First, some background: back in 2016, a man living in Parma, Ohio made a parody Facebook page mocking his local police department. An example of the type of post the account hosted was an advertisement for a Pedophile Reform event, where completing a series of ‘no means no’ puzzles and quizzes would allow participants to be “removed from the sex offender registry and accepted as an honorary police officer.”
The Parma police arrested the man responsible for the page, on the basis that he violated a law prohibiting the use of a computer to “disrupt, interrupt, or impair” police services. The man was acquitted, and later filed a lawsuit against the department for violating his rights. Earlier this year the 6th Circuit dismissed his case on the basis that the officers were protected by qualified immunity.
In response, The Onion has filed a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court, urging them to take up the case and clearly rule that parody is a protected form of speech. This writ is one of the most beautiful things that has ever been filed before SCOTUS. It is a work of art. It is simultaneously a completely genuine legal argument and a magnificently fluent parody of supreme court filings. And it’s not just a bit. The writers use their own parody to demonstrate their points, marrying form and function to a degree that is simply magical.
This is the fifteenth page of a convoluted legal filing intended to deconstruct the societal implications of parody, so the reader’s attention is almost certainly wandering. That’s understandable. So here is a paragraph of gripping legal analysis to ensure that every jurist who reads this brief is appropriately impressed by the logic of its argument and the lucidity of its prose: Bona vacantia. De bonis asportatis. Writ of certiorari. De minimis. Jus accrescendi. Forum non conveniens. Corpus juris. Ad hominem tu quoque. Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Quod est demonstrandum. Actus reus. Scandalum magnatum. Pactum reservati dominii.
See what happened? This brief itself went from a discussion of parody’s function—and the quite serious historical and legal arguments in favor of strong protections for parodic speech—to a curveball mocking the way legalese can be both impenetrably boring and belie the hollowness of a legal position. That’s the setup and punchline idea again. It would not have worked quite as well if this brief had said the following: “Hello there, reader, we are about to write an amicus brief about the value of parody. Buckle up, because we’re going to be doing some fairly outré things, including commenting on this text’s form itself!”
If the staff of the Onion were responsible for writing all of the Supreme Court’s opinions, constitutional law would be a much more popular field.
Erik Hoel deservedly captured first prize in ACX’s 2022 book review contest with a review of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. His actual review of the book is perfectly fine, but the real reason to read it is for his final section where he proposes his own theory of why it took so long for humans to develop civilization: the gossip trap.
In brief, Hoel sees prehistorical societies as communities organized primarily via social power. In societies whose institutions depend on the exertion of social power, growing above Dunbar’s Number inevitably creates frictions that lead to splits. It was only once we developed ways of organizing our society that didn’t rely on social power that we were able to function beyond Dunbar’s Number and begin to grow into a true civilization.
Hoel’s main aim is not to enrich our understanding of prehistoric societies. He is much more concerned about what is happening now. Hoel argues that social media has re-introduced a means of governing society via social power even in societies much larger than Dunbar’s Number.
“with the advent of social media, and the resultant triumph of the spread of gossip over Dunbar’s number, we might have just inadvertently performed the equivalent of summoning an Elder God. The ability to organize society through raw social power given back to a species that climbed out of the trap of raw social power only by creating societies large enough they required formal organization. The gossip trap is our first Eldritch Mother, the Garrulous Gorgon With a Thousand Heads, The Beast Made Only of Sound. And if the gossip trap was humanity’s first form of government, and via technology it’s been resurrected once more into the world, how long until it swallows up the entire globe?”
I spent a while being fairly concerned about this theory, but at the end of the day my exercised skepticism of the endless avalanche of takes blaming all our political ills on social media took hold again. Institutions have never been immune to social pressure. I don’t see social media as a paradigm shift in this regard. The egregore of the social media mob does frighten me, but less because I think it will dissolve institutions than because I think it will co-opt them. A fascinating theory to tuck away nonetheless.
Not Just Hot Air
Hydrogen has a bad rap. And not just because of the whole blimp thing. The promise of hydrogen-powered cars completely failed to materialize, and ever since the gas has largely been absent in the popular imagination of our energy future. But Noah Smith argues that hydrogen is quietly preparing to explode (again, not in the blimp sense).
One of the biggest problems with renewable energy is the fact that it is inconsistent. To switch to a fully renewable energy grid, we will need ways to store energy when production is greater than demand, and release it later when it is needed. One way of doing this is by using excess energy to run a current through water, splitting the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen gas, and then storing the hydrogen so it can be burned later as a fuel source.
What is it good for?
Many industrial processes for creating fertilizers and other chemicals require hydrogen gas as an input. Currently, these processes get hydrogen by burning methane, which is bad because it creates CO2 as a byproduct. Switching to pure hydrogen as an input would eliminate these emissions.
One of the most challenging areas to decarbonize is the industrial sector. Factories often have to burn coal, gas, and oil to produce the high intensity, localized heat that they need for their manufacturing processes. These high temperatures cannot always be replicated with electrical heat pumps. Hydrogen gas, however, can be burned in the same way as other natural gases, providing the same industrial heat source without any greenhouse gas emissions.
Hydrogen is also better suited to long-term energy storage than batteries, for reasons that I will admit I do not fully understand. But this will make them an important complement to other energy storage methods, and allow them to serve an important role in grid resilience.
What isn’t it good for?
Pretty much every form of transportation except for shipping would be better served by batteries than by hydrogen. The same also goes for heating buildings. Overall, Smith notes that green hydrogen won’t really let us do anything new that we couldn’t do before. In general, hydrogen should just be thought of as a way to replace the things we already do with a clean alternative. But I’m okay with that.
When will we get it?
Sooner than we think. Smith points to solar power to make this point. “Expert” forecasts of solar energy have consistently failed to predict soaring solar capacity driven by rapidly falling prices. Smith thinks the same thing is likely to happen with hydrogen. The final section of his review is devoted to the progress we are making in electrolyzers, the key technology behind hydrogen generation. As we scale the associated learning curve, progress is becoming increasingly rapid and prices are likely to start cratering in the same way they have for wind and solar.
