3 stars

A Death at Sea on the 'Row of Life' | Outside

At 59 years old and with a preexisting condition, Paralympic rower Angela Madsen had plenty to worry about as the coronavirus spread across the country. So she dipped the oars of her small rowboat in the Pacific and pointed the bow toward Hawaii. She never returned.


How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart? | New York Times

The civilization at Chaco Canyon thrived for at least five centuries until, beginning around 1100 A.D., its sites were gradually abandoned. In a text destined for a government filing cabinet, Tainter bemoans “the lack of a theoretical framework to explain the phenomenon.” Scholars, he complains, “have spent years of research on the question of why complex societies have developed,” but had devised “no corresponding theories to explain the collapse of these systems.”

It would take him most of the next decade to develop that theory, which became the heart of “The Collapse of Complex Societies.” Tainter’s argument rests on two proposals. The first is that human societies develop complexity, i.e. specialized roles and the institutional structures that coordinate them, in order to solve problems. For an overwhelming majority of the time since the evolution of Homo sapiens, Tainter contends, we organized ourselves in small and relatively egalitarian kinship-based communities. All history since then has been “characterized by a seemingly inexorable trend toward higher levels of complexity, specialization and sociopolitical control.” […]

Something more than the threat of violence would be necessary to hold them together, a delicate balance of symbolic and material benefits that Tainter calls “legitimacy,” the maintenance of which would itself require ever more complex structures, which would become ever less flexible, and more vulnerable, the more they piled up.

His second proposal is based on an idea borrowed from the classical economists of the 18th century. Social complexity, he argues, is inevitably subject to diminishing marginal returns. It costs more and more, in other words, while producing smaller and smaller profits. “It’s a classic ‘Alice in Wonderland’ situation,” Tainter says. You’re “running faster and faster to stay in the same place.”


What If Friendship, Not Marriage, Was at the Center of Life? | The Atlantic

After the relationship ended, West, 31, vowed to never let another man strain her friendship. She decided that any future romantic partners would have to adapt to her friendship with Tillotson, rather than the other way around. West and Tillotson know what convention dictates. “Our boyfriends, our significant others, and our husbands are supposed to be No. 1,” West told me. “Our worlds are backward.” […]

Intimate friendships have not always generated confusion and judgment. The period spanning the 18th to early 20th centuries was the heyday of passionate, devoted same-sex friendships, called “romantic friendships.” Without self-consciousness, American and European women addressed effusive letters to “my love” or “my queen.” Women circulated friendship albums and filled their pages with affectionate verse. […]

One question these friendships raise for people today is: Did they have sex? Writings from this time, even those about romantic relationships, typically lack descriptions of sexual encounters. Perhaps some people used romantic friendship as a cover for an erotic bond. Some scholars in fact suspect that certain pairs had sex, but in most cases, historians—whose research on the topic is largely confined to white, middle-class friends—can’t make definitive claims about what transpired in these friends’ bedrooms. Though we will never know the exact nature of every relationship, it’s clear that this period’s considerably different norms around intimacy allowed for possibilities in friendship that are unusual today.

A blend of social and economic conditions made these committed same-sex friendships acceptable. Men and women of the 19th century operated in distinct social spheres, so it’s hardly shocking that people would form deep attachments to friends of their own gender.


Big Tech Sees Like a State | The Diff

In Seeing Like a State, the anarchist-leaning historian James C. Scott describes this as the fundamental process of government: governments alter behavior in order to tax, conscript, and prevent the rebellion of their citizens/subjects. Scott uses the term “legibility” to understand this. A fully-legible citizen:

  • Lives at a particular location, and has an exact address.

  • Has a specific name.

  • Earns money in a currency which the government understands, and pays taxes in it.

  • Was born on a particular date, and can thus be called up for jury duty or conscription. […]

This is not the default state of human beings. It’s a multi-generational process. Seeing Like a State describes some examples, mostly failed, of governments trying to impose rules. […]

But by far the biggest legibility imposers today are big tech companies. This is a recurring theme in The Diff, and may be the single most common one. Large tech companies create uniform identifiers for everyone they can: if you’re on Facebook, you have a unique ID in their system. If you’re not on Facebook, you’re still in the system, and they are no doubt assiduously trying to come up with reasons for you to finally join. These companies can do better than trying to teach everyone the same language; they can translate on the fly. They compile categorized, tagged, thoroughly-described data on products, people, and pages, and constantly analyze it.

And, for the average person, this is a material quality of life improvement. If you meet someone through a work function and don’t catch their full name, LinkedIn’s advanced search is very likely to narrow the list down; if you meet them socially, Facebook’s friend search, weighted by network proximity and other factors, will also help. Google, of course, surfaces all of the information on the public Internet in a convenient format, and Twitter gives you a real-time feed of it. Amazon makes their merchants use consistent descriptors within a given category, so satisficing on some criterion—cheapest laptop with a particular graphics card, for example—is straightforward.

