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Book Review: Evolutionary Psychopathology / Slate Star Codex
Time will tell if this theory is correct, but I found it fascinating with good explanatory power:
Evolutionary psychology is famous for having lots of stories that make sense but are hard to test. Psychiatry is famous for having mountains of experimental data but no idea what’s going on. Maybe if you added them together, they might make one healthy scientific field. [...] Psychiatry is hard to analyze from an evolutionary perspective. From an evolutionary perspective, it shouldn’t even exist. Most psychiatric disorders are at least somewhat genetic, and most psychiatric disorders decrease reproductive fitness. Biologists have equations that can calculate how likely it is that maladaptive genes can stay in the population for certain amounts of time, and these equations say, all else being equal, that psychiatric disorders should not be possible. Apparently all else isn’t equal, but people have had a lot of trouble figuring out exactly what that means. [...] If some psychiatric disease is more common in people who otherwise seem to be pursuing some life strategy, then maybe it’s related to that strategy. Either it’s another name for that strategy, or it’s another name for an extreme version of that strategy, or it’s a failure mode of that strategy, or it’s associated with some trait or adaptation which that strategy uses more than others do. By determining the association of disorders with certain life strategies, we can figure out what adaptive trait they’re piggybacking on, and from there we can reverse engineer them and try to figure out what went wrong. This is a much more well-thought-out and orderly way of thinking about psychiatric disease than anything I’ve ever seen anyone else try. [...] We believe that an abusive or deprived childhood can negatively affect people’s life chances. So far, we’ve cached this out entirely in terms of brain damage. Children’s developing brains “can’t deal with the trauma” and so become “broken” in ways that make them a less functional adult. Life history theory offers a different explanation. Nothing is “broken”. Deprived children have just looked around, seen what the world is like, and rewired themselves accordingly on some deep epigenetic level. I was reading this at the same time as the studies on preschool, and I couldn’t help noticing how well they fit together. The preschool studies were surprising because we expected them to improve children’s intelligence. Instead, they improved everything else. Why? This would make sense if the safe environment of preschool wasn’t “fixing” their “broken” brains, but pushing them to follow a slower life strategy. Stay in school. Don’t commit crimes. Don’t have kids while you’re still a teenager. This is exactly what we expect a push towards slow life strategies to do.
I can’t tell you about a specific day as a cable tech. I can’t tell you my first customer was a cat hoarder. I can tell you the details, sure. That I smeared Vicks on my lip to try to cover the stench of rugs and walls and upholstery soaked in cat piss. That I wore booties, not to protect the carpets from the mud on my boots but to keep the cat piss off my soles. I can tell you the problem with her cable service was that her cats chewed through the wiring. That I had to move a mummified cat behind the television to replace the jumper. That ammonia seeped into the polyester fibers of my itchy blue uniform, clung to the sweat in my hair. That the smell stuck to me through the next job. But what was the next job? This is the stuff I can’t remember — how a particular day unfolded. Maybe the next job was the Great Falls, Virginia, housewife who answered the door in some black skimpy thing I never really saw because I work very hard at eye contact when faced with out-of-context nudity. She was expecting a man. I’m a 6-foot lesbian. If I showed up at your door in a uniform with my hair cut in what’s known to barbers as the International Lesbian Option No. 2, you might mistake me for a man. Everyone does. She was rare in that she realized I’m a woman. We laughed about it. She found a robe while I replaced her cable box. She asked if I needed to use a bathroom, and I loved her. For 10 years, I worked as a cable tech in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. Those 10 years, the apartments, the McMansions, the customers, the bugs and snakes, the telephone poles, the traffic, the cold and heat and rain, have blurred together in my mind. Even then, I wouldn’t remember a job from the day before unless there was something remarkable about it. Remarkable is subjective and changes with every day spent witnessing what people who work in offices will never see — their co-workers at home during the weekday, the American id in its underpants, wondering if it remembered to delete the browsing history.
