ‘wobble’ technique look for changes in the star’s motion along the line of sight from Earth; ESPRESSO can detect variations of just 10 centimetres per second. The total effect of the planet’s orbit, which takes only 5 days, is about 40 centimetres per second, says Faria, who is at the Institute of Astrophysics and Space Sciences of the University of Porto in Portugal. “I knew that ESPRESSO could do this, but I was still surprised to see it showing up.” .

Missing the web

From a recent HackerNews discussion about search engines, some harsh truth about the big shift in the last two decades:

>It is only more recently that they seem to have given up.

They haven’t given up; the OP has a point. The “sites” you are hoping for Google to return _don’t exist_. Any website online right now that doesn’t exist to drive ad revenue is exceedingly rare. In 2001, there were way more websites that existed just for fun; any tom, dick and harry could open up note pad and get a website online. That doesn’t exist anymore.

It’s my opinion that those who complain about Google search results are frustrated that Google can no longer find a web that no longer exists

Interesting snippets: January 2022

  • Put that in your pipe and smoke it. Wolfram Language is under-appreciated.
  • An old editorial, found while catching up over the holidays
  • One motivated person! (from WSJ, Jan 3)
  • On ancient artifacts
  • Neal Stephenson, on belief (source)

“Another thing I’ve been reading recently is “The Fixation of Belief” by an American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce. He was writing in the 1870s, and he goes through a list of four methods that people use to decide what they’re going to believe.

The first one is called the method of tenacity, which means you decide what you’re going to believe and you stick to it regardless of logic or evidence. …

The next method is called the method of authority, where you agree with other people that you’re all going to believe what some authority figure tells you to believe. That’s probably most common throughout history.

The third method is called the a priori method, and the idea is, let’s be reasonable and try to come up with ways to believe things that sound reasonable to us. Which sounds great, but if it’s not grounded in any fact-checking methodology, then you end up just agreeing to believe things by consensus — which may be totally wrong. T

he fourth method is the scientific method. It basically consists of accepting the fact that you might be wrong, and since you might be wrong, you need some way for judging the truth of statements and changing your mind when you’ve got solid evidence to the contrary.

What you’re seeing in the Baroque Cycle is the transition from Method No. 3 to No. 4. You’ve got all these people having what seem like reasoned, logical arguments, but a lot of them are just tripping.

So a few come in, like Hooke and Newton, and begin using actual experiments and get us going down the road toward the rational world of the Enlightenment.

But what we’ve got now is almost everybody using Method 1, 2 or 3. We’ve got a lot of authoritarians who can’t be swayed by logic or evidence, but we’ve also got a lot of a priori people who want to be reasonable and think of themselves as smarter and more rational than the authoritarians but are going on the basis of their feelings — what they wish were true — and both of them hate the scientific rationalists, who are very few in number.

Interesting links: January 2022

Interesting links: December 2021

Old step-well in India

(Apology: I usually structure these into sections, but didn’t have time to do that this month)

(focussing on Sublime Text and BBEdit)

The consideration should be efficiency and not a nebulous quality like “Mac-like design.”

I have to revert to what I wrote in the last article:

“The best text editor is the one you know how to use.”

If you are happy with the text editor you are using, keep typing. Spare me the assertions about what is “Mac-like design” and what isn’t.

  • On “Roam books” and “Roam newsletters”
  • On telling apart different forms of “note-taking systems”
  • In support of “ubiquitous linking
    • We affirm that the ability to copy a link to a resource is as important for cognitive productivity as the ability to copy other types of information. This applies to all persistent digital information.
    • To help people benefit from the information they process with software, we advocate ubiquitous support for linking of information resources. This would help realize the potential of hypermedia that was envisioned by information technology pioneers such as Ted Nelson and Douglas Englebart.
    • Some discussion here
  • In defense of Socrates and the Great Books
    • Many academics attack the very idea of a Western canon as chauvinistic, while the general public increasingly doubts the value of the humanities. In Rescuing Socrates, Dominican-born American academic Roosevelt Montás tells the story of how a liberal education transformed his life, and offers an intimate account of the relevance of the Great Books today, especially to members of historically marginalized communities.
  • Squid Game, the Mr. Beast version
    • The viral success of MrBeast’s “$456,000 Squid Game in Real Life!” video means that many viewers, like some of my students, have come to associate Squid Games through MrBeast’s version rather than through its original series, thereby removing its original context and meaning. As NBC tech journalist Kat Tenbarge succinctly tweeted: “Now what if — bear with me here — the stakes of this game were life and death, painting a grim portrait of capitalism.”
    • By celebrating the creation of new content devoid of original meaning and context, we’re praising a system of ahistorical, non-relational entertainment over substance and critique. Or, as Stan Cross sarcastically responds to the fan account: “in the future creator economy, there will be so few gatekeepers, MrBeast will be able to operate at such speed he’ll rack up millions of views parodying shows before they’ve even been conceived, and then they won’t need to be made. A win for all of culture.”
  • Bizarre, but somebody’s using this, GreaterWrong, “a way to browse LessWrong”
  • Case study: implementing a log-based relational database in Common Lisp
  • Exploring distributed consensus in Wolfram Mathematica
  • The “Tao of Programming
    • This is a book about what goes on in the minds of programmers. Most programming books are about the mechanics of programming. These are essential, yet they can leave novices confused and bored. Tao Te Programming tries to get at the spirit of programming, to expose the ways of thinking that make programming challenging and fulfilling rather than too hard and grinding.
    • Good programming is often about effective compromise. You can go too far in a good direction. That is why many chapters have opponents — an indication of forces you need to try to balance. Chapters can also have allies that point in a similar direction.
  • Remembering an old smart-watch
  • Terry Eagleton on Richard Dawkins: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching
  • Was playing “Poop Bingo”, and noticed that Wombat poop is cubic, and turns out the reason for that was just discovered this year! Wombats Poop Cubes, and Scientists Finally Got to the Bottom of It
  • James Robertson on the basics of Pharo | by Richard Kenneth Eng | Medium(https://richardeng.medium.com/james-robertson-on-the-basics-of-pharo-2bccec77c743)