These companies generally use legibility the same way governments do: to collect taxes.


2 stars

A Nameless Hiker and the Case the Internet Can’t Crack | Wired

The man on the trail went by “Mostly Harmless." He was friendly and said he worked in tech. After he died in his tent, no one could figure out who he was.


How We Discovered Water on the Moon | New Yorker

It was a ten-hour flight from takeoff to landing, wheels up just after 6 p.m., from Palmdale, California, out over the Pacific. For the first nine hours and forty minutes, Casey Honniball, a twenty-seven-year-old planetary scientist, didn’t have much to do. She took a nap, ate a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and used her laptop to work on research proposals. The plane seemed bigger than usual—almost all of the seats had been removed, along with much of the fuselage’s interior panelling—and it was very cold and very loud. In the main cabin, which looked like mission control, her fifteen fellow-passengers worked at alternating intervals behind giant computer consoles. A large blue rotating fixture, resembling a bank-vault door studded with scientific instruments, dominated the plane’s rear wall. It was the interior half of an eight-foot-wide infrared telescope, its mirrors angled out the left side of the plane and into space. Honniball watched its hydraulic counterweight move subtly and ceaselessly, compensating for turbulence.

SOFIA—the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy—is an airborne telescope facility funded jointly by NASA and the German Aerospace Center. Built into a converted 747, it flies at an altitude of between thirty-eight and forty-five thousand feet, putting it above Earth’s layer of water vapor, which might otherwise interfere with observations. Scientists apply for time on it—there are about four hundred hours available each year—by proposing experiments. Honniball’s first application was rejected. She reapplied, and the director of SOFIA agreed to give her some “director’s discretionary time” at the end of the overnight flight departing on August 29, 2018. She would have twenty minutes to search for water on the surface of the moon.


India’s engineers have thrived in Silicon Valley. So has its caste system. | Washington Post

Whenever Benjamin Kaila, a database administrator who immigrated from India to the United States in 1999, applies for a job at a U.S. tech company, he prays that there are no other Indians during the in-person interview. That’s because Kaila is a Dalit, or member of the lowest-ranked castes within India’s system of social hierarchy, formerly referred to as “untouchables.”

Silicon Valley’s diversity issues are well documented: It’s still dominated by White and Asian men, and Black and Latino workers remain underrepresented. But for years, as debates about meritocracy raged on, the tech industry’s reliance on Indian engineers allowed another type of discrimination to fester. And Dalit engineers like Kaila say U.S. employers aren’t equipped to address it.

In more than 100 job interviews for contract work over the past 20 years, Kaila said he got only one job offer when another Indian interviewed him in person. When members of the interview panel have been Indian, Kaila says, he has faced personal questions that seem to be used to suss out whether he’s a member of an upper caste, like most of the Indians working in the tech industry.


The Greek Heliocentric Theory | LessWrong

I had always heard that the Greeks embraced a geocentric universe for common-sense, aesthetic reasons - not scientific ones. But it seems as if the real story is more complicated than that: […]

The Greeks had the right theory (heliocentric solar system) but discarded it on the basis of experimental evidence!


He Already Saw the Election as Good vs. Evil. Then His Tractor Burned. | New York Times

The president’s supporters in places like rural Nebraska say they feel remembered. To them, these four years have brought a sense of belonging in a country led by someone who sticks up for, and understands, their most cherished beliefs. To the more than 50 percent of Americans who disapprove of the president, Mr. Trump can represent division and dishonesty. In Henderson, and many places like it, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s campaign pitch that he is fighting for the soul of the nation simply doesn’t resonate. People here would view its soul as being in jeopardy if he triumphed. […]

“Always look where I am,” a man coached a young girl in coveralls, telling her to stay close as they held hands and wove through the Omaha crowd waiting for Mr. Trump. “But these are Trump supporters. You don’t have to worry.”

That sense of Trumpian kinship permeates rural areas like Henderson, population about 1,000, with its two-block downtown, fiery red oak trees, silver grain elevators and artwork on the side of a building off Main Street that reads “some bigger, none better.”

It’s what made the phone call Mr. Rempel received about two weeks ago from fire officials as he and his wife were readying their children for school all the more shocking. His farm equipment was in flames. The combine, a tractor and two semitrailer trucks parked in a corn field south of town apparently had been set on fire.


Why Are Lines at Polling Places So Long? Math | Wired

The Obama voter protection team showed Pelczarski their spreadsheet and asked him if he could update it. Pelczarski had written his first computer simulation as a high school student in the 1970s, to predict possible outcomes for the World Series. He wrote it in Fortran. On punch cards. So, yeah, he could update the spreadsheet.

“I basically decided to write a simulation program to step little simulated voters through a polling place, based on check-in stations, voting booths, ballot scanners, and all that stuff,” Pelczarski says. “So I spent a lot of time researching what kind of data was available from previous elections. It took a lot of digging.” […]

Fundamentally, the movement of the line is limited by how many resources are available to process the elements in the queue. That’s called a generalized-assignment problem—getting a certain number of jobs done by a certain number of agents in the most efficient way. That problem is NP-hard, which is how mathematicians say “Ooh, yikes.”

