The third magic | Noahpinion
I thought this was brilliantly argued — a must-read:
A meditation on history, science, and AI […]
Humanity’s living standards are vastly greater than those of the other animals. Many people attribute this difference to our greater intelligence or our greater linguistic communication ability. But without minimizing the importance of those underlying advantages, I’d like to offer the idea that our material success is due, in large part, to two great innovations. Usually we think of innovations as specific technologies — agriculture, writing, the wheel, the steam engine, the computer. The most important of these are the things we call “general purpose technologies”. But I think that at a deeper level, there are more profound and fundamental meta-innovations that underlie even those things, and these are ways of learning about the world.
The first magic
Humans’ first big meta-innovation, roughly speaking — the first thing that lifted us above an animal existence — was history. By this, I don’t just mean the chronicling of political events and social trends that we now call “history”, but basically any knowledge that’s recorded in language — instructions on how to farm, family genealogies, techniques for building a house or making bronze, etc. Originally these were recorded in oral traditions, but these are a very lossy medium; eventually, we started writing knowledge down, and then we got agricultural manuals, almanacs, math books, and so on. That’s when we really got going. […]
The second magic
Then — I won’t say exactly when, because it wasn’t a discrete process and the argument about exactly when it occurred is kind of boring — humanity discovered our second magic trick, our second great meta-innovation for gaining control over our world. This was science.
“History”, as I think of it, is about chronicling the past, passing on and accumulating information. “Science", by contrast, is about figuring out generally applicable principles about how the world works. […]
Why should we care about understanding the things we predict? To most of us, raised and inculcated in the age of science, that might seem like a laughable question, but there actually is a good reason. “Understanding”, in the scientific sense, means deriving a simple, generalizable principle that you can apply in other domains. You can write down Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, but Newton’s laws of motion and gravitation let you generalize from planetary orbits to artillery shells. Collapsing observed phenomena to simple, generalizable laws and then expanding these laws again in some other domain to allow you to control other phenomena is fundamental to the awesome power of science. So because you and I sit at the end of 400 years of science being the most powerful tool in the world, we have naturally been taught that it is very, very important to understand things.
But what if, sometimes, there are ways to generalize from one phenomenon to another without finding any simple “law” to intermediate between the two? Breiman sadly never lived to see his vision come to fruition, but that is exactly what the people who work in machine learning and artificial intelligence are increasingly doing.
The Night Raids | ProPublica
For many Afghans, terror came when night fell. Over the years, CIA-backed operations killed countless civilians. The U.S. left without being held accountable. A reporter returns to investigate her past and unravel the legacy of the secretive Zero Units. […]
On a December night in 2018, Mahzala was jolted awake by a shuddering wave of noise that rattled her family’s small mud house. A trio of helicopters, so unfamiliar that she had no word for them, rapidly descended, kicking up clouds of dust that shimmered in their blinding lights. Men wearing desert camouflage and black masks flooded into the house, corralling her two sons and forcing them out the door.
Mahzala watched as the gunmen questioned Safiullah, 28, and 20-year-old Sabir, before roughly pinning them against a courtyard wall. Then, ignoring their frantic protests of innocence, the masked men put guns to the back of her sons’ heads. One shot. Two. Then a third. Her youngest, “the quiet, gentle one,” was still alive after the first bullet, Mahzala told me, so they shot him again.
Her story finished, Mahzala stared at me intently as if I could somehow explain the loss of her only family. We were in the dim confines of her home, a sliver of light leaking in from the lone window above her. She rubbed at the corner of her eyes; her forehead creased by a pulsing vein. The voices of her sons used to fill their home, she told me. She had no photos of them. No money. And there was no one who would tell her, a widow in her 50s, why these men dropped out of the sky and killed her family or acknowledge what she insisted was a terrible mistake.
But now there was me. I had ended up in Rodat in the heart of Nangarhar province while researching my own family’s story of loss in this desolate rural region in eastern Afghanistan.
