The wolf at history's door | Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning
This eruption of warrior ferocity five thousand years ago was triggered by an economic revolution that swept across Eurasia, the advent of an unbeatable new cultural toolkit that finally harnessed the full productive potential of the cattle, sheep and goats that had long been viewed as simply mobile meat lockers in agricultural societies. Though these animals had already been domesticated by 8500 BC, it took millennia to perfect milk, cheese and wool production, and the harnessing of oxen as beasts of burden. North of the Black Sea, this revolution arrived around 3500 BC, as small groups of farmers huddling on river banks shifted from a mixed agro-pastoralist production system eking out a living cultivating wheat in an unforgivingly short growing season, to one of pure pastoral nomadism that turned over the vast grasslands around them to massive herds of animals.
Within a few generations, these people, known as the Yamnaya to archaeologists, were both grazing their cattle in the heart of Europe and driving their sheep up to the higher pastures of the Mongolian Altai uplands. This 5,000-mile distance (8,000 km) was spanned in just a few generations by the former farmers. Mobility was the first result of the switch to nomadism, as fleets of wagons began to roll across the steppe, like swarms of lumbering migratory villages, eternally bound for greener pastures. But far beyond a simple shift in aggregate economic production, many later knock-on effects were to reshape the culture of Eurasian societies, some of which continue to impact us down to the present.
Foremostly, the status and power of males rose within these cultures, in tandem with the shift to nomadism. Almost all contemporary nomadic pastoralists are patrilineal and patriarchal, so identity and wealth are passed from father to son, just as with the Plains Indians. Men occupy all of the de jure political leadership positions, if not all de facto ones. This is in contrast to rooted farming cultures, which exhibit more diversity in social arrangements, from the patriarchal Eurasian river-valley civilizations to the matrilineal horticultural societies of tropical Africa and Asia. Even within India, the cultures of the wheat-based northern plains were strongly patrilineal, with wives being totally unrelated to their husbands, and always moving to the households of the men they were to marry. In contrast, in tropical Kerala far to the south many groups cultivating rice, bananas and coconuts were matrilineal, with husbands moving to the villages of their wives, and the primary male figure in some boys’ lives even routinely being their maternal uncle. […]
Using evidence from the shared mythologies of the ancient Greeks, Indians and Germans, it is clear that the early Indo-Europeans revered Deywós, the progenitor of the Greek Zeus, Sanskrit Dayus and Germanic Týr, the sky-father. These early steppe gods were sometimes addressed as "king", or "shepherd,” reflecting the social stratification of the cultures, as well as the centrality of herding in their lives. Later, the Turks and Mongols who burst forth out of the eastern steppe during the Common Era worshiped Tengri, also a sky-god, whose similarity to Deywós has to be more than coincidental. Long after the original Indo-Europeans spread far beyond their homeland, the ecology of the steppe continued to shape the mythology of all its varied peoples. In contrast, many of the goddesses revered in settled Indo-European societies, from Greek Athena to Indian Kali and Iranian Anahita, seem to have been adopted from the indigenous agricultural people they conquered and absorbed. The descendants of the steppe Indo-Europeans that spread to Europe and South Asia were synthetic people, fusing their ancestral heritage with indigenous folkways.
Reconciliation: A game designed to frustrate the player | Bits about Money
How much human attention should be paid to money? Quite a bit, say most societies. How much human attention should be paid to individual money movements? Asymptotically approaching zero. Money is, after all, just a message between parties about their desires for the future, and while the content of that message might have involved the work of ages, technology has driven down the marginal human effort require to move a message from point A to point B to a number so low it is undetectable compared to historical scales.
An interesting habit I have when reading sweeping sketches like the above is thinking of counterexamples. Which sorts of messages still have material delivery costs? Why do they? Will those continue into the future?
