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3 stars

A Shooter in the Hills | New Yorker

When Wu arrived at the park, she tried to get to the campground. She told me, “One of the rangers or somebody there said something like, ‘This never happens, you know. This kind of stuff never happens here.’ ”

It was a callous thing to say to a person whose husband had just been murdered; it was also untrue. Over the previous twenty months, multiple victims had reported to authorities that they’d been shot at in Malibu Creek State Park or on the nearby canyon road. There had been six near-misses, two of them in the campground where Beaudette was killed. One person was injured, requiring surgery.

State Parks officers had taken reports, as had deputies from Malibu/Lost Hills Sheriff’s Station, the local branch of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. But neither the sheriff nor the California Department of Parks and Recreation issued a public-safety warning. Between the third and fourth shooting, State Parks posted an enticing picture online of someone free-climbing a rock wall at the park, with the hashtag #InventYourAdventure. The campground remained open to visitors.

Not long after Beaudette’s killing, when the campground was finally shut down, I went out to the park and walked around. There was just a small paper sign informing people of the closure. I looked at all the kiosks I came across: nothing was posted about Beaudette, or any of the near-misses—no request for information, no suggestion to remain vigilant. On my way out, I stopped by the administrative office. When I introduced myself, Tony Hoffman, the public-safety superintendent, asked me to step outside. He was visibly uncomfortable. He said he wasn’t “free to talk.” Then he added, tantalizingly, that Beaudette’s death “began to lift the veil of ignorance.”

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Neurons Gone Wild | Melting Asphalt

To reject gods and spirits is easy: just bully them away in the name of science.

But to accept them, or at least our experiences of them, and yet give them a scientific explanation: there's a task worthy of our art. It demands that we look them in the eye and take them seriously, while standing absolutely firm in our materialist convictions.

I don't know how much of what I'm about to say is true. All I know is that it's damn interesting.

Today we court madness from the bedrock of science. Today we will face addictions and compulsions, alter-egos and imaginary friends, angelic voices and demonic possessions, even exorcisms. And we will attempt to ground these madnesses, one and all, in a unified, sane, materialist framework.

We will begin, naturally, with the neuron.

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2 stars

This Is Where 150 Years Of Ignoring Anti-Asian Racism Got Us | BuzzFeed News

Not that anyone does or should care, but here are my opinions on anti-Asian racism in the US (where I spent my entire life until 6 years ago):

  • I find the issue more serious than most of my non-Asian-American peers do.

  • I find the issue less serious than most of my Asian-American peers do.

  • Based on what I’ve read, I don’t think of the Atlanta shootings as anti-Asian or as a hate crime; horrific, yes, but it seems logically sloppy to infer intent from the victims’ identities, particularly when the killer stated a (non-racial, still self-incriminating) motive that’s been supported by other evidence. Of course, it’s foolish to blindly take the accused at his word, and more evidence could change my mind.

  • Without high confidence, I believe that there’s been an increase in anti-Asian attacks (in which the primary or a major motive for the attack was the victim’s race) — from approximately zero to approximately zero.

  • This doesn’t mean I’m indifferent to anti-Asian sentiment in the West, since I think it’s possible that macro trends will make this far worse in the future, and I certainly don’t mind attention being drawn to it now to mitigate that risk. So I’m mostly supportive of the recent press coverage. But I’m somewhat concerned that (1) the most newsworthy catalyst is an event that isn’t obviously anti-Asian to me and that (2) “approximately zero” is not a particularly well-evidenced place for this movement to begin. (For instance, compare the current evidence with the evidence that galvanised America in the 1950s-1960s…there’s some chance this could all backfire. Though again, on balance I’m supportive of the attention.)

Anyway, with all that now said, here’s a piece that I partly agree with:

For so long, we’ve thought keeping our heads down and being invisible in America might help us gain acceptance — but the recent wave of racist violence has shattered that myth. […]

Like Wang, many Asian Americans are grappling with heightened anxiety about their personal safety and the bleak sense that no matter how many people are punched, shoved, knifed, hospitalized, and even killed, people continue to question whether a wave of hate crimes is really happening. There’s been a silent history of violence against Asian Americans for generations — including my own family. The pandemic and former president Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric about the “kung flu” have unbottled anti-Chinese sentiment that marks the latest chapter of racism against Asian people in America. A steady drumbeat of reports of harassment and attacks over the past 12 months has forced communities of people who have traditionally kept their heads down and tried to quietly trudge forward to realize that keeping a low profile is not enough to ward off hate.