Mahzala’s neighbors had pressed me to meet her; I was a foreigner, I must be able to help. Three months had passed since the raid. The neighbors believed it was the work of the feared Zero Units — squadrons of U.S.-trained Afghan special forces soldiers. Two more homes in the area were targeted that night, they said, though no one else was killed. Everyone acknowledged the Taliban had been in the area before; they were everywhere in Nangarhar province. But Mahzala’s sons? They were just farmers, the neighbors told me.
What Can We Learn from Barnes & Noble's Surprising Turnaround? | The Honest Broker
While the principle here isn’t likely to be universal, this is still heartwarming as an anecdote and probably applies in more places than expected:
But Barnes & Noble is flourishing. After a long decline, the company is profitable and growing again—and last week announced plans to open 30 new stores. In some instances, they are taking over locations where Amazon tried (and failed) to operate bookstores. […]
It’s amazing how much difference a new boss can make. […]
In the case of Barnes & Noble, the new boss was named James Daunt. And he had already turned around Waterstones, a struggling book retailing chain in Britain.
Back when he was 26, Daunt had started out running a single bookstore in London—and it was a beautiful store. He had to borrow the money to do it, but he wanted a store that was a showplace for books. And he succeeded despite breaking all the rules.
For a start, he refused to discount his books, despite intense price competition in the market. If you asked him why, he had a simple answer: “I don’t think books are overpriced.” […]
But the most amazing thing Daunt did at Waterstones was this: He refused to take any promotional money from publishers.
This seemed stark raving mad. But Daunt had a reason. Publishers give you promotional money in exchange for purchase commitments and prominent placement—but once you take the cash, you’ve made your deal with the devil. You now must put stacks of the promoted books in the most visible parts of the store, and sell them like they’re the holy script of some new cure-all creed. […]
Publishers do this in order to force-feed a book on to the bestseller list, using the brute force of marketing money to drive sales. If you flog that bad boy ruthlessly enough, it might compensate for the inferiority of the book itself. Booksellers, for their part, sweep up the promo cash, and maybe even get a discount that allows them to under-price Amazon.
Everybody wins. Except maybe the reader.
Daunt refused to play this game. He wanted to put the best books in the window. He wanted to display the most exciting books by the front door. Even more amazing, he let the people working in the stores make these decisions.
This is James Daunt’s super power: He loves books.
Welcome to Digital Nomadland | Wired
A Portuguese island created a village for remote workers, promising community to the newcomers and prosperity to the locals—then delivered on neither.
Canadian Euthanasia as Moral Progress | Richard Hanania’s Newsletter
Canadian euthanasia is getting a lot of bad press. This article seeks to defend medical assistance in dying, and refute some of the main criticisms of the program as currently practiced while arguing that there’s little to fear from its imminent expansion. Canada has perhaps the most permissive euthanasia laws in the world, so by defending MAID, I will defend all other systems against attacks they go too far, and in effect argue that no nation in the world goes far enough in making assisted suicide available and convenient for those who want it.
The Media Very Rarely Lies | Astral Codex Ten
Sorry, I Still Think I Am Right About The Media Very Rarely Lying | Astral Codex Ten
With a title like that, obviously I will be making a nitpicky technical point. I’ll start by making the point, then explain why I think it matters.
The point is: the media rarely lies explicitly and directly. Reporters rarely say specific things they know to be false. When the media misinforms people, it does so by misinterpreting things, excluding context, or signal-boosting some events while ignoring others, not by participating in some bright-line category called “misinformation”.
Let me give a few examples from both the alternative and establishment medias.
Last week I wrote The Media Very Rarely Lies. I argued that, although the media is often deceptive and misleading, it very rarely makes up facts. Instead, it focuses on the (true) facts it wants you to think about, and ignores other true facts that contradict them or add context. This is true of establishment media like the New York Times, but also of fringe media like Infowars. All of the “misinformation” out there about COVID, voter fraud, conspiracies, whatever - is mostly people saying true facts in out-of-context misleading ways.
Some commenters weren’t on board with this thesis, and proposed many counterexamples - articles where they thought the media really was just making things up. I was surprised to see that all their counterexamples seemed, to me, like the media signal-boosting true facts in a misleading way without making anything up at all. Clearly there’s some kind of disconnect here!