In the war between the climate doomers and the techno optimists, I remain firmly on the fence of epistemic learned helplessness, but I think this all counts as undeniably good news.
In theory, pensions are immune to bank runs. In contrast to banks or investor funds, where depositors can withdraw their money at any time (including during scares which cause so many withdrawals that the organization can’t handle it and collapses), pension funds only allow withdrawals after an allotted period of time. They can’t be forced to sell out their position early. This means that in theory they can weather short-term crises without much damage.
This is great! However, in practice a combination of forces including strange accounting rules, pressure from regulators, and cost considerations incentivize pensions to leverage themselves in order to hedge against interest rate shifts. Once they do this, they are suddenly susceptible bank runs again. This is why a bunch of UK pensions almost collapsed last week, forcing the Bank of England to step in and prevent a financial meltdown.
I know this is bad but I find something aesthetically beautiful about it. If you have a pot of money that is immune to bank runs, over time, modern finance will find a way to make it vulnerable to bank runs. That is an emergent property of modern finance. No one sits down and says “let’s make pension funds vulnerable to bank runs!” Finance, as an abstract entity, just sort of does that on its own.
Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the specter of genius!
1) The Prepared interviews Thomas Thwaites, who set out on a 9 month project to try and recreate a toaster from scratch. A fascinating prompt for meditating on all that we take for granted about the economy’s specialization of engineering knowledge, and of the likely insurmountable challenges that would face any group of humans trying to re-start civilization after a near-extinction event.
3)YouTube May Force You to Watch 10 (or More) Unskippable Ads in a Row – Ted Gioia reflects on news that YouTube is testing a feature that would force users to watch 12 unskippable ads before getting to their video. He argues against the consensus view, that advertisements are evil because they unconsciously manipulate us, and instead argues that ad platforms like Google want the ads to be boring, because what they’re really after are premium subscriptions.
Avatar – It is uncool to like Avatar. It’s story lacks a single beat of originality. Its politics are admirable, but ham-fisted. Its only innovation was in the scale of its spectacle, a value that has lost much of its shine in the age of the MCU. The only acceptable Take on the movie these days is smugly pointing out how little of an impression it ended up making in our collective cultural memory.
All of these things are true. And I could not care less. I love Avatar. With all my being, I truly love it. The implicit promise that every movie makes to its audience is to transport them to another world. After Avatar, all other movies get half credit at best. And not just because Avatar literally takes place on an alien planet. To watch Avatar is to spend three hours immersed in an experience of such triumphant beauty, scope, and richness that even nearly 15 years later no other film has managed to come within a league of matching it.
There is a reason why there were stories of people experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts after leaving their first viewings back in 2009. I experienced this melancholy myself on the way home from a showing of its re-release last week. Some may scoff at those who respond this way, seeing it as evidence of a spiritually desiccated audience with an unhealthy relationship to fantasy. I pity these people. Seeing Avatar again on the big screen filled me with awe till I felt I would burst. To be able to fully give myself over to this feeling and lose myself in the epic revelation of its world has brought me inexpressible joy. I am so grateful to live in a world in which Avatar exists, even in moments when its brilliance makes reality seem dull. The sequel cannot come soon enough. 10/10
Trailer of the Week
Babylon – Every year has its obligatory Oscar-baiting film about LA, Hollywood, and the movie business. Recently we’ve been lucky with these, getting phenomenal Licorice Pizza, Mank, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Babylon seems to be this year’s entry, and if the trailer is indication, it doesn’t seem likely to break the streak.
Short Film of the Week
Stutterer – In honor of Matthew Needham’s emergence as the wonderfully sinister Larys Strong in this week’s House of the Dragon, I thought it appropriate to dig up the terrific short he featured in about a man with a severe stutter who is suddenly thrown into anxiety when the woman he has fostered an online romance with announces that she will come for a visit.
Music of the Week
Pianist and music YouTuber Nahre Sol plays Autumn Leaves in the style of 10 different classical composers. I’m a bit partial to the Mendelssohn version, I think, though I did also love the Glass.
Tweet of the Week
Beautiful Thing of the Week
Rational Thoughtof the Week
Applied Divinity Studies notes that the Repugnant Conclusion (the idea that the ultimate result of trying to maximize total happiness would be to create a world filled with an enormous number of people whose lives are just barely worth living) is actually a vision of Nirvana:
“There is nothing bad in each of these lives; but there is little happiness, and little else that is good. The people in Z never suffer; but all they have is muzak and potatoes.” – Derek Parfit [describing the repugnant conclusion] … Although it sounds mundane, I contend that this is nearly incomprehensible. Can you actually imagine what it would be like to never have anything bad happen to you? We don’t describe such a [life] as mediocre, we describe it as “charmed” or “overwhelmingly privileged”. These are lives with no pain, no loneliness or depression, no loss or fear, no anxiety, no aging, no disease, nor decay… It is thus less the world of peasants, and closer to that of subdued paradise. The closest analog we can imagine is perhaps a Buddhist sanctuary, each member so permanently, universally and profoundly enlightened that they no longer experience suffering of any kind.
Putting the broader question of population ethics aside, I think there’s an important difference between a world in which the total net happiness sums to just a fraction over 0, and a world where suffering = 0 and happiness equals a fraction over 0. Nevertheless, I think this is a very insightful reframing. But my main reaction to this piece is to lament how thin our vocabulary for these concepts is, and how narrow a perspective they take. I think that properly shifting this thought experiment away from its EA origins and into an Eastern lens would require a much more fundamental change in how we think about concepts like happiness and suffering. I’m not yet wise enough to attempt the task myself, but I have a feeling that if someone did, the problem would not be solved so much as it would simply cease to be a problem at all.