from a long-time Smalltalker who passed away seven years ago

  • Modern concrete construction might last 100 years with maintenance, but some Roman structures have survived for 1,000 years or more essentially unassisted
  • “You can’t see it as a tourist, but the reason the Colosseum is still standing is because of its incredibly robust concrete foundation,” said Jackson. That concrete foundation is packed with dense, heavy lava rock aggregate and is a full 12m thick, she added. Without such a strong, long-lasting material at its foundation, the Colosseum would have been reduced entirely to rubble by the region’s earthquakes.
  • Inside the Pantheon’s rotunda, the distance from the floor to the very top of the dome is virtually identical to the dome’s 43m diameter, inviting anyone inside to imagine the huge, perfect sphere that could be housed within its interior. When trying to appreciate the Pantheon’s dome, “unreinforced” is really the key word.

Generally interesting links – Nov 2021

Neurons in a Jellyfish brain

Science and the world

  • A magic treatment for paralysis?

    • A self-assembling gel injected at the site of spinal cord injuries in paralysed mice has enabled them to walk again after four weeks.
    • The gel mimics the matrix that is normally found around cells, providing a scaffold that helps cells to grow. It also provides signals that stimulate nerve regeneration.
  • New giant Russian spy submarines

  • “How Jellyfish work”

    • By examining the glowing chain reactions occurring in the animals’ neurons as they ate, the team determined that a subnetwork of neurons that produces a particular neuropeptide (a molecule produced by neurons) is responsible for the spatially localized inward folding of the body.
  • Adventures with understanding larval brains
  • Spiders flying on electric currents

    • First, they showed that spiders can detect electric fields. They put the arachnids on vertical strips of cardboard in the center of a plastic box, and then generated electric fields between the floor and ceiling of similar strengths to what the spiders would experience outdoors. These fields ruffled tiny sensory hairs on the spiders’ feet, known as trichobothria. “It’s like when you rub a balloon and hold it up to your hairs,” Morley says.
  • On the behavior of the so-called “demon star”

    • But scientists argue whether tiny variations in the light from Algol could be caused by even more stars orbiting in the system. To answer that, Jetsu applied a new mathematical method to years of recorded data of the light from Algol and revealed regular signals that suggest there may be up to five “companion” stars in the system.

Language, games, media

History

  • I discovered Ian Graham, who played a very important role in preserving Maya artifacts

    • For anyone who ever wanted to be an archaeologist, Ian Graham could be a hero. This lively memoir chronicles Graham’s career as the “last explorer” and a fierce advocate for the protection and preservation of Maya sites and monuments across Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. It is also full of adventure and high society, for the self-deprecating Graham traveled to remote lands such as Afghanistan in wonderful company. He tells entertaining stories about his encounters with a host of notables beginning with Rudyard Kipling, a family friend from Graham’s childhood.
  • Neolithic folks made clothes from … trees !!

  • How “old” toasters from half a century ago are better than modern ones

  • Lidar continues to reveal interesting stuff in Central America: this time, Olmec sites

  • “The Indiana Jones of low Earth orbit” Space Archaeology 😀

People, culture, society

Computing and software

 

Generally interesting links – Oct 2021

The “Tsar Bomba” nuclear test on Oct 30, 1961.

Science

History

People, culture, society

  • Cautionary tale: carry water while hiking

  • On the impermanence of digital culture

    • If you’re young today, your formative years depend on auto-deleted snapchat videos, short-lived memes, stories told in computer games likely unplayable in 30 years (without emulation of complex proprietary CPUs and GPUs), and whatever happens to flutter by in a feed. I’m curious what the future of reminiscing will look like, even if all of this is saved somehow. So much to sift through, so few tangible artifacts.
    • Even more traditional culture is less permanent: we get our music and movies from streaming services, we rent our e-books through EULA:s and consume them on devices controlled by the manufacturer. I do most of this myself – but I was young in a different era and I at least have my stacks of CD:s (including bob hund) tucked away in a safe place and shelves full of the prose and movies that shaped me.
    • And yet, despite these and countless other examples, we still put our faith in digital permanence. We create so many mementos we hardly have time to look at them and then we entrust them all to companies and platforms beyond our control, storing them on machines we don’t own using services that could disappear tomorrow. Will Youtube still be there in 50 years? Will Instagram and Dropbox?
    • I mostly have questions, not answers. But I do know that a carefully handled bunch of photographs can last for over a century.
  • Bizarre conference call mishap

    • Once everyone had made the switch to an old-fashioned conference call, the guest told the bankers what they had been wanting to hear: That Ozy was a great success on YouTube. As he spoke, however, the man’s voice began to sound strange to the Goldman Sachs team, as though it might have been digitally altered, the four people said.

    • (later …) A confused Piper told the Goldman Sachs investor that he had never spoken with her before. Someone else, it seemed, had been playing the part of Piper on the call with Ozy.

Computing & Software

Tools

Reader submissions

  • The importance of human tool co-evolution

    • “We are inside the machine”: even truer a decade later (!)
    • “Micro-biome of a massive AI only now being born”
    • “Always get your wish, and always get it wrong”
    • “…. runaway objective function … Growth must go on forever”

btw, I’m always happy to hear about interesting stuff, please feel free to send them over to mail+curation@agambrahma.com