What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit / London Review of Books
Interesting dispatches from fifteen different countries:
[Belgium] I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades. [Germany] Brexit has contributed to a gradual but tidal change in the way Germans see Europe. On the one hand, it is another element in the chaos they see unfolding around them: the failure of the Arab Spring, the implosion of Syria, the botched intervention in Libya, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the election of Trump and, closer to home, the gilets jaunes. These have only increased the preciousness and value of Europe for Germans. The sense that Europe must be Germany’s future has become, if anything, stronger after Brexit. Discussions about a European army that would have been heretical a decade ago now seem normal in Berlin. On the other hand, Brexit has damaged any lingering German idealism when it comes to the EU. If the question for Germans used to be not whether the European project would be achieved, but when, they now grasp that it will need to be fought for inch by inch. [Greece] Like a patient undergoing impromptu amputation with a handsaw, Greece now gets to overhear the patient with a sprained ankle in the next room curse at the nurses for the uncomfortable wheelchair. The irony is not lost on Greeks that on their road to near-exit, the country’s GDP was gutted by a quarter, and Athens and the islands became refugee staging grounds. The Greek press asks itself what will be the fate of Greek shipowners in London? What will the Aegean do without English holidaymakers throwing up margaritas on its beaches? Among the chattering classes of Kolonaki, one detects occasional pleasure that the British government now resembles a shambolic Greek ministry, rotten with infighting and nonsensical press conferences and disingenuous public pronouncements.
Thirty years ago last Friday, on the darkest day of the year, 31,000 feet above one of the most remote parts of Europe, America suffered its first major terror attack. Ten years ago last Friday, then FBI director Robert Mueller bundled himself in his tan trench coat against the cold December air in Washington, his scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. Sitting on a small stage at Arlington National Cemetery, he scanned the faces arrayed before him—the victims he’d come to know over years, relatives and friends of husbands and wives who would never grow old, college students who would never graduate, business travelers and flight attendants who would never come home. Burned into Mueller’s memory were the small items those victims had left behind, items that he’d seen on the shelves of a small wooden warehouse outside Lockerbie, Scotland, a visit he would never forget: A teenager’s single white sneaker, an unworn Syracuse University sweatshirt, the wrapped Christmas gifts that would never be opened, a lonely teddy bear. [...] For a man with an affinity for speaking in prose, not poetry, a man whose staff was accustomed to orders given in crisp sentences as if they were Marines on the battlefield or under cross-examination from a prosecutor in a courtroom, Mueller’s remarks that day soared in a way unlike almost any other speech he’d deliver. [...] Hand bells tolled for each of the victims as their names were read aloud, 270 names, 270 sets of bells. The investigation, though, was not yet closed. Mueller, although he didn’t know it then, wasn’t done with Pan Am 103. Just months after that speech, the case would test his innate sense of justice and morality in a way that few other cases in his career ever have.
A Metalsmith Makes a Puzzle Box From Scratch / Kottke
This is only five minutes long, and it's beautiful. Watch it -- trust me:
Over the course of two years, metalsmith Seth Gould built a project he calls Coffer, a gorgeous wrought iron puzzle box. Gould made the box from scratch — he forged the metal, machined the bolts, everything! [...] The video above is a short film of Gould making his box filmed by Jesse Beecher. The soundtrack cleverly incorporates the sounds of the workshop (sawing, hammering, flames) into the music, resulting in a particularly artful making-of film.
But if there’s one thing that I’ve never really got to be in this life, it’s just………. regular. It’s just some normal person. It’s just human. Am I a good guy? Yeah, man, I think so — ask about me. Have I made mistakes? Man, who hasn’t? Of course I have. They’ll have to invent a whole new number to find out how many mistakes I’ve made. But it’s the balancing of those ideas, it’s somewhere in between my mistakes and my best self — that’s the real me. That’s the real AI. And I don’t know if y’all have ever really known that dude. Which is mainly what I had wanted to accomplish, I think, when I got this opportunity to do my thing and write an article for The Players’ Tribune. I’m not out here trying to write about Ty Lue, you know what I’m saying? I’m not out here trying to write about practice. I’m tired of these same old topics. Nah, man — to be honest?? I just want to write this as a regular person. It’s like….. “Here are some things about Allen Iverson that I want you to know, by Allen Iverson.” Let’s do that. [...] 1. I love to draw. A lot of people don’t know that about me. See, I’m from the era where dudes would try to talk your ear off on the court: Gary, Reggie, KG, Kobe — that whole generation. And the reason they talked so much? It’s because that was their way of finding an edge. And it’s funny, I guess, because I was never much of a talker like those guys……. but I still found my own way to keep that edge. I’d draw. That’s right — I’d draw. You’d do me wrong, say something I don’t like, get on my bad side? I’d be liable to cartoon you up. And yeah, it’s just what it sounds like: I would take my paper, my pen, that good ink — and I would straight-up bury you. I would draw you as a cartoon, man. And all your worst features, your worst whatevers, I’d just put them on blast. I’m telling you all, it was cold. Nobody out there was (or is!) wanting to be on the wrong end of my pen.
At first, this sounds like a pretty easy question. A magnifying glass concentrates light on a small spot. As many mischevious kids can tell you, a magnifying glass as small as a square inch in size can collect enough light to start a fire. A little Googling will tell you that the Sun is 400,000 times brighter than the Moon, so all we need is a 400,000-square-inch magnifying glass. Right? Wrong. Here's the real answer: You can't start a fire with moonlight no matter how big your magnifying glass is. The reason is kind of subtle. It involves a lot of arguments that sound wrong but aren't, and generally takes you down a rabbit hole of optics.
On the tarmac in Beirut, Lebanon, Mr. Ghosn opened WhatsApp and texted his four children on a group chain labeled “Game of Ghosns,” for his favorite TV show, “Game of Thrones,” the bloody HBO drama about dynasties under siege. “On my way to Tokyo! Love you guys!” Mr. Ghosn texted as his jet lifted off. He never made it to dinner. On Nov. 19, Japanese prosecutors surrounded Mr. Ghosn’s Gulfstream after its arrival and arrested him on allegations that for years he had withheld millions of dollars in income from Nissan’s financial filings. [...] Carlos Ghosn wasn’t supposed to succeed in Japan, but he wasn’t supposed to fail like this. He first made headlines in 1999 when, in a nation known for its distrust of outsiders, Mr. Ghosn, a brash Brazilian-born and Lebanese- and French-educated engineer, showed up in sunglasses and a pinstripe suit with plans to carry out an American-style restructuring of a failing Nissan. The Japanese carmaker had $35 billion in debt, provided lifetime employment to a bloated work force and produced a fleet of the kind of cars you’d dread getting at the rental counter. Mr. Ghosn, then 45 and a vice president at Renault, had helped oversee a turnaround at the middling French automaker, which had agreed to spend $5.4 billion to buy a 36.8 percent stake in Nissan Motors. John Casesa, then a top auto analyst at Merrill Lynch, advised Mr. Ghosn to rent a house in Tokyo rather than buy one. “The widely held consensus was that he would fail, that Nissan wasn’t worth saving and it couldn’t be done,” Mr. Casesa said. At the time, Bob Lutz, the loquacious vice chairman of General Motors, assessed the deal this way: Renault would be better off “taking $5 billion, putting it on a barge and sinking it in the middle of the ocean.” But Mr. Ghosn, with his severe black eyebrows and puffed chest, was undeterred. He closed factories, slashed suppliers, laid off 14 percent of the work force and invested in design. Six years later, Nissan had surpassed Honda to become Japan’s No. 2 automaker, its market capitalization had quintupled and its operating margin had risen tenfold. Altima sedans, Titan pickup trucks and Murano S.U.V.s made Nissan a major player in the United States market — an achievement that Wall Street once deemed impossible. By the early 2000s, Mr. Ghosn was head of the Renault-Nissan alliance and the first person to simultaneously serve as chief executive of two Fortune Global 500 companies, the type of chief executive who even if you didn’t know how to pronounce his name (rhymes with phone), you’d know his products.
Franklin wasn’t the only brilliant mind with some bizarre work habits. Composer Igor Stravinsky stood on his head for fifteen minutes each morning to “clear his brain.” Charles Dickens wrote with a compass so he could be sure he was always facing north. Inventor Nikola Tesla would curl his toes one hundred times on each foot as a way of stimulating his brain cells. Hunchback of Notre-Dame novelist Victor Hugo started his work day by eating two raw eggs, Rocky Balboa-style. David Bowie survived during the mid-1970s on a diet of cocaine, milk, and hot peppers. Einstein refused to wear socks. Are geniuses just more prone to quirky habits, or did their quirks fuel their genius? And if it’s the latter, can you train your brain to think like them? It’s possible, says Scott Barry Kaufman, PhD, the director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Imagination Institute and author of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind. [...] A Cornell University study was pro-warmth, finding that workers at a Florida insurance company made 44 percent more mistakes when the office thermostat was set lower than usual. But researchers at the University of Virginia and University of Houston found the opposite. Subjects performing simple tasks in rooms with warm temperatures “had depleted cognitive resources,” says Vanessa Patrick, the study’s co-author. “But cool temperatures facilitated a more open, abstract and risk-seeking mindset.” [...] A 2005 study in Australia found that being horizontal helped participants solve word puzzles 10 percent faster than those who stood. Darren Lipnicki, PhD, one of the researchers, explains: On your back, “the heart beats slower, and less noradrenaline is released in the brain.”
Aside from the chiefs who ran the organization, probably no one knows more about the Sinaloa drug cartel than Vicente Zambada Niebla. A son of Ismael Zambada García, one of the cartel’s leaders, Mr. Zambada, from an early age, was groomed to take control of the group. But on Thursday, in a spectacular reversal, the cartel prince betrayed his father — and his birthright — testifying for more than five hours about nearly every aspect of the drug-trafficking empire: smuggling routes, money-laundering schemes, bloody wars, personal vendettas and multimillion dollars in bribes. When it came to the enterprise he seemed poised to lead one day, Mr. Zambada proved he knew almost everyone and everything.
No one has yet figured out what rules should govern the new frontiers of public shaming that the Internet has opened. New rules are obviously required. Shame is now both global and permanent, to a degree unprecedented in human history. No more moving to the next town to escape your bad name. However far you go and however long you wait, your disgrace is only ever a Google search away. Getting a humiliating story into the papers used to require convincing an editor to run it, which meant passing their standards of newsworthiness and corroborating evidence. Those gatekeepers are now gone. Most attempts so far to devise new rules have taken ideology as their starting point: Shaming is okay as long as it’s directed at men by women, the powerless against the powerful. But that doesn’t address what to do afterward, if someone is found to have been wrongfully shamed, or when someone rightfully shamed wants to put his life back together. In the essay that got Buruma fired, Ghomeshi claims to have been a pioneer in online shaming. “There are lots of guys more hated than me now. But I was the guy everyone hated first.” Actually, a better candidate for original victim is Justine Sacco, the PR executive who tweeted to her 170 Twitter followers before getting on a plane to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” It was during the Christmas holidays when news is always slow, so a Gawker post about the tweet quickly went viral. People around the world were soon enjoying the suspense of knowing Sacco was on a plane with no Internet access and no way to know that she had become an object of global ridicule. That was in December 2013, almost a year before the Ghomeshi story broke. [...] The solution, then, is not to try to make shame storms well targeted, but to make it so they happen as infrequently as possible. Editors should refuse to run stories that have no value except humiliation, and readers should refuse to click on them. It is, after all, the moral equivalent of contributing your rock to a public stoning. We should all develop a robust sense of what is and is not any of our business. Shame can be useful—and even necessary—but it is toxic unless a relationship exists between two people first.
Reality has a surprising amount of detail / John Salvatier
This was one of the links in the Slate Star Codex piece above, and I thought it was excellent in its own right:
Consider building some basement stairs for a moment. Stairs seem pretty simple at first, and at a high level they are simple, just two long, wide parallel boards (2” x 12” x 16’), some boards for the stairs and an angle bracket on each side to hold up each stair. But as you actually start building you’ll find there’s a surprising amount of nuance. The first thing you’ll notice is that there are actually quite a few subtasks. Even at a high level, you have to cut both ends of the 2x12s at the correct angles; then screw in some u-brackets to the main floor to hold the stairs in place; then screw in the 2x12s into the u-brackets; then attach the angle brackets for the stairs; then screw in the stairs. Next you’ll notice that each of those steps above decomposes into several steps, some of which have some tricky details to them due to the properties of the materials and task and the limitations of yourself and your tools. The first problem you’ll encounter is that cutting your 2x12s to the right angle is a bit complicated because there’s no obvious way to trace the correct angles. You can either get creative (there is a way to trace it), or you can bust out your trig book and figure out how to calculate the angle and position of the cuts. You’ll probably also want to look up what are reasonable angles for stairs. What looks reasonable when you’re cutting and what feels safe can be different. Also, you’re probably going to want to attach a guide for your circular saw when cutting the angle on the 2x12s because the cut has to be pretty straight. [...] At every step and every level there’s an abundance of detail with material consequences. It’s tempting to think ‘So what?’ and dismiss these details as incidental or specific to stair carpentry. And they are specific to stair carpentry; that’s what makes them details. But the existence of a surprising number of meaningful details is not specific to stairs. Surprising detail is a near universal property of getting up close and personal with reality. You can see this everywhere if you look. For example, you’ve probably had the experience of doing something for the first time, maybe growing vegetables or using a Haskell package for the first time, and being frustrated by how many annoying snags there were. Then you got more practice and then you told yourself ‘man, it was so simple all along, I don’t know why I had so much trouble’. We run into a fundamental property of the universe and mistake it for a personal failing. [...] Consider the boiling of water. That’s straightforward, water boils at 100 °C, right? Well the stairs seemed simple too, so let’s double check. Put yourself in the shoes of someone at the start of the 1800’s, with only a crude, unmarked mercury thermometer, trying to figure the physics of temperature. Go to your stove, put some water in a pot, start heating some water, and pay attention as it heats. (I suggest actually doing this) The first thing you’ll probably notice is a lot of small bubbles gathering on the surface of the pot. Is that boiling? The water’s not that hot yet; you can still even stick your finger in. [...] Eventually the bubbles get big and the surface of the water grows turbulent as the bubbles begin to make it to the surface. Finally we seem to have reached real boiling. I guess this is the boiling point? That seems kind of weird, what were the things that happened earlier if not boiling. To make matters worse, if you’d used a glass pot instead of a metal one, the water would boil at a higher temperature. If you cleaned the glass vessel with sulfuric acid, to remove any residue, you’d find that you can heat water substantially more before it boils and when it does boil it boils in little explosions of boiling and the temperature fluctuates unstably. [...] Again, you might think ‘So what? I guess things are complicated but I can just notice the details as I run into them; no need to think specifically about this’. And if you are doing things that are relatively simple, things that humanity has been doing for a long time, this is often true. But if you’re trying to do difficult things, things which are not known to be possible, it is not true.
At a conference in Nairobi two years ago, an engineer visiting from Rotterdam stunned me with how easy it was for his team to order electronic components: an order for a BLE chip placed on Thursday evening would be fulfilled by lunch on Friday. Only a month before that, my colleague and I had spent two weeks waiting for a Bluetooth module for a prototype we were taking to the same conference. And two weeks was fast: we had a relationship with a Sparkfun reseller in Lagos, Nigeria. Most orders for electronic components took, at best, a month to arrive. [...] Supply chain problems in Africa are quite complex, with most of them stemming from the sheer size of the continent. Africa’s land mass is greater than the USA, Europe, and China combined. Within this huge space there are 54 unique markets, few of which provide scale or adequate distribution infrastructure. Further complicating matters, there are over 2,000 languages spoken and very diverse cultural dynamics from one market to the next.
There's a big molecule, a protein, inside the leaves of most plants. It's called Rubisco, which is short for an actual chemical name that's very long and hard to remember. Amanda Cavanagh, a biologist and post-doctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, calls herself a big fan of Rubisco. "It's probably the most abundant protein in the world," she says. It's also super-important. Rubisco has one job. It picks up carbon dioxide from the air, and it uses the carbon to make sugar molecules. It gets the energy to do this from the sun. This is photosynthesis, the process by which plants use sunlight to make food, a foundation of life on Earth. Yay for Rubisco! "But it has what we like to call one fatal flaw," Cavanagh continues. Unfortunately, Rubisco isn't picky enough about what it grabs from the air. It also picks up oxygen. "When it does that, it makes a toxic compound, so the plant has to detoxify it." Plants have a whole complicated chemical assembly line to carry out this detoxification, and the process uses up a lot of energy. This means the plant has less energy for making leaves, or food for us.
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The Newly Released Image Of Ultima Thule, The Farthest Object Ever Explored, Is Mind-Blowing / Digg
That title is not as hyperbolic as you think:
On New Year's Day this year, NASA's New Horizons flew by Ultima Thule, the most distant object ever visited by a spacecraft. The first image of Ultima Thule sent from the spacecraft may have resembled more of a pixelated blob, but it gave us an unprecedented look at the small space object 4 billion miles away from the sun. Now, however, we have a much clearer image of what Ultima Thule actually looks like, thanks to new scientific data sent from New Horizons. It turns out Ultima Thule looks like one big old space snowman.
In a nation where people lead ever more busy lives and increasingly view their dogs as family members, professional dog walking is flourishing. And along with it is what might be viewed as the unusual art of dog walker communication. Many of today’s walkers do not simply stroll — not if they want to be rehired, anyway. Over text and email, they craft fine-grained, delightful narratives tracing the journey from arrival at the residence to drop-off. They report the number of bathroom stops. They take artistic photos, and lots of them.
Swiss artist Zimoun makes large-scale sound sculptures out of simple materials like cardboard boxes, wires, washers, tiny motors, and sticks of wood. Here are a few of his works.