Japan manages to spend about $500 million a year on telegrams (telegrams!), which is a surprising fact about the world until you realize that functionally all of them are part of wedding rituals. All cultures agree that setting money on fire is a major function of weddings; specifics differ. You might reasonably think that, far into the future, aunts of the bride will still pay NTT about $20 to have an RSVP thanking them for the invitation but begging off due to unavoidable necessity delivered to the ceremony hall; $40 or so extra if you want the telegram accompanied by decorative Mickey and Minnie statuettes.
One place human effort is currently required and glaringly should not be: B2B payments. For the last several hundred years, these have followed a very well-understood dance. A deal is struck. The exact amount of compensation is decided upon and memorialized by the sender in an invoice. The purchaser receives the invoice, reads it, then wraps money around a metaphorical brick and throws it through a metaphorical window. Someone on the other side of the window then applies forensic science to the question of what caused this particular brick to arrive. This process is called reconciliation; "keshikomi" in Japanese.
Randomness Experiment | The Pudding
We found this cool study about randomness that we wanted to show you.
But…there is something we saw in the data that made us question the results. Can you help us reproduce the study and figure things out?
Back to the Future of Twitter | Stratechery
Twitter has, over 19 different funding rounds (including pre-IPO, IPO, and post-IPO), raised $4.4 billion in funding; meanwhile the company has lost a cumulative $861 million in its lifetime as a public company (i.e. excluding pre-IPO losses). During that time the company has held 33 earnings calls; the company reported a profit in only 14 of them.
Given this financial performance it is kind of amazing that the company was valued at $30 billion the day before Musk’s investment was revealed; such is the value of Twitter’s social graph and its cultural impact: despite there being no evidence that Twitter can even be sustainably profitable, much less return billions of dollars to shareholders, hope springs eternal that the company is on the verge of unlocking its potential. At the same time, these three factors — Twitter’s financials, its social graph, and its cultural impact — get at why Musk’s offer to take Twitter private is so intriguing. […]
This is all build-up to my proposal for what Musk — or any other bidder for Twitter, for that matter — ought to do with a newly private Twitter.
First, Twitter’s current fully integrated model is a financial failure.
Second, Twitter’s social graph is extremely valuable.
Third, Twitter’s cultural impact is very large, and very controversial.
Given this, Musk (who I will use as a stand-in for any future CEO of Twitter) should start by splitting Twitter into two companies.
One company would be the core Twitter service, including the social graph.
The other company would be all of the Twitter apps and the advertising business.
TwitterAppCo would contract with TwitterServiceCo to continue to receive access to the Twitter service and social graph; currently Twitter earns around $13/user/year in advertising, so you could imagine a price of say $7.50/user/year, or perhaps $0.75/user/month. TwitterAppCo would be free to pursue the same business model and moderation policies that Twitter is pursuing today (I can imagine Musk sticking with TwitterServiceCo, and the employees upset about said control being a part of TwitterAppCo).
I Lived the #VanLife. It Wasn’t Pretty. | New York Times
Everyone was talking about this article this week. It’s entertaining and not bad, but maybe overhyped. Still, here it is.
To prepare for this regular-shaped mission, I threw myself into the #VanLife corners of TikTok and Instagram. Accounts of popular “vanlifers,” as they are known, are an infinite reservoir of gorgeous, unpeopled scenery previously encountered only in desktop backgrounds: sunrise canyons, sunset oceans, high-noon highways that stretch on, carless, forever. #VanLife is largely honey-colored with soft blue elements, or vice versa. Outdoors is presented like hung landscape paintings enclosed in frames of flung-open van doors or oblong windows. Vanlifers’ eyes rarely peer back from their photos; self-portraits appear to catch them off guard, gazing in the direction of majestic snow-capped peaks, or perhaps pointedly into a cereal bowl (majesty having become habitual for them). The vans seem to share their owners’ tendency toward reverie; exterior shots typically find them angled away from the camera, as if to watch the waves.
This photogenic strain of van-living does not come cheap. Secondhand converted Mercedes-Benz Sprinters (a popular model for custom campervans, with features like heated floors) can easily sell for $300,000 — if you can find one. Interest in an itinerant, panoramic, luxuriously self-contained lifestyle exploded alongside Covid-19. Customization companies warn of yearlong wait-lists. Despite this scarcity, it is easier than ever to experience #VanLife. With a day’s notice and $1,000, anyone can have the life of a whimsical wayfarer — if they are willing to rent.