“We’ve been taught our entire life to just fit in,” Rep. Grace Meng said at a rally against anti-Asian hate in Manhattan last month. “Just be quiet. Don’t speak up. Be invisible; if you are invisible enough, you will be seen as American. But we are saying that we will be invisible no more.” […]

A growing cry from Asian communities to label incidents like Quintana’s as “hate” has less to do with whether an incident is prosecuted as a hate crime and everything to do with asking American society — people, government, media, advocates — to acknowledge that Asian people are being hurt by hate and racism, and to do something about it. Quintana told me he is fine with the fact that there is no hate crime charge in his legal case because of the difficulties in proving bias, but he does believe his attack was an act of hate and that people were indifferent to it as it unfolded.

It’s hard in a situation like this not to feel utterly invisible in the absence of help, which is a painfully familiar sentiment to many Asian Americans who feel few people really give a fuck about the racism we’ve experienced, both during the pandemic and long before that. Perhaps it’s because there are people who don’t really believe that Asian people are targeted for their race. People who believe the model minority myth that claims Asian people are a monolith that overcame discrimination. Or maybe there are just too many people who refuse to help an Asian person.

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Toward A Bayesian Theory Of Willpower | Astral Codex Ten

A tradition originating in psychotherapy, and ably represented eg here by Kaj Sotala, interprets willpower as conflict between mental agents. One "subagent" might want to sit down and study for a test. But maybe one subagent represents the pressure your parents are putting on you to do well in school so you can become a doctor and have a stable career, and another subagent represents your own desire to drop out and become a musician, and even though the "do well in school" subagent is on top now, the "become a musician" subagent is strong enough to sabotage you by making you feel mysteriously unable to study. This usually ends with something about how enough therapy can help you reconcile these subagents and have lots of willpower again. But this works a lot better in therapy books than it does in real life. Also, what childhood trauma made my subagents so averse to doing dishes?

I've come to disagree with all of these perspectives. I think willpower is best thought of as a Bayesian process, ie an attempt to add up different kinds of evidence. […]

I think this theory matches my internal experience when I'm struggling to exert willpower. My intellectual/logical brain processes have some evidence for doing something ("knowing how the education system works, it's important to do homework so I can get into a good college and get the job I want"). My reinforcement-learner/instinctual brain processes have some opposing argument ("doing your homework has never felt reinforcing in the past, but playing computer games has felt really reinforcing!"). These two processes fight it out. If one of them gets stronger (for example, my teacher says I have to do the homework tomorrow or fail the class) it will have more "evidence" for its view and win out.

It also explains an otherwise odd feature of willpower: sufficient evidence doesn't necessarily make you do something, but overwhelming evidence sometimes does. For example, many alcoholics know that they need to quit alcohol, but find they can't. They only succeed after they "hit bottom", ie things go so bad that the evidence against using alcohol gets "beyond a reasonable doubt". Alcoholism involves some imbalance in brain regions such that the reinforcing effect of alcohol is abnormally strong. The reinforcement system is always more convinced in favor of alcohol than the intellectual system is convinced against it - until the intellectual evidence becomes disproportionately strong even more than the degree to which the reinforcement system is disproportionately strong.

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Electrocloud! | The Diff

Mark Zuckerberg once described his long-term vision for Facebook by comparing it to a utility: "Maybe electricity was cool when it first came out, but pretty quickly people stopped talking about it because it’s not the new thing." Well, Mark, some of us do have plans to keep talking about electricity.

In my post a few weeks ago, on why the power went out in Texas, I noted that there are interesting parallels between cloud computing economics and electrification. As it turns out, I'm not the only person to make the comparison; a reader sent along this video of Jeff Bezos making a similar argument in 2003. […]

Aside from poor scaling, early grids had another problem: they didn't understand their business model. Edison would essentially agree to supply all of a customer's electricity needs at a set price, and try to make money by selling them lightbulbs and other equipment. This gave Edison the perverse incentive to make lower-quality bulbs that would need to be frequently replaced—an incentive he didn't follow, because he seemed to revel in constantly improving products. As a result, electric company economics got worse over time as the technology got better.

Edison's former assistant, Samuel Insull, took control of a small utility in Chicago in 1892. Working for Edison gave Insull two kinds of training: he learned how electricity was generated, how it was sold, how it was used, and what could go wrong. He also learned about financial engineering. Edison was chronically short on cash, and it often fell to Insull to juggle late invoices to keep the operation going. Meanwhile, Edison often paid employees in shares of his various subsidiaries—a combination of stock-based comp and insider trading-based comp, since it was perfectly legal for those employees to hold, buy, or sell based on the information they had about each company's performance.

Insull discovered a better pricing model on a trip to England: electricity could be metered at the point of consumption, so users could be charged based on how much they actually needed. […]

But the biggest impact [industrial uses of electricity] had was reshaping the factory, and then changing how companies related to capital markets.