I want to go over commenters’ proposed counterexamples, explain why I find them more true-but-misleading than totally-made-up, and then go into more detail about implications.
The infrastructure behind ATMs | Bits about Money
ATMs are a fascinating example of a pattern we see a lot in finance: an internal operations improvement which was built into a business which eventually begat an infrastructure layer that may be a much bigger business. And for all their ubiquity, almost no one, even people professionally involved in finance, understand how they work.
We can only kick Taiwan down the road for so long | Scholar’s Stage
Hass and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Hass and Blanchette’s larger argument is only compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.
Ghana, you were doing so well! | Noahpinion
So, unfortunately, it’s time for another one of these. By which I mean both a “[Country], you were doing so well!” post, and a “Why [country] is having an economic crisis” post. I thought Ghana was going to be one of my development success stories, and then before I got around to writing about, its economy went into a crisis. The basic story here is that Ghana just defaulted on most of its external debt, and is experiencing very high inflation, and is going to have to be bailed out by the IMF. That’s going to result in financial and economic chaos in the country, a year or two of depressed economic activity, and hardship for the Ghanaian people.
I’m sure Ghana will eventually bounce back. And as I’ll explain, when we look at the particulars of how this crisis has played out, we see that the government is being smarter than many. But overall this is pretty disappointing. So first I’ll talk a bit about why it’s so disappointing, and then move on to the crisis itself.
#20 - The Splinternet | Monday mornings
Roubini’s point was there is now no way to have anything fewer than two internets on this planet. The reason for disallowing Chinese equipment to build our internet is fear of espionage by CCP. At a minimum, the two internets will be Chinese and non-Chinese. A prescient 2020 note from BAML called it the “splinternet” (I’m commandeering it now ™). […]
Different internet, infrastructure, & manufacturing = different world orders: Last step into the rabbit hole. The question isn’t how the world will produce goods after exiling China because China has no interest in being exiled. Publicly, China’s Belt and Road initiative was created develop transcontinental connectivity and cooperation between China and the external world.
Here's How Author James Patterson Writes Thirty-One Books at the Same Time | GQ
“My grandmother said, ‘Hungry dogs run faster,’” says the 75-year-old. “I've always been a hungry dog."
Why Do You Get Sick in the Winter? Blame Your Nose | Wired
A new study shows that as temperatures drop, nasal cells release fewer of the tiny protectors that bind and neutralize invading germs.
Inequality might be going down now | Noahpinion
One name you don’t hear a lot these days is Thomas Piketty. […]
So for a number of years, many of us thought very hard about ways that inequality could be curbed before it got completely out of hand. I was in the camp that wanted to uplift the incomes of society’s poorer members, via cash benefits and faster economic growth.
But anyway, then an interesting thing happened — inequality started going down a little bit.
Do bumble bees play? | Animal Behaviour
• Ball rolling by bumble bees fulfils animal play criteria.
• Ball rolling can act as an unconditioned rewarding stimulus.
• Younger bees rolled more balls, with age patterns resembling mammalian juvenile play.
• Males rolled balls for longer durations than females.
Hooking Up and Using the John: Why Do We Use So Many Euphemisms? | Time
Author Ralph Keyes is intrigued by how we say certain things without quite saying them. In Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms, he explores subjects that have inspired creative phrasing, from sex and money to food and death. Whether it's because we are afraid to blaspheme, want to be polite or (like Shakespeare and Mae West) just like to have fun with language, there's no shortage of motives for employing euphemisms. Keyes spoke with TIME about how disease became a mainstream word, what processing meat means, and why it is that we go to the john.
Less Talk Context | Overcoming Bias
Here’s a long-term trend I don’t recall hearing much about: over time, talk has been losing its non-talk context. That is, over time listeners have known less about the context of speaker talk. […]
How much context humans have to interpret words has always varied. For example, when humans addressed larger groups, less could be inferred from their relation to particular audience members. And low context situations have increased over time. For example, with rising population densities, individuals more often talk to relative strangers.