My husband couldn’t believe it when I revealed I had scored a campervan for us to drive around and live in for a week. “That sounds bad,” he said. He immediately declined, citing several compelling reasons. Perhaps, my editor proposed, I could do it alone, even though I pointed out that I am the worst driver I know and the worst parker known to anyone anywhere. (That could be “part of it,” he suggested.) I ran a search for “tips female van life solo.” The top result advised leaving men’s shoes outside the van at night and traveling with a gun or dog, or both. That didn’t sound like an aesthetic fantasy. I needed to find another human. But what human in their right mind would be willing to travel well over 1,000 miles in a vehicle under my control (hopefully), interrupting and endangering their life just to sleep marginally sheltered in the dead of winter in scenic places?
‘That’s it? It’s over? I was 30. What a brutal business’: pop stars on life after the spotlight moves on | The Guardian
Another much-hyped piece that is not bad but also not as amazing as it sounded:
The passing of fad and fashion is rarely the artist’s fault. In a 1997 piece for the New Yorker, the American essayist Louis Menand suggested that stardom cannot last longer than three years. “It is the intersection of personality with history, a perfect congruence of the way the world happens to be and the way the star is. The world, however, moves on.”
To her credit, Suzanne Vega tried to move with it. It was 1990, and by this stage she’d enjoyed huge success for three years. This was no mean feat, because her unadorned acoustic songs stood in direct contrast to the more brash preoccupations of pop in the 80s, a time when Madonna ruled. “But by 1987,” Vega recalls, “every door was open to me, every gig I did sold out.”
And so, in 1990, she announced her most ambitious tour yet. Rather than her usual requirements of an acoustic guitar and a single spotlight, she now had “a set designer, trucks and buses, a crew, a backing band; catering, a backup singer, a woman to do the clothing. This was a big deal for me.”
On the tour’s opening night in New York, the venue was just a third full. “I thought: ‘Where’s the rest of the audience? Maybe they’re still out in the lobby?’”
There was no rest of the audience; they’d already moved on. Vega herself had done nothing wrong here, but rather done things a little too right. The industry had taken note of her earlier success, reminding them of the marketable power of a singer in touch with her emotions, and so had invested in a new batch: Sinéad O’Connor, Tanita Tikaram, Tracy Chapman. These artists rendered the scene’s godmother abruptly superfluous.
Vega’s tour, haemorrhaging money, was cut short. When she arrived back at JFK, she looked out for the car her record label would always send to collect her. But there was no car. Not any more.
“I took a taxi,” she says.
My Taipei Quarantine | Idle Words
Part of what brought me to Taiwan was bureaucratic thrill seeking. Few other countries had gone from “just hop on a plane” to North Korean levels of inaccessibility as fast as Taiwan, and like a cat that paws at a door just because it's closed, I wanted in. The country was off-limits to foreign visitors, but there was a tiny gap left in the regulations, and with the right references, statements of purpose, and forms filled out in triplicate it might just be possible to get a Taiwan visa and come eat all the noodles.
It was not easy! Even buying the plane ticket felt like an LSAT word problem. I could only arrive during a certain window of time on a weekday, and I had to send my visa number eight business days in advance (minding the international date line) in order to secure an entry permit that would be emailed to me after my flight took off. I would have to take a PCR test no earlier than 48 hours before landing, but at least 12 hours before departure. I needed proof of travel to get the visa, and a visa to book the plane ticket. One gate agent always lied, while another only told the truth.
It wasn’t until they let me on the plane that I believed this might actually work.
It had been two years since my last international flight, and the feeling of stepping back in time was intense. Our domestic airlines might have covid fatigue, but for China Airlines it was still April 2020. The poor flight attendants had to wear latex gloves, goggles, face shield, and a full-body plastic gown on top of their regular uniform for the entire thirteen hour flight.
