Travelling for the next five weeks, so no promises this goes out each Sunday. But travel also means intermittent downtime for reading, so there’s some pretty good stuff here.
[And now Substack is afraid that I’m a spammer, so guess this isn’t going out on Sunday after all…]
I’m pretty late on this (it’s about two months old and got a lot of buzz when it came out); it’s definitely worth reading:
That month, Joshua had read about a new website that had something to do with artificial intelligence and “chatbots.” It was called Project December. There wasn’t much other information, and the site itself explained little, including its name, but he was intrigued enough to pay $5 for an account.
As it turned out, the site was vastly more sophisticated than it first appeared.
Designed by a Bay Area programmer, Project December was powered by one of the world’s most capable artificial intelligence systems, a piece of software known as GPT-3. It knows how to manipulate human language, generating fluent English text in response to a prompt. While digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa also appear to grasp and reproduce English on some level, GPT-3 is far more advanced, able to mimic pretty much any writing style at the flick of a switch. […]
As Joshua continued to experiment, he realized there was no rule preventing him from simulating real people. What would happen, he wondered, if he tried to create a chatbot version of his dead fiancee? […]
That night in September, Joshua hadn’t actually expected it to work. Jessica was so special, so distinct; a chatbot could never replicate her voice, he assumed. Still, he was curious to see what would happen.
And he missed her.
With only a single breath, Alexey Molchanov, history’s most daring freediver, is reaching improbable depths—and discovering a new kind of enlightenment as he conquers one of the world’s wildest sports.
Long, and perhaps long-winded, but very good and rather sobering; I’d been hoping my carnivorous desires could soon be satisfied without guilt:
Splashy headlines have long overshadowed inconvenient truths about biology and economics. Now, extensive new research suggests the industry may be on a billion-dollar crash course with reality.
Lem's 1964 story, published in English for the first time, tells the tale of a scientist in an insane asylum theorizing that the sun is alive.
Imagine that the US was competing in a space race with some third world country, say Zambia, for whatever reason. Americans of course would have orders of magnitude more money to throw at the problem, and the most respected aerospace engineers in the world, with degrees from the best universities and publications in the top journals. Zambia would have none of this. What should our reaction be if, after a decade, Zambia had made more progress?
Obviously, it would call into question the entire field of aerospace engineering. What good were all those Google Scholar pages filled with thousands of citations, all the knowledge gained from our labs and universities, if Western science gets outcompeted by the third world?
For all that has been said about Afghanistan, no one has noticed that this is precisely what just happened to political science.
The natural living barrier was described as "utterly impassable to man or beast", and snaked across India from the Indus River to the Mahanadi. But why doesn't anyone remember it? […]
IIn a second-hand bookstore in London, in late 1994, author Roy Moxham made a discovery that would consume the next three years of his life. Wedged in the footnotes of a colonial-era book published in 1893 that he had just purchased, was a fascinating, long-forgotten piece of Indian history.
In the book Rambles and Recollections of an Indian official by Major General WH Sleeman, in a chapter called Transit Duties in India – Mode of Collecting Them, was a startling reference to a "customs hedge" – a natural barrier that the book described as becoming "gradually a monstrous system to which it would be almost impossible to find a parallel in any tolerably civilised country".
The details about the hedge itself were sparse, but whatever was documented was enough to deeply puzzle Moxham, who had by then made five journeys to India without ever hearing about the hedge. The hedge was allegedly built over a customs line, which the book mentioned was established in 1869 and expanded to stretch across the length of India, covering an estimated 2,300 miles (3,701km) – the distance from London to Istanbul (then Constantinople). It was guarded by 12,000 British officers, at an annual cost of 1,620,000 rupees (£162,000 or $220,716, based on the exchange rate today).
Imagine a postapocalyptic world. Beside the ruined buildings of our own civilization - St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, those really great Art Deco skyscrapers - dwell savages in mud huts. The savages see the buildings every day, but they never compose legends about how they were built by the gods in a lost golden age. No, they say they themselves could totally build things just as good or better. They just choose to build mud huts instead, because they’re more stylish.
This is the setup for my all-time favorite conspiracy theory, Tartaria. Its true believers say we are those savages. We live in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Art Deco skyscrapers, etc. But our buildings look like this:
A new study suggests that a single genetic mutation helps explain why monkeys have tails, while apes and people do not.
Writing fake letters to advice columns could not be considered a good career move; after all, it was unpaid and I wouldn’t even get a byline out of it. On the other hand, it was easy and creatively fulfilling. In my anonymous, fabricated letters to Prudence, I could follow the most demented threads of my imagination without having to anticipate the omnivalent flavors of opprobrium that might rain down on me from YA’s brigade of cultural revolutionaries.
This video just looks cool:
I was taken aback by the bottom line of Mike Andrews new working paper Bar Talk: closing the saloons during prohibition reduced patenting by ~15%. At first, I thought that seemed like a very large decline but bear in mind that saloons were the coffeehouses of the day devoted not just to drinking but to meeting, talking and learning. Indeed, they were much more common than coffeehouses today.
Here is one paper that makes me skeptical:
Exploiting admission thresholds in a Regression Discontinuity Design, we study the causal effects of daycare at age 0–2 on cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes at age 8–14. One additional month in daycare reduces IQ by 0.5% (4.5% of a standard deviation). Effects for conscientiousness are small and imprecisely estimated. […]
More generally, there is the question of whether a society will produce more top performers with the state as nanny, or with the parents as nanny. Maybe we don’t know, but my intuition suggests with the parents.
“City portraits” (2007-2012) is a series of pictures result of a selection of a wider photographic report made during a 6 year long journey that Víctor Enrich made through central Europe and the Middle East. From among all the locations, a special mention goes to the cities of Riga (Latvia), Tel Aviv (Israel) and Munich (Germany), due to longer stays compared to the other ones that were visited.