Oh, but then an election also has multiple places to vote within a given district. You have a finite number of poll workers, a finite number of voting machines, a finite number of polling stations, and a finite number of voters. If you’re a good election official, you actually know all those numbers except the last one, for which you have a good estimate based on population (assuming the census isn’t screwed up), voter registration, and prior turnout. Now you have to apportion it all. In queuing theory, that’s called a resource allocation problem. It also is not easy.


Who are the real Shy Trumpers? | UnHerd

Republican supporters with degrees tend to work in graduate-dominated environments, where organisations and peers are more likely to enforce norms of political correctness. As a result, it is highly-educated Republican supporters who are most shy about revealing their beliefs at work.

As figure 1 illustrates, 45% of Republicans with degrees, compared to 23% of Democrats with degrees, said they feared that their careers could be at risk if their views became known.

This may explain why the polls didn’t do badly in predicting the white non-graduate vote but failed miserably among white graduates. According to a Pew survey on October 9, Trump was leading Biden by 21 points among white non-graduates but trailing him by 26 points among white graduates. Likewise, a Politico/ABC poll on October 11 found that ‘Trump leads by 26 points among white voters without four-year college degrees, but Biden holds a 31-point lead with white college graduates.’

The exit polls, however, show that Trump ran even among white college graduates 49-49, and even had an edge among white female graduates of 50-49! This puts pre-election surveys out by a whopping 26-31 points among white graduates. By contrast, among whites without degrees, the actual tilt in the election was 64-35, a 29-point gap, which the polls basically got right.


1 star

Here Are The Nine Ways The Election Could End | Slate Star Scratchpad

Apparently Scott Alexander has been writing new content, just not on his main blog. This is a bit silly, but it’s also wonderful:

You are Joseph R. Biden Jr. You sit in a convention center in Delaware, surrounded by advisors and confidantes. You are acutely aware that the hopes of a hundred million people are with you. You feel like they should be more tangible, like being the focus of a hundred million minds should at least make your skin tingle a tiny bit - like being a vessel for so much power should make your skin crack and burst. It does not. You feel nothing at all. Maybe it’s because they don’t really love you. You’re the compromise candidate, you’ve never lied about that to yourself. Maybe if it were Bernie, he would feel the tingling sensation. Barack calls you on the phone, says something encouraging. You almost ask him if he had the tingling sensation, back in ‘08. Instead you mumble something on-message and encouraging. It is Election Day 2020, and you are going to Take Back America.

You are Donald J. Trump. You sit in the White House. Someone asks if you are nervous. You are not. You are a winner. You have smart ideas and you hire the best people to implement them and they go well. Sometimes people say they don’t go well, but that’s because those people are frauds and liars. Everyone said you would lose in 2016 and you won because you are great and you are a winner. You love America and America loves you and you are a winner and you will win and if you don’t win it’s fraud but you will fight the fraud and you will win that fight because you’re a winner. You built the biggest hotels and hosted the most exciting TV shows and beat ISIS and Made America Great Again and now you are going to win re-election. It is Election Day 2020, and you can’t wait to see where winning takes you next.

You are Mike Pence. You are the second most powerful man in the United States. Somewhere inside you, your conscience is screaming. “This is not normal!” screams your conscience, just as it has done the past 1,461 days. You put it back in its box. Sure, your boss is not the most stable man in the world. Sure, he sometimes says offensive, even outrageous things. But you have hitched your wagon to a winner. Nobody ever made an omelette without breaking some eggs. The Supreme Court is 6-3 conservative now, that’s a lot of fetuses who won’t be aborted. Several million fetuses are worth a few awkward press conferences massaging the insane, inane, and the unconscionable into defensible policy positions. Sure, Mitt Romney gets to look all decent and honorable and hasn’t-sold-his-soul-for-thirty-pieces-of-silver in front of the cameras, but how many fetuses has he saved? Probably not several million. And anyhow, you’ve made your choice. Your wagon is hitched beyond anyone’s ability to separate it; there is no longer any action within your own power that could set you free. It is Election Day 2020, and only the American public can save you now.


The Wisdom of the Inner Crowd | Marginal Revolution

Many decisions rest upon people’s ability to make estimates of some unknown quantities. In these judgments, the aggregate estimate of the group is often more accurate than most individual estimates. Remarkably, similar principles apply when aggregating multiple estimates made by the same person – a phenomenon known as the “wisdom of the inner crowd”. The potential contained in such an intervention is enormous and a key challenge is to identify strategies that improve the accuracy of people’s aggregate estimates. Here, we propose the following strategy: combine people’s first estimate with their second estimate made from the perspective of a person they often disagree with.


About this newsletter