The hazmat team that met our flight in Taipei made the flight attendants look reckless.
The Politics of Generation, Race, and Class in France | Richard Hanania’s Newsletter
On the CSPI podcast this week, I talked to Philippe Lemoine about the French election. We were going to wait for the results to record our conversation, but Philippe told me he was so sure Macron would win that we didn’t need to. So we decided to record last Friday, knowing that if Le Pen pulled it off he would look like a fool in front of the world.
But of course Philippe turned out to be correct. Granted, picking Macron on Friday wasn’t exactly going out on a limb, but he was saying the same thing back when the polls showed the race much closer.
On April 3, one week before the first round, Philippe announced that if Le Pen got to the second round she would receive 40-45% of the vote.
As it turns out, she got 41%. On April 8, a YouGov poll showed her at 49% in the second round, making the race a toss-up. Around that time, she reached a 28% chance of winning at PredictIt, but Philippe never wavered in his belief that the election wouldn’t be close.
In addition to marveling at his forecasting ability, in this conversation we discuss differences between French and American politics, why Zemmour never caught on, how low information voters think, and the “Le Pen curse,” or why she sabotages the French Right. Interestingly, while in the US we are used to young people being more liberal, in France the opposite is the case, and we talk about why that is near the end.
Learning from Our Defeat: The Madrassas and the Modern
Most controversial will be my description of the Taliban as representatives of “modernity.” Modernity is a word of myriad definitions: every field has its own. I am not overly interested in those debates. My use of the term was originally intended to subvert the usual American framing of the war, which pits America’s futuristic forces and our liberal civil society allies against the “medieval” Taliban. This simply is not an accurate description of the war in Afghanistan. Islamism is a modernist ideology par excellence. There is nothing medieval about it. More important still, of the two Afghan factions, the designs of our side were the more conservative. There were few Afghan liberals warring against the Taliban. No matter what we told ourselves, we spent our time in Afghanistan shoring up a faltering traditionalist order, not revolutionizing Afghan society for a liberal future.
Book review: Trade Wars are Class Wars | Noahpinion
Trade Wars are Class Wars offers a provocative thesis — that what looks like economic competition between nations is actually just a manifestation of economic competition between classes within those nations. From the introduction:
Regular people everywhere are being deprived of purchasing power — and tricked by chauvinists and opportunists into believing that their interests are fundamentally at odds. A global conflict between economic classes within countries is being misinterpreted as a series of conflicts between countries with competing interests. (p. 2)
The authors present this as an optimistic idea. After all, if class wars are driving everything else, then we can solve the world’s economic imbalances by focusing on domestic redistribution instead of international conflict. Instead of shouting about China and voting for Donald Trump, Americans could shout about our own super-rich. Instead of getting mad at America, Chinese people could get mad about their own nexus of corrupt politicians and inefficient companies.
Personally, I’m not as sanguine. Even if Pettis and Klein are right, history is not exactly on our side here; class wars tend to be intractable things, and there are many examples of nations engaging in self-destructive wars to serve the interests of their ruling classes. World War 1 comes to mind.
Why do pilots sometimes deliberately delay flights? | The Points Guy
There are no winners when it comes to delays.
However, every so often, a pilot may decide to delay the flight deliberately.
You may wonder if they are doing this out of spite. A chance to show that they are in charge of that aircraft and what they say goes. However, the reality is quite different. […]
For a flight scheduled to land just after 0600hrs, a quick flight time could result in the aircraft arriving at Heathrow too early. With the restriction in place, it could be forced to enter a holding pattern until the airport opens at 6 am. This will use extra fuel, which is not good for either the environment or the airline accountants.
As a result, we have a responsibility to ensure that we don’t arrive too early. […]
Now you may be thinking that if an aircraft is waiting at its gate at its departure point (e.g. New York) to avoid waiting for another aircraft at its gate at the destination (e.g. London), then surely have the knock-on effect of causing an aircraft just landed in New York to have to wait for its gate — and you’d be right.