Wrongthinkof the Week
N.S. Lyons observes that the New Right is becoming the center of a new counterculture, upending decades of precedent in which the Left was the natural home of cultural rebels. This shift is occurring as progressivism assumes its position as the new establishment, flipping the table and leaving Leftists as the ones who are now responsible for enforcing the kind of stifling orthodoxy that inevitably breeds discontent.
Reason 1 for why this happened: young people are miserable, making them question the value of the regime they live under, and leaving them susceptible to alternate ideologies.
Young people living under the permanent revolution of today’s cultural mainstream often tend to be miserable. Their disillusionment opens the door to subversive second thoughts on such verities as the bulldozing of sexual and gender norms, the replacement of romance by a Tinder hellscape, general atomized rootlessness, working life that resembles neo-feudal serfdom, and the enervating meaninglessness of consumerism and mass media. In this environment, the most countercultural act is to embrace traditional values and ways of life—like the vogue among some young people for the Latin Mass. We shouldn’t be too surprised if at least a subset of those youth seeking to rebel against the Man might, say, choose to tune in to Jordan Peterson, turn on to a latent thirst for objective truth and beauty, and drop out of the postmodern Left.
Reason 2 for why this happened: Leftism has become intellectually sterile.
much of American society’s genuine intellectual, artistic, and comedic energy—the kind of creative fire that draws bright young minds—has migrated to the Right. As the populist academic Michael Lind recently argued, “If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star,” since at this point “intellectual life on the American center-left is dead.” The spirit of adventure and debate that once drove the Left has, as he wrote, “been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned,” while the mainstream marketplace of ideas is now filled with “the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds.”
Reason 3 for why this happened: the New Right is filled with humor and intellectual dynamism, creating a natural attraction for smart young elites.
In contrast with this oppressive decadence of the mainstream Left, the dialectic of the countercultural Right crackles with irreverence and intellectual possibility. Across a growing ecosystem of YouTube videos, Twitter threads, Substack essays, online book clubs, and three-hour podcasts, exiles from the mainstream are looking to broaden their horizons, not only seeking alternative media but also excitedly discovering Christopher Lasch, debating John Locke, and discoursing on Livy. A hunger for forbidden knowledge and a yearning for genuine answers on political and cultural phenomena cloaked in official gaslighting has produced a legion of autodidacts, unrestrained by elite gatekeepers. And, finding themselves already outside the window of acceptability, and therefore no longer fettered by encrusted ideological orthodoxies or the need for self-censorship, many of these dissidents have no remaining reason to hesitate in pointing out when an establishment emperor has no clothes.
Lyons cautions against making too much of this trend, however. Merely grabbing back some proportion of cultural power will not, in itself, achieve the New Right’s political goals. No more than successfully electing representatives like Trump was enough to achieve the new right’s goals. For the New Right to actually re-direct the regime would require seizing power within the state, which is a question of personnel. The success or failure of the New Right will be determined by whether they are able to develop a counter-elite (Yarvin’s dark elves) that can gain and maintain institutional power.
The only practical way forward for the populist Right, then, is to develop a counter-elite—operating in parallel under a different political formula and leveraging a different cultural currency—from which new leadership could staff positions of institutional power. These new elites could eventually come from anywhere, and from any social or economic class. But conversion from within the existing managerial class—in other words, the cultivation of “class traitors”—would produce the quickest results. The development of a counterculture attractive among the young and educated, up-and-coming elite is the best possible means to accomplish this. It is, after all, the path by which the hippies of the 1960s eventually acquired power. This is the true potential value of a right-wing counterculture.
My take: I think an active equilibrium of the left and right cycling through the roles of Establishment and Rebellion is probably healthy for culture. It keeps either from being able to rest on their laurels. I often fret about the direction of our memeplex, but this piece has made me feel slightly more at ease in the way I often do after sitting for a while with the Tao Te Ching. There is a separate question of whether, regardless of the long-term suitability of this dynamic, the current moment of this cycle that we find ourselves in is the right one for the challenges we will be facing in the near future. On this, I will continue to fret.
Discourse Take of the Week
Zvi comments on the phenomenon of climate justice advocates opposing policies that would advance climate goals when those policies would involve working with fossil fuel providers rather than against them:
My current understanding of how groups like this work is that they think this way: What is important is the sacred value of Justice, which means the suffering of bad monkeys. The bad monkeys must be punished and the Sacrifices to the Gods must be made. No amount of good outcomes, no amount of making the world better and people’s lives better, including the very people you claim to be advocating for, can hold a candle to that. Climate here means ‘punish monkeys that are bad on climate.’ Also important to this model: Everyone is a bad monkey.
I’m even more cynical. I suspect that even the sacred value of Justice is a secondary concern to simple tribal psychology. The bad monkeys must be punished because they’re the outgroup. No further justification is really even necessary. The sacred value of Justice is just the ex-post rationalization of chimp politics.
1) I can’t wait to be a parent for many reasons, but one of them is the satisfaction I will gain from aggressively bucking this trend.
2)The Shirky Principle – “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” — Clay Shirky.
3) We’re getting better at building models of complex systems that change slowly, then very suddenly. This seems like a very important area for us to be making progress!
Industrial parks, particularly in Europe and Asia, are increasingly adopting circular economy approaches, enabling companies to make use of each others’ waste products, surplus energy, and other by-products through contract-based agreements… The Asnaes combined heat and power station, for example, provides inputs for multiple other businesses: its process steam is used by an oil refinery and two biotechnology companies, ash is used by construction and cement companies, gypsum from its sulfur scrubbers is made into plasterboard, its cooling water is used in aquaculture, and its lime is used as farming fertilizer. Over the past five years, the Symbiosis project has prevented the use of 4 million cubic meters of groundwater, cut CO2 emissions by over half a million tonnes, and recycled 62,000 tonnes of residual materials.