While the introduction of writing has allowed the exchange of letters between friends, writing also allowed a single speaker to address many diverse people across space and time. Furthermore, schools and mass media have greatly encouraged many to spend a lot of time reading such low-context writings. In the last few decades, social media has gone further, encouraged many ordinary people to spend a lot of time writing in a lower-context mode as well.
The Book Of Leaves | Vimeo
While collecting leaves, I conceived that the leaf shape every single plant type I could find would fit somewhere into a continuous animated sequence of leaves if that sequence were expansive enough. If I didn't have the perfect shape, it meant I just had to collect more leaves.
Taiwan Dumpling Factory! Making Dumpling Wrapper, Handmade Dumpling | YouTube
The Scrambled Egg Technique That Impressed J. Kenji López-Alt | New York Times
This distinct recipe promises velvety, custardy soft-scrambled eggs.
First TV image of Mars | Dan Goods
For the longest time I had seen this framed image entitled “The First TV Image of Mars” in an out of the way place at JPL. I loved taking people there showing them this low res image and how it had been made by coloring numbers that were stapled to a wall. When I got to curate an exhibition about data and art, I had to have this in it, but in the process of curating the show I was able to interview Richard “Dick” Grumm, who is the one who made the image, and I learned the story was even more interesting.
'Just Deserts' or 'Just Desserts'? | Merriam-Webster
Despite its pronunciation, just deserts, with one s, is the proper spelling for the phrase meaning "the punishment that one deserves." The phrase is even older than dessert, using an older noun version of desert meaning "deserved reward or punishment," which is spelled like the arid land, but pronounced like the sweet treat.
Own-goal football | Generalist Academy
In a 1994 qualifying match for the Caribbean Cup, both Barbados and Grenada attempted to score deliberate own goals – because it was the best strategy available.
Are Progressives in Denial About Progress? | Marginal Revolution
These results cast doubt on functionalist claims that people mobilize beliefs about societal trends to support political positions and suggest a simpler explanation: Most laypeople do not organize information in ways that provide reliable monitoring of social change over time, which makes their views on progress susceptible to memory distortions and high-profile current events and political rhetoric.
Fact Check: Do All Healthy People Have Mystical Experiences? | Astral Codex Ten
Selection Bias Is A Fact Of Life, Not An Excuse For Rejecting Internet Surveys
So this tweet is false, unless you’re using some kind of hokey ad hoc definition of “the mind is healthy”. I’m glad; lots of people have spiritual experiences at their worst moments, and find them helpful. Healthy people already have enough to brag about; it would be annoying if they got to monopolize mystical experiences too!
Sometimes people do amateur research through online surveys. Then they find interesting things. Then their commenters say it doesn’t count, because “selection bias!” This has been happening to Aella for years, but people try it sometimes on me too.
I think these people are operating off some model where amateur surveys necessarily have selection bias, because they only capture the survey-maker’s Twitter followers, or blog readers, or some other weird highly-selected snapshot of the Internet-using public. But real studies by professional scientists don’t have selection bias, because . . . sorry, I don’t know how their model would end this sentence.
Does reducing lead exposure limit crime? | Marginal Revolution
We perform the first meta-analysis of the effect of lead on crime by pooling 529 estimates from 24 studies. We find evidence of publication bias across a range of tests. This publication bias means that the effect of lead is overstated in the literature.
'I'm pleased it is being used for people's safety': QR code inventor relishes its role in tackling Covid | The Guardian
The eureka moment that helped Masahiro Hara perfect the Quick Response, or QR code, sprang from a lunchtime game of Go more than a quarter of a century ago.
Amateur archaeologist helps crack Ice Age cave art code | BBC
I’m not sure this piece actually says what the code is, which is a bit disappointing:
Ice Age hunter-gatherers in Europe used cave drawings to record detailed information about the lives of animals around them, a new study claims.
Markings found on paintings dating back at least 20,000 years have long been suspected as having meaning but had not been decoded until now.
The initial discovery that the markings related to animal life-cycles was made by furniture conservator Ben Bacon.
Not sure how to describe this other than that it is silly and fun.