Sitting on the gate blocks it to aircraft just landed and delays their arrival. As a result, some airports enable pilots to ‘push and remote hold’.
Why skyscrapers are so short | Works in Progress
Another popular piece this week:
The basic physical limitations on building height have not changed substantially since the early 20th century. In the 1930 book The Skyscraper: A Study in the Economic Height of Modern Office Buildings, the authors speculate that in the absence of other restrictions, the engineering limits on a steel-framed building would allow for a tower up to a mile in height, and Frank Lloyd Wright proposed a mile-high tower called “The Illinois” in 1956. While it’s unclear if these were actually possible to construct, current building technology has these same basic limits. In The Tall Buildings Reference Book, the authors state that under pure gravity loading, a steel-framed building could perhaps reach 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) in height, with this dropping by half once lateral requirements were taken into account.
Unlearning Perfectionism | Arun Prasad
Hence the perfectionist stakes his identity on achieving his outcomes, meaning his self-worth depends on realizing them. This is a pitiful wager and a poor strategy.
Above all, perfectionism is a tendency, not a law. With practice, we can unlearn it and replace it with far better approaches.
If you clearly see this tendency in yourself, you then have a choice: to reinforce it through your actions, or to unlearn it and practice something better.
Either way, it's your decision.
A 26-year-old man volunteered to drink a dysentery smoothie that would give him life-threatening diarrhea to help scientists making a vaccine: 'It's the most brutally sick I have ever been' | Insider
On April 5, Jake Eberts drank a shot glass' worth of cloudy, salty liquid that he knew was infused with diarrhea-producing shigella bacteria. He also knew that bacteria would — in all likelihood — give him an excruciating case of dysentery. And it did.
Eberts was recently part of an 11-day inpatient vaccine trial at the University of Maryland, where he was one of 16 young, healthy adult participants given a drinkable shigella shot, which they all swallowed knowing it would likely make them violently ill.
It was all part of a tightly controlled process to test the vaccine candidate by "challenging" volunteers with a pathogen — some vaccinated and some not — and seeing how they fared.
Even though Eberts said what followed were "the worst eight hours of my life," he said he'd do it all over again, provided that he was paid (he earned more than $7,000 in this trial) and knew the research was being done for a good cause.
How Ikea tricks you into buying more stuff | The Hustle
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Alex Santos journeyed to his local Ikea with a singular mission: the procurement of a new Poäng chair.
It was a simple in-and-out task. But 3 hours later, the 37-year-old IT manager found himself in the parking lot, slightly stupefied, with a shopping cart full of hand towels, throw pillows, and martini glasses.
“It’s like Ikea makes it impossible to leave with only the stuff you came here for,” Santos told The Hustle.
He isn’t wrong.
It’s estimated that 60% of Ikea purchases are impulse buys. And Ikea’s own creative director has said that only 20% of the store’s purchases are based on actual logic and needs.
The Secret Code of Beauty Spots | Messy Nessy
You’re looking at a very rare portrait from 1650 depicting a Black woman and a White woman, both appearing to hold equal status, some 183 years before the abolition of slavery act. Curiously, rather than commenting on the debate in 17th century Britain via the uncommon pairing, the anonymous artist chose to write an inscription (see the faint black script above the two women) declaring that wearing beauty patches is “a sin of pride”. The cosmetic trend peaked in the 18th century, but not before it turned precedent on its head. Two centuries earlier, any kind of distinctive mole or facial marking – far less a face covered in esoteric beauty patches – would’ve been considered ‘the work of the devil’ and elicited accusations of witchcraft followed by a burning at the stake. Suddenly, cosmetics were being explored with abandon and beauty patches became an essential fashion accessory of the landed aristocracy and the politically powerful. As with most fashion trends throughout history, not everyone was a fan. In fact, the very same year the “Allegorical Painting of Two Ladies” was made, the English and Puritan parliament went as far as to legislate against the use of beauty patches, which they condemned as an ‘immoral vice’. […]
The artistry of placement of mooches and your decision on the quantity required skill and taste: too many looked desperate, too few; passé, and a poor arrangement may have distracted or even compromised one’s natural beauty. A French commentator (anonymous) of the day wrote,
“Women who wanted to create the impression of impishness stuck them near the corner of the mouth; those who wanted to flirt chose the cheek; those in love put a beauty spot beside the eye; a spot on the chin indicated roguishness or playfulness, a patch on the nose cheekiness; the lip was preferred by the coquettish lady, and the forehead was reserved for the proud.”