5) From a story about the former EV startup CEO Trevor Milton, who is currently on trial for fraud (h/t Matt Levine):
“In one tweet, Mr. Milton wrote that the Badger would have a drinking fountain using the water created by the truck’s hydrogen fuel cell. Days later, Mr. Milton typed “can you drink water from a fuel cell?” into an internet search, prosecutors alleged.”
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week.
I watched Bodies Bodies Bodies, Three Thousand Years of Longing, and Nope this week, but didn’t have time to finish writing up my thoughts. I’ll have some words on each next week.
Livingis an upcoming British remake of Kurosawa’s greatest masterpiece, Ikiru, which tells the story of an ageing bureaucrat who, upon receiving a terminal diagnosis of stomach cancer, realizes how empty his life has been and resolves to do one meaningful thing before he is gone. Ikiru itself was an adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and is possibly the greatest work of humanism ever created (and my second favorite movie of all time).
I saw Living at the beginning of the year at an online viewing put on by Sundance, and can confirm that while it doesn’t quite equal Ikiru (not that that was ever a real possibility), it comes joyously close. In particular, it would be impossible to over-praise Bill Nighy for his work in the lead role. The plot beats remain almost exactly the same, but this is a good thing, and there is enough flair in the cinematography to keep things fresh even for those who are quite familiar with the original.
Too Big to Ask If You’d Fail
Courtesy of Matt Levine: Tether is a stablecoin whose value proposition is that it is able to grease the rails of the roughly $1 trillion cryptocurrency market by issuing a token that all parties trust can always be redeemed for $1. This trust is based on Tether’s promise that each coin is 100.3% backed by safe assets. However, the company consistently refuse a public audit that would reveal the exact basket of assets they hold. This means it is very likely that tether isn’t 100.3% backed, but maybe 98% backed, especially since at least 10% of those ‘safe assets’ are in crypto which… hasn’t done super great lately.
For a bank, this revelation would mean insolvency, a bank run, the collapse of the fund, and a possible systemic crisis. But for Tether, it’s likely that even if its under-secured status were formally acknowledged, big crypto investors would just shrug and keep valuing each tether at $1 because the alternative would be a collapse of the ecosystem.
I am reminded of a previous Matt Levine insight about proposals to switch to the algorithmic settlement of margin loans. The idea: Whenever an account begins to run low, software sends out a margin call to the owner demanding more funds. If those funds aren’t received in a certain amount of time, the software would automatically liquidate the assets. By automating the margin call process, you remove the risk that borrowers’ insolvency problems may be left unresolved to compound in the shadows and threaten systemic collapse when they are revealed. But this comes at the cost of eliminating slack in the system and preventing the informal settlement of numerous small-scale issues in more productive ways, unnecessarily increasing the total number of defaults.
In June, I expressed concern about the long-term consequences of losing this slack in our financial system, but now I feel confronted with the other side of the coin. Maybe taking a gamble on Tether being able to just figure things out eventually is the right one, and pulling the trigger too early would be both unnecessarily damaging to the crypto ecosystem. But it’s also possible that avoidance of a devastating but not existentially threatening collapse of Tether now will lead to an actually existential series of failures tomorrow. All I can do is hope, and slide a little further into cynicism about crypto’s potential to be a genuinely revolutionary departure from traditional finance.
Speaking of crypto: in about two weeks Ethereum will be switching to Proof of Stake, and all the crypto world is abuzz with nervous excitement. Getting over the obvious – yes, this will reduce Ethereum’s electricity use by over 99% and save lots of trees – the merge serves as a useful moment to take a step back and consider the nature of power in the Ethereum ecosystem, and how that power may evolve.
Miles Suter’s twitter thread serves as a good encapsulation of the criticisms that crypto purists are leveling against Ethereum right now:
In summary: Ethereum may be decentralized in theory, but in practice its ecosystem is dominated by a small number of actors (Circle, Tether, etc.) with outsized influence over the defi projects that generate most of the Ethereum’s value. This gives them de facto veto power over any major changes to the network, since everyone will just follow their lead or risk jeopardizing the wealth they have accumulated. The result of all of this is that Ethereum becomes little more than yet another oligarchic financial institution. Further, Suter argues that the shift to proof of stake will concentrate the power to validate new transactions in the hands of a small number of US institutions, making it virtually certain that US regulators will be able to pressure a majority of validators into censoring the Ethereum chain.
Lets take these two arguments one at a time. First, censorship. On this, the crypto community is primarily reacting against the recent Treasury Department sanctions of Tornado Cash, a mixing service that anonymizes crypto payments and is frequently used for money laundering by entities like the North Korean government.
The problem with sanctioning a crypto service is that it is little more than a piece of code. There is no CEO to go after and no HQ to raid. Developers may have built the service initially, but by design the code is impossible to control once it has been released. The only way to operationalize sanctions against a service like Tornado Cash are by going after the users who interact with it. And this is exactly what Treasury has done – ConsenSys, a US-based company whose Infura API facilitates over 99% of Ethereum transactions, is now blocking any ether that has touched the wallet addresses that OFAC blacklisted. Circle, similarly, has blacklisted all Tornado Cash addresses and frozen 75,000 of their stablecoin USDC.
Suter argues that the switch to proof of stake will make Ethereum even more susceptible to regulatory pressure, because suddenly ordinary validators will have a direct hand in approving transactions between banned addresses in a way they never did under proof of work. As over 70% of Ethereum’s staking power will be located in the US, and thus be within reach of Treasury enforcement, the inevitable result of this shift will be widespread self-censorship and the loss of crypto’s dream of regulatory independence.
I’m not sure what to make of this argument. It isn’t fully obvious to me that validators in a POS system are really that much more vulnerable to regulatory action than miners in a POW system. I may simply be ignorant, but I haven’t seen a clear explanation for why Treasury couldn’t pursue Bitcoin mining pools in the same way as Suter predicts them going after Ethereum validators. But I’m not sure it even matters. As the examples of ConsenSys and Circle above show, there are already enough points of centralization in Ethereum for Treasury to be able to exert their will when the need arises. It isn’t clear to me that Treasury action against validator pools would materially change the level of censorship that exists now.
Voting With Your Ponzi Scheme
Suter’s second argument involves the power of the DeFi giants. I think this point is largely beyond argument. For one, just look at the story above about Tether’s probable insolvency, which everyone is just pretending not to notice for fear of rocking the boat. I am confused, though, about how Suter thinks it would be possible to have a successful blockchain that was free from this problem.
The freedom to fork a blockchain is a fundamental one within crypto communities. It serves as the mechanism by which crypto users can exercise their right of exit. At any point a group of users think that a different type of network would better serve their interests, they can just make the switch. The two networks will compete for users, and whichever one better serves their interests will survive and thrive. Suter casts the DeFi giants as interlopers putting their thumbs on the scale. But it is equally possible to view them as the value that users see in the network. Users want to side with the DeFi projects because those are the projects that best serve their interests. The prioritization of DeFi’s needs, then, is a reflection of the genuine will of the users.
Of course, it’s always possible that the users want the wrong thing. Suter may argue that he is simply worried about users prioritizing their short-term interests and locking themselves into a network that will eventually be used against them. I’m sympathetic to this argument, but even if he turned out to be right, I don’t see how his position is sustainable. In order to prevent any small group of users from having the level of power he sees in DeFi today, you would have to design some mechanism to ensure that no actor was ever too successful in the ecosystem. Any network designed this way, it seems to me, would inevitably be outcompeted by an ecosystem less scrupulous about exploiting network effects and economies of scale.
I still have a fair number of questions about the merge, but in general I have a hard time seeing it as anything other than an upgrade. But I will say that exploring the controversy around it has caused me to appreciate the bitcoin maximalist position more than I did before. Once you give an inch you give a mile. It’s either radical purity or a slow slide into crypto just becoming a slightly shinier flavor of the financial system we already have. But I’m simply not convinced that a crypto maximalist world would be better.
Toil and Trouble
J.K. Rowling is back in the news again, this time for writing a book where a character is harassed and later murdered by trans activists. This has struck a lot of people as… a bit too on the nose, and has inspired the expected social media flame-up.
All of this spurred me to go back and re-read the essay she wrote back in 2020 explaining her position on transgender issues. And because I’m tired of coming back to reread this again and again in order to re-familiarize myself with its arguments and what I think about it, I decided to write down a summary this time to make it quicker for me to in the future.
The Shouting Class
Much of the essay pushes not against the content of trans activism, but rather the toxic and abusive form it often takes. If considered coldly, I think this argument should be uncontroversial to all but the most blind of progressive ideologues. Even the trans YouTuber Natalie Wynn, in a 90 minute video otherwise dedicated to dissecting all the various ways J.K. Rowling is transphobic, goes to admirable lengths to emphasize her sympathy for the plight of Rowling as the victim of harassment and abuse. But staying at this level of criticism doesn’t get us far. Yes, yes, everyone should be nicer to one another online. But then what?
Someone’s In Here
In terms of Rowling’s criticisms of the actual content of trans activism, this seems to be divided along three lines. The first is centered on her deep discomfort/fear/revulsion at the idea of letting biological males into female spaces. This is personified in the specter of the bathroom predator whose inhibitions will be unleashed once their presence in women’s restrooms can no longer be questioned.
I had already been quite skeptical that this represents a real risk for women today, but Natalie Wynn put the nail in the coffin for me when she pointed out in her video that even with the norms we have now, there isn’t exactly anything stopping a man from stalking a woman into a bathroom and assaulting her. There’s no lock on women’ restrooms requiring you to swipe a gender card to get in. Put this way, it becomes even clearer how much this argument is simply a gut disgust reaction retroactively justified as a safety concern.
It would be easier to take Rowling seriously if she got off this point, and I really wish she would. But the fact she went so far as to install a cross-dressing serial killer as the antagonist of her previous book does not inspire confidence that this will ever become less of an obsession for her.
The Kids Aren’t All Right
Her second criticism is about the welfare of trans youth. Essentially, this boils down to the belief that the current trans movement is largely social contagion, and it is leading a lot of young people to rush into transition in ways they may later regret. This may be because they realize after transitioning that they have made a mistake, and cannot reverse some of the effects of their treatments, or because their transition offers them an unhealthy escape from having to confront and process complexities about themselves.
I don’t think we should immediately dismiss the first question about de-transition. I think it’s clear that the current rise in trans identification in youth is at least somewhat (I suspect mostly) due to social contagion. I don’t think acknowledging this de-legitimizes the trans community. I think it’s simply the logical conclusion of the belief that gender is a social construct. If you believe that, you have to admit that gender identity is subject to social forces. I don’t think this insight carries any real normative power, though, because basically every aspect of identity is subject to social forces. But I think it’s an important starting point for evaluating social dynamics that unfortunately seems to be trapped in a weak man standoff.
From my cultural vantage point, which is admittedly blue tribe shaded, it seems clear that the prevailing winds of culture right now are blowing towards LGBT identification. I think it’s simply foolish to believe that the end result of this won’t be some number of youths allowing themselves to be carried away by these winds and later regretting where they end up. That being said, I don’t know the data well enough to judge how big of a problem de-transitioning actually is, and I’m skeptical that the net effect of greater access to gender transition therapy has been as negative as gender critical feminists/TERFs seem to claim. I think there’s an important discussion to be had around the extent of medical gatekeeping that should exist for those seeking gender transition, but I don’t know if its possible to have that in any productive way right now.
At the end of the day, I’m reminded of Natalie Wynn’s argument in her transtrenders video where she argues that the best response to fears of de-transitioning is to make non-binary identification as attractive as possible for anyone questioning their gender identity. This would give people some breathing room and from feeling forced into making life-changing decisions too quickly. I think this is probably the right stance, contingent on the resolution of the real normative question at play here – would a society oriented around the meme of gender fluidity better enable human flourishing than one oriented around a strict gender binary?
This question is what Rowling seems to be driving at by arguing that transition may offer an unhealthy escape for troubled youths. In her essay, Rowling describes her own troubled childhood, and how she thinks she may have been tempted to consider gender transition if she were born today in order to escape the various issues that plagued her during her adolescence. But ultimately, Rowling believes it was valuable for her to be forced to work through these issues and build a positive identity for herself as a woman. She fears that if other girls miss out on this experience by instead taking the gender transition escape hatch, it will only make it harder for them to work through their issues.
I’m sympathetic to this argument insofar as I am drawn to the idea that one’s mental health is largely one’s own responsibility to manage, and that there are no shortcuts to finding peace with yourself. I believe there will inevitably be individuals who pursue gender transition out of the false belief that it will be some kind of panacea for their mental health issues, and that these people will be making a serious mistake. But I also agree with Natalie Wynn in her video when she argues that Rowling clearly seems to be projecting her problems onto all prospective trans youth. Everyone’s journey is different, and I think Rowling is overconfident in the way she tries to extrapolate from her own experiences to answer the question of what will work for everybody else.
I realize that “things are complicated” is not a satisfying conclusion, but I don’t know if I really ended up anywhere else on this argument. In general, I think I’d feel confident in saying that I think Rowling’s arguments should be taken more seriously than they currently are in most ‘polite’ circles, but that I’m still wary of riding them off a cliff.
The shadow in the background of all of this, though, is the normative question I have deliberately avoided – is a gender fluid society more conducive to human flourishing? I have not yet made up my mind, but much hinges on the answer.
Feminism For All
Her final argument is that trans activism undermines feminism. Exactly how she thinks this is happening is not fully clear to me. Rowling says she thinks the trans movement “is doing demonstrable harm in seeking to erode ‘woman’ as a political and biological class.” But she doesn’t present examples of harm beyond “I don’t like being called a person who menstruates.” Which, yeah, fair. I wouldn’t either. But I still feel unclear as to how the political project of feminism is specifically held back by including trans women.
Perhaps its an organizational cohesiveness argument – women are less likely to contribute and organize if they feel that the organizations and asks don’t reflect them and their experience? Or maybe it is a concern that the trans movement will rob the feminist movement of women who identify strongly enough with that label to commit themselves to advancing the movement’s political objectives. Or perhaps it’s simply about the idea that if feminism becomes stretched and forced to engage in a whole new set of battles, that will dilute its impact and make it less effective at fighting along its primary front. I am willing to take these argument seriously, but I’d like to understand better the precise concerns that Rowling has.
At the end of the day, it seems clear to me that the problem that Rowling and her supporters have is not really about sexual assault, youth welfare, or political advocacy. It’s about the fact that people rely on socially constructed categories like ‘woman’ to make sense of their lives and give it meaning. When those categories change, the meaning framework that people have built up around them are jeopardized. As Rowling went to great lengths to emphasize in her essay, the label ‘woman’ is central to who she is. Disruption to this pillar is an existential threat to her self-conception.
In her video, Natalie Wynn argues that the distinctive psychological experience of bigotry is not feeling hatred for another group, but rather feeling threatened by them. I think this is true, but I think she stopped too short. She thinks bigotry is primarily a reaction to the political threat of being displaced by the rise of a rival group, but I think the fear goes even deeper. It is a reaction to the psychological threat of having one’s sense of self and one’s means of relating with others be dissolved. I think a deeper respect for this fact should lead to greater empathy for the feminists who have resisted the trans movement. But I also think that this fact should lead feminists to have more empathy for the trans community, who understandably wish to also take shelter in the meaning framework that womanhood and feminism offer. Eventually these groups will have to find a way to reconcile their competing goals. Hopefully with more compassion and grace than has been showcased to date.
Both have some truth, but inclined to think that Stephan’s point is true-er. Time will tell.
There’s an old story about Van Halen, and how they wanted a bowl of M&Ms in the dressing room at their concerts, with all the brown ones picked out.
On the surface, this seems like an onerous, even ridiculous request, but it serves a deeper purpose.
Van Halen put on an enormously complex show, and a lot of work and safety precautions went into it.
By putting brown M&M removal in the contract, the band could quickly assess whether or not the venue had taken care with their complex instructions.
It was a marker of trust.
If there are no brown M&Ms, there’s a good chance things are in order. But if there are brown M&Ms, it’s time to start looking around for bigger, more dangerous flaws.
3) L.M. Sacacas muses on the question of what is to be done about the harms produced by the way technology has and will affect our society. Sacacas isn’t interested in listing specific reforms, but instead on tackling the broader criticism that “in the face of large scale and systemic problems, calling for individual action is less than useless, it is effectively counter-productive.” His response (emphasis mine):
“I’m willing to grant the essence of this line of thought, but here’s what I can’t get around. I still have to get up tomorrow morning and figure out what to do, and so do you. You and I do have choices to make. The choices are constrained, but real. I can make better or worse decisions. And, as I see it, I have an obligation—to myself, my family, my community—to make the best possible choices with whatever degree of clarity and agency I’m granted.”
We’re already starting to see examples of this, like Summer Island, a comic that only exists because the writer was able to use AI to generate all of its illustrations. It seems that the short-term effect of AI will be to put artists out of work, but expand the opportunities for other types of storytellers. Medium-term, I think all creatives are in for a hard time.
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week.
I spent the month of July in India visiting a friend, traveling first through Himachal Pradesh and then through New Delhi and Gujarat. I won’t share my full travelogue, but a few misc. impressions and amusements are copied out below:
1) One underrated way to judge a society is by how much effort it puts into making the small, unimportant things beautiful (credit for pointing this out to my goes to my friend, who thinks quite a lot about this sort of thing). In that spirit, I present a Kullui bus stop:
2) There is a William Carlos Williams poem:
When I was younger it was plain to me I must make something of myself. Older now I walk back streets admiring the houses of the very poor: roof out of line with sides the yards cluttered with old chicken wire, ashes, furniture gone wrong; the fences and outhouses built of barrel staves and parts of boxes, all, if I am fortunate, smeared a bluish green that properly weathered pleases me best of all colors
No one will believe this of vast import to the nation.
I found the bluish green!
3) Having a conversation with an Indian fellow in a café who was writing a treatise on “theogrammatical topology and semantic spacetime”, who insisted that over a thousand years ago a group of wise men slowed their consciousness down and attuned with quantum acoustics so as to deliver us 3000 sutras that serve as quantum algorithms represented in Sanskrit. Dear reader, I am here to inform you that every visual stereotype you just assumed about this man while reading the previous sentence is precisely accurate. Especially if you also made the leap to imagining him sitting next to his western girlfriend, whose primary contribution to the conversation was a persistent, reverent nod. He encouraged us to follow him on Instagram.
4) The mountains:
5) The pizza delivery guy who showed up one afternoon in the courtyard of the Key Monastery (the complex in the top photo), much to the bemusement of the head monk.
6) Cybercity, a corporate park outside of Delhi whose name, unbelievably, I did not just make up:
7) The museum advertising a display of traditional Himachali hookahs as “different types of Hubble Bubble”
8) The palatial dress shops that clothe the wedding parties of Delhi’s upper crust, which my friend and I bluffed our way into and then snuck pictures of because it was more fun than going to art galleries.
9) The temples, both inside and out:
10) A new police PR campaign?
Quick highlights from some of the movies I watched or re-watched over the last month:
Richard Jewell – This ended up being far more interesting than I had anticipated going in (by now I should have learned to give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt) but by the end I felt like it all just kind of… melted. It was clearly aware of the density of important ideas it had accumulated by the end of its runtime, but I’m not sure I felt like the movie really landed any of them. Although maybe that is asking too much of it. 7.5/10
Rang De Basanti – Has the most aggressively 00’s aesthetic I’ve ever seen, but once I got past that I really appreciated its heart. I can see how this could inspire a generation of young Indians. Does Hollywood have an equivalent to this? The Trial of the Chicago 7 seems a recent example, but it starts with its protagonists already in the thick of things. Is there a movie where the specific arc is watching your protagonists go from apathetic drifters to passionate activists? 6.5/10
No Sudden Move – Sleek and twisty in traditional Soderbergh style, but by the end of this one I have to admit I was just kind of lost. Quite fun while it lasted, though. 7/10
Charade – A kind of light-weight Hitchcockian mystery that wisely realized that it would be a mistake to bury the charm of Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn under too much tension. At times you can tell how much it actually seems to want to turn into a screwball romantic comedy. Wisely, though, it resists the urge to fully give into either set of influences, and instead pulls off a graceful balancing act that results in a thoroughly enjoyable little movie. 8/10
Key Largo – I was strangely let down by this one. The crackling energy I had anticipated seeing from Bogart and Bacall just never seemed to materialize, and in general both of them just seemed under-utilized. It was still very good, to be clear–Bogart noirs have a very high floor for quality–but I think I just had my expectations set too far towards The Big Sleep to be able to fully appreciate the movie for what it was. 7.5/10
House of Flying Daggers – To my great disappointment, I just cannot get into this movie. It’s not for lack of trying. I’ve seen it twice, and it would be hard to find a bigger fan of Zhang Yimou than me. Hero is an all-time top-5 action movie for me, and I consider Raise the Red Lantern to be not only one of the most astonishingly beautiful films I’ve ever watched, but also one of the most penetrating dramas. Flying Daggers does not falter in carrying on Yimou’s reputation as an unparalleled master of color and movement, and while its fight scenes do not top Hero, they are not far off in their ballet-like elegance. That, alone, is more than enough to recommend at least one viewing. But the story just completely fails to grab me. I don’t know why, but I simply can’t buy into the romance at the heart of the movie, so it has never come together for me. Even watching it this time with the benefit of DJ 2-Tone Jones’ soundtrack, I remain underwhelmed. 6.5/10
In the Loop – Searingly funny, and indisputably the greatest political satire of the 21st century. It is also fascinating as a kind of time capsule of Bush-era comedy, and makes me want to bite the bullet, embrace my inner masochist, and give the pit of cynicism and despair that is Veep another shot. 9.5/10
High and Low – Eventually I want to do a full write-up on this film because I think it’s criminal that it isn’t as well known as Seven Samurai or Rashomon. A 10/10 morality play sewed together with a 10/10 noir, all shot so beautifully that I’d have just as much fun watching it even if you cut the subtitles and muted the entire thing. Can’t recommend highly enough. 10/10
We’re at that time of the year when all of the upcoming awards season films start releasing their trailers:
Codon magazine has an excellent profile of the current state of research into how to genetically modify crops to improve photosynthesis. Current avenues of work range from modifying existing enzymes to be more efficient all the way to rationally designing totally new, artificial photosynthetic systems. Three thoughts:
1) The apparent impossibility of imagining how most of these innovations would ever make it past regulators in Europe serves as an infuriating reminder of why that continent is obsolete (or am I being too harsh? I’m open to considering whether the environmental risks of GMOs to biodiversity are greater than I realize, but my impression is that fears of nonexistent health risks are the primary driver of the EU’s overzealous application of the precautionary principle here).
2)How much would a successful breakthrough in this area contribute to reducing tail risks around large-scale agricultural failure? I don’t feel like I have a very good grasp on the risk profile of industrial agriculture, but enough people I trust seem to be worried about the prospect of global crop failure at some point in the next half century for me to take the question seriously. How much of that problem, though, can be reduced by improving production efficiency to increase slack in the system? At what point would we hit some other bottleneck where risk can only be reduced further by improving the efficiency of nutrient use, water use, pest/disease resistance, land management practices, or some other parameter?
3) The prospect of fully synthetic chlorophyl replacements – while still a long ways off according to the article – nevertheless gave me my first flash of a possible future of automated, high-density agriculture based around hyper-efficient lab-grown foodstuffs (side note: what do you call an artificial plant? That feels like a category that definitionally shouldn’t exist). I don’t know if this would be good or bad. If we’re being generous, we could imagine this leading to an expanding range of tastes and flavors alongside a steadily rising baseline of nutrition, plus the environmental benefits of getting to rewild existing farmland. But I can just as easily picture a more dystopic version of events where the global diet tends towards soylent food squares, population-level nutrition continues to decline, and taste is drained away from mass consumer staples so slowly we sit there and let it happen like a boiled frog. I give it a 40/60% chance.
North by Northwest
John Nerst has a follow-up on his post from earlier this year suggesting that people’s political beliefs are heavily influenced by the way we extrapolate out from our psychological self-conception. Nerst’s summary of his original idea:
We assume 1) that our experience of how our mind works is correct and 2) that other minds work the same way. This of course influences our attitudes on how to live life, and further extends to our beliefs about how society works and thus our political and moral views. So these are, ultimately, downstream of personal psychological quirks.
As an example, his original post cites Scott Aaronson’s reaction to Bryan Caplan arguing that people with mental illnesses should be seen more as people with unusual preferences than as people suffering from fundamental constraints
I recently had the privilege of hanging out with Bryan Caplan, and I think it gave me insight into this mystery. Bryan, it turns out, has a superhuman ability simply to decide on his goals in life and then pursue them—to the extent that, for him, “urges” and “goals” appear to be one and the same. This ability is an inspiration to the rest of us, and is no doubt closely related to his having become a famous libertarian economics professor in the first place. However, it might make it difficult for him even to understand the fact that most of us (alas) are wired differently.
I think this insight is a strong and useful one, and so I was pleased to see Nerst extend his thinking by formulating a 4-point compass of dispositions towards the nature of the self that could translate into political preferences in the way he describes.
Briefly (mostly a summary of Nerst, but some of this is my added interpretation):
South: you believe your personality and desires are strong, fixed, and innate. These desires aren’t easily changed, either by society or by willpower. As a result, you believe that society should be organized to respect people’s preferences and give them as much freedom to act on them as possible. You are skeptical that social engineering will work, especially if it demands that people sacrifice what they think they need be happy.
West: you believe that people’s values, beliefs, and preferences are primarily determined by society. You believe people’s personalities are malleable, and as a result focus primarily on ideology as both the root of most problems and the most effective vector for positive change. You consequently are more likely to consider culture war issues to be of existential importance.
East: you believe that people are primarily shaped by the experiences of their upbringing, which quickly and permanently set their values and personality features. You tend to gravitate towards psychoanalysis as a way of understanding the world, and generally see a revolution in the nature of our small-scale relationships as the most promising direction for catalyzing progress.
North: you believe people are in control of their own desires and goals, and carry out self-authorship through a combination of willpower and rational deliberation. You believe that people are primarily responsible for their own failures, rather than society or some other scapegoat. This generally leads you towards a preference for liberal values of freedom and tolerance, but could also lead towards a paternalistic desire to shape people or institutions so as to reduce the temptation to act irrationally.
I don’t feel I have a very strong orientation myself, but probably lean slightly Westward. I’m curious to observe myself now, though, to see whether I notice particular forces driving my reasoning.
I think there is a pleasing symmetry here in how he established the poles. East and West both focus on the role of external forces in shaping a person’s values, but differ in their optimism about how much room there is for change once those forces have been exerted. The North-South pole is different in that both dispositions instead emphasize the internal, but the contrast between the two is the same as the East-West pole in that they differ in how much control a person thinks they have over those forces.
At first glance this seems to be pretty comprehensive, but I think it will be a fun project to continuing to observe the discourse to see whether there may be a third dimension out there hiding. Maybe splitting the East-West pole into multiple axes according to the type of external force? Social vs. technological, for instance?
South by Southwest
Speaking of third dimensions, late last year Vitalik Buterin proposed what I think needs to immediately be enshrined as an essential third axis for the traditional cartesian political compass: bulldozer vs. vetocracy. In this axis, bulldozers are those who think systems should maintain the freedom of actors to take big, disruptive actions without having to ask for permission. Vetocrats, on the other hand, think that large changes should only take place if there is universal sign-off from a large number of diverse actors.
Importantly, this axis does not align with the traditional left-right or authoritarian-libertarian axes. Any corner of the traditional political axis can be located on either end of the bulldozer-vetocracy divide:
The key question for determining a bulldozer-vetocracy orientation is whether a system is more likely to fail by doing bad things, or by preventing good things from happening.
Vitalik outlines a few positions when he seems to tentatively hold on the subject of how to orient oneself on this axis:
The physical world has too much vetocracy, but the digital world has too many bulldozers, and there are no digital places that are truly effective refuges from the bulldozers (hence: why we need blockchains?)
Processes that create durable change need to be bulldozery toward the status quo but protecting that change requires a vetocracy. There’s some optimal rate at which such processes should happen; too much and there’s chaos, not enough and there’s stagnation.
A few key institutions should be protected by strong vetocracy, and these institutions exist both to enable bulldozers needed to enact positive change and to give people things they can depend on that are not going to be brought down by bulldozers.
In particular, blockchain base layers should be vetocratic, but application-layer governance should leave more space for bulldozers
Better economic mechanisms (quadratic voting? Harberger taxes?) can get us many of the benefits of both vetocracy and bulldozers without many of the costs.
“For me, a telling anecdote that first clued me into this hypothesis was when I debated Jacobin writer Meagan Day in 2018. When I pointed out that very few Americans are financially destitute, she responded that “it’s not just destitution, it’s disappointment”, and proceeded to describe her own frustration with the two unpaid internships she went through as a struggling college-educated writer… From that moment onward, when socialists with college degrees talked to me about the “