Before electrification, factory power was centralized: a single power source, usually steam or water, would turn a central shaft, and all the powered devices in the factory would connect to it through a system of belts and pulleys. This was mechanically inefficient (power is lost when it's transmitted this way) and led to a default layout where equipment was distributed radially around a single shaft. This made the optimal factory a multi-floor building; the most physically efficient approach would have been a cylinder, but they compromised with a cuboid.

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The Ancient Method That Keeps Afghanistan’s Grapes Fresh All Winter | Atlas Obscura

The “ancient method” itself isn’t that interesting; the grapes are stored in mud containers. The small glimpse at life in an Afghan village is far more interesting:

Each season, when the lush fields turn red and yellow, Ahmadi buys 1,000 kilograms of grapes. About half of them he sells fresh; the other half he preserves using kangina and resells for a profit months later. “We use mud from the village, mix it with straw and water, and then form the bowls,” explains Ahmadi’s daughter Sabsina, 11, who, during the harvest, helps her father after school.

After laying the bowls in the sun for about five hours, they place the grapes in the dry bowls, which they seal with more mud and store in a dry, cool corner over the winter. Most families in the village do the same, in a process that takes up to 20 days. Grapes that aren’t preserved are either eaten or dried and made into raisins.

The seasonal scene can be bucolic, and Ahmadi has childhood memories of his father returning from the vineyards with fresh grapes. But it takes place amidst the country’s succession of wars and conflicts, which have made family life difficult.

During Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s, Ahmadi stepped on a roadside mine while traveling to the eastern Nangarhar Province. It blew off his left leg and severely injured his arms and hands. He only received a prosthetic leg two years ago, at which point he had gotten so used to his old crutches that he rejected using the artificial limb.

“That’s why my whole family helps with the harvest and the grapes,” says Ahmadi. While his family doesn’t own any vineyards, his wife and older children help nearby farmers pick grapes, which Ahmadi purchases at a discounted rate.

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1 star

People Are Sharing Effective Psychological Tricks They Use In Everyday Life, And I'm Blown Away By Some | BuzzFeed

Some of these are pretty good:

"Instead of asking 'Do you have any questions?' I ask, 'What questions do you have?' The first almost always results in silence, while the second helps people feel comfortable asking questions." […]

"I work in an office. When people stop by my desk and refuse to leave me alone, I get up and refill my water bottle while they are talking to me. Instead of walking back to my desk, I walk them to theirs. They instinctively will sit down. Then I just sever the conversation and get back to work." […]

"If you need to deescalate someone and get them to communicate, ask them questions about numbers or personal information. I work in emergency services. If someone is totally distraught and shut down, asking their phone number, address, social security number, or birth date can pull them out of an emotional place and bring them back to a headspace where they can talk about what happened more easily. I often ask these questions even after I have the information, just to deescalate."

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Incredible Drone Videos of an Erupting Volcano | Kottke

After a series of thousands of tiny earthquakes in the area, a small volcano has started erupting in Fagradalsfjall, Iceland. Drone pilot Bjorn Steinbekk took his brand new DJI FPV drone and flew it right into the eruption, capturing this pair of amazing videos. Said Steinbekk of the experience: “I really thought I would never see my drone again, but man, this was so thrilling to capture!!!”

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The Growth of London, 47 ACE to the Present | Kottke

Ollie Bye has created an animated time lapse of the growth of London from a small Roman town in 47 ACE to the largest city in the world (during the Victorian era) to the massive, sprawling city it is today.

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When Did Growth Begin? | Marginal Revolution

We provide new estimates of the evolution of productivity in England from 1250 to 1870. Real wages over this period were heavily influenced by plague-induced swings in the population. We develop and implement a new methodology for estimating productivity that accounts for these Malthusian dynamics. In the early part of our sample, we find that productivity growth was zero. Productivity growth began in 1600—almost a century before the Glorious Revolution. Post-1600 productivity growth had two phases: an initial phase of modest growth of 4% per decade between 1600 and 1810, followed by a rapid acceleration at the time of the Industrial Revolution to 18% per decade. Our evidence helps distinguish between theories of why growth began.

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Why π^π^π^π could be an integer (for all we know!) | Stand-up Maths (YouTube)

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Here’s How People From The Past Imagined The Future (20 Pics) | deMilked

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Perfect Shadows | Kottke

Joaquim Campa recently shared some satisfying shadows for perfectionists. I guess I must be a perfectionist because those shadows are indeed deeply satisfying and calming to me, like fitting the last puzzle piece after hours of work.

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