Generational Churn and the CPC | Scholar’s Stage
You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.”
A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:
Clever Cutout Portraits | Kottke
Rudy Willingham holds up paper cutouts of people (and Muppets!) against carefully chosen backgrounds and photographs the results, resulting in these witty portraits.
Fresh off a perfect game, Japanese phenom nearly throws another | Washington Post
Roki Sasaki didn’t pitch a second straight perfect game, but that doesn’t mean his effort Sunday wasn’t similarly immaculate.
The Japanese phenom was perfect through eight innings before he was pulled from what would become a 1-0, 10-inning loss for his Chiba Lotte Marines against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
Just 20 years old and in his second season in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japan’s highest tier in the sport, Sasaki has now thrown 17 straight perfect innings. He has set an NPB record by not allowing a base runner in 52 consecutive opposing plate appearances.
Molten Iron Fireworks | Kottke
In the small Chinese village of Nuanquan, they make fireworks displays by throwing molten iron against the wall, which causes it to explode in a shower of sparks.
For the past 30 years, Wang De has been practicing the ancient art of Da Shuhua, a 500-year-old tradition that first began with blacksmiths in the Nuanquan village of China. Wanting a way to celebrate Chinese New Year, but without the means to afford traditional fireworks, these blacksmiths devised a new form of entertainment. By tossing molten iron against the walls, they created beautiful showers of sparks, beginning a practice that would soon become a part of their cultural heritage. Now, it’s a special part of Nuanquan’s legacy as there’s no place else on Earth to witness the fiery spectacle.
This would be something to see in person — thousands of tiny sparks flying around at great speeds is exactly the sort of thing that compressed online video doesn’t depict that well.
Why You NEED an Overengineered Japanese Mechanical Pencil! | YouTube
Japanese mechanical pencils are a cut above the rest, boasting innovative features. But are they overengineered? We’ll show you seven mechanical pencils with remarkable engineering so you can decide for yourself.
On form versus meaning | Shtetl-Optimized
There is a fundamental difference between form and meaning. Form is the physical structure of something, while meaning is the interpretation or concept that is attached to that form. For example, the form of a chair is its physical structure – four legs, a seat, and a back. The meaning of a chair is that it is something you can sit on.
This distinction is important when considering whether or not an AI system can be trained to learn semantic meaning. AI systems are capable of learning and understanding the form of data, but they are not able to attach meaning to that data. In other words, AI systems can learn to identify patterns, but they cannot understand the concepts behind those patterns.
For example, an AI system might be able to learn that a certain type of data is typically associated with the concept of “chair.” However, the AI system would not be able to understand what a chair is or why it is used. In this way, we can see that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning.
– GPT3, when I gave it the prompt “Write an essay proving that an AI system trained on form can never learn semantic meaning”
NASA’s Perseverance Rover Sees Solar Eclipse on Mars | Kottke
Wow, NASA just released a video shot by the Mars Perseverance rover of a solar eclipse by the moon Phobos. The video description calls it “the most zoomed-in, highest frame-rate observation of a Phobos solar eclipse ever taken from the Martian surface”. According to this article from JPL, the video of the eclipse is played in realtime; it only lasted about 40 seconds.
Here’s Why People Don’t Barf on Planes as Much as They Used To | The Drive
The answer's pretty simple, which is that planes are bigger and fly higher now. Jet passenger planes aren't anything new but short-haul flights as recently as the 2010s were likely to use propeller planes and there're still a few in use.