Busy couple of weeks, so not as many great articles this week (though my backlog has a bunch of promising stuff); also a bit more homogeneity than I’d like.
Here’s how Longreads described this piece:
Go ahead and give Caitlin Dickerson a Pulitzer. Her examination of the Trump administration’s family separation policy is a reporting tour de force and an American horror story that should be read and studied as long as the republic stands. I could only read it in pieces. One go was too much — my heart couldn’t take it. Dickerson shows that some elected officials and bureaucrats acted out of a toxic combination of malice and ambition, while even more did nothing because they were too cowardly or navel-gazing. She holds them all to account, particularly those with children of their own. “‘Can you hold on? My daughter is about to get in her car to leave and I need to kiss her goodbye,’ one government official said as she was in the middle of describing a spreadsheet of hundreds of complaints from parents searching for their children,” Dickerson writes. A single phrase came to mind when I finished reading: “willing executioners.”
Phase 1: Precycle
People start a movement around a weird thing, with no hope of payoff, for sheer love of the thing. They don’t care how many people join, except that maybe they enjoy having more people to talk to about their hobby. There might be fights, but they are nerd fights about technical aspects of the thing. Nobody expects to gain serious status.
Phase 2: Growth
The zeitgeist changes. The thing catches on. Because it’s so new, there is a vast frontier, waiting to be explored. Anyone willing to work hard can go to some virgin tract of ideaspace and start mining it for status. The returns on talent are high. During this phase, the movement grows in three ways.
Forward: People do more of the thing, better. If it’s an artistic movement, they make more art. If it’s an intellectual movement, they discover new things and explore new arguments. If it’s a political movement, they get better-organized and more powerful. Anyone with even a little talent can participate and create something genuinely new. Their work will probably be appreciated within the movement. It might even be appreciated by outsiders, as an example of an exciting new trend.
Upward: People build infrastructure for the movement. They start newsletters. They hold conferences or conventions. They found organizations. Everything is so new, and growing so fast, that even a little talent is enough to succeed. Even if you aren’t an artist yourself, you can still join the art movement, start an art-related newsletter, be the first newsletter to accurately cover the new art form, and make it into the inner circle of the movement, with only a little effort.
Outward: All subcultures are, in a sense, status Ponzi schemes.
Google’s first employee became their Director of Technology and made $900 million. Jesus’s first follower became the Bishop of Rome; one in every thousand people alive is named after him. The first few people to make websites in 1995, blogs in 2005, or YouTube channels in 2015 got outsized followings that they were able to leverage into higher status later on. The first few people to get on board the New Atheist, woke, alt-right, dirtbag left, and intellectual dark web movements all had easy opportunities to become famous; the next few thousand at least had the chance to be well-connected veterans.
I bought this book because of its charming title: 1587, A Year of No Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline.
A year of no significance? It's not often a history book makes me laugh, but that did. Sure, many history books investigate the insignificant, but your typical author doesn't call your attention to it. […]
1587 does seem to me like an essential puzzle piece for anyone trying to get a deeper understanding of Chinese history. It emphasizes how people behaved when things were running true to form, instead of focusing on convulsive and dramatic changes, as history books tend to do. And it casts a glance toward the surprisingly important long-term effects of those seemingly ordinary events.
I mean, it's interesting in its own right that China is one of the oldest civilizations on Earth, but the really unusual aspect of Chinese civilization is how much continuity there's been. Dynasties came and went, and certainly the last century or two have differed greatly from previous millennia, but in some respects it's as if the cultural milieu of the ancient pharaohs continued to thrive as a potent undercurrent of cultural force in modern Egypt. It is difficult to understand the culture of any civilized land without knowing something of its history, but this is especially true in China's case. […]
So what are the takeaways from this study of 1587, the Year of the Pig, a year of no significance?
Well, it looks like even exemplary efforts by multiple talented individuals cannot be relied on to triumph over systemic inertia and entropy.
Was there a missed opportunity to steer the Ming dynasty away from collapse?
Wishing that Wan-li had been more like somebody else doesn’t really count, although it probably would’ve helped if he’d taken any sustained interest in truly becoming a great ruler.
Maybe a coordinated, long-term effort by many people toward a definite goal would’ve done the trick, if they could have avoided looking like a conspiracy, and somehow gotten buy-in from both the Emperor and the Civil Service? Maybe in some alternate universe a Ming-era person discovers that lightning can be tamed like fire - would that have helped? I’m not aware of any experiments with electricity, though they did have gunpowder and printing presses.
But all those sorts of things are about as likely to hasten a dynasty’s collapse as they are to bring about a renaissance.
Imagine if oil companies and environmental activists were both considered part of the broader “fossil fuel community”. Exxon and Shell would be “fossil fuel capabilities”; Greenpeace and the Sierra Club would be “fossil fuel safety” - two equally beloved parts of the rich diverse tapestry of fossil fuel-related work. They would all go to the same parties - fossil fuel community parties - and maybe Greta Thunberg would get bored of protesting climate change and become a coal baron.
This is how AI safety works now. AI capabilities - the work of researching bigger and better AI - is poorly differentiated from AI safety - the work of preventing AI from becoming dangerous. Two of the biggest AI safety teams are at DeepMind and OpenAI, ie the two biggest AI capabilities companies. Some labs straddle the line between capabilities and safety research.
Probably the people at DeepMind and OpenAI think this makes sense. Building AIs and aligning AIs could be complementary goals, like building airplanes and preventing the airplanes from crashing. It sounds superficially plausible.
But a lot of people in AI safety believe that unaligned AI could end the world, that we don’t know how to align AI yet, and that our best chance is to delay superintelligent AI until we do know. Actively working on advancing AI seems like the opposite of that plan.
So far, the current U.S. industrial policy revival has been a bit disappointing on this front. The CHIPS Act lobbed a bunch of money at the semiconductor industry, but this represented a vastly scaled-down bill that chopped out most of the best parts of an earlier version called the Endless Frontier Act. The Endless Frontier Act could have revitalized U.S. scientific research, far beyond the narrow confines of the chip industry, but our congressional leaders simply didn’t see the point.
Well, the point should be obvious now. When China has quantum computers a million times faster than Google’s, satellites that can talk securely with the Earth via quantum entanglement, quantum magnetometers that can (possibly) find our most secret submarines, and autonomous drone swarms that can fly through dense forests, Congress would have to be insane to worry about pinching a few pennies.
The U.S. hasn’t fallen behind in science yet. But in order to avoid falling behind, at least in many key areas, we need to take bold action now.
Dan Price was applauded for paying a minimum salary of $70,000 at his Seattle company and criticizing corporate greed. The adulation helped to hide and enable his behavior.
A disastrous megaflood is coming to California, experts say, and it could be the most expensive natural disaster in history | CNN
Many Californians fear the "Big One," but it might not be what you think.
It's not an earthquake. And it isn't the mega drought. It's actually the exact opposite.
A new study by Science Advances shows climate change has already doubled the chances of a disastrous flood happening in California in the next four decades. And experts say it would be unlike anything anyone alive today has ever experienced.
Britain is in the grip of a new silent health crisis.
For 14 of the past 15 weeks, England and Wales have averaged around 1,000 extra deaths each week, none of which are due to Covid.
If the current trajectory continues, the number of non-Covid excess deaths will soon outstrip deaths from the virus this year – and be even more deadly than the omicron wave.
So what is going on? Experts believe decisions taken by the Government in the earliest stages of the pandemic may now be coming back to bite.
Policies that kept people indoors, scared them away from hospitals and deprived them of treatment and primary care are finally taking their toll.
Prof Robert Dingwall, of Nottingham Trent University, a former government adviser during the pandemic, said: “The picture seems very consistent with what some of us were suggesting from the beginning.
“We are beginning to see the deaths that result from delay and deferment of treatment for other conditions, like cancer and heart disease, and from those associated with poverty and deprivation.
By an express received in town yesterday evening from Paris, we learn that on Thursday the motion for the suspension of the King was discussed, and there appeared against the unhappy Louis a great majority. It was then proposed that he should be prosecuted as a traitor to the state. A long and warm debate, or rather contention, ensued; after which, it was determined that this proposition, with the motion for his suspension, should be reserved until the following day, for final decision; when it was expected he would be formally suspended, and the exercise of the Executive Power invested in the hands of the Commissioners.
Despite what you may believe, Forrest Gump actually had an incredible amount of Visual Effects and these effects didn't just allow Tom Hanks to appear in a variety of historical footage, visual effects were also used for four different reasons... join us as we discover exactly what those reasons are!
Card et al. study the selection of fellows to the prestigious Econometrics Society showing essentially that prior to about 1980 there was modest discrimination against women. Between 1980 and 2005 about equal access but since 2005 a large bias towards women. Not surprising but citation metrics give us a way of comparing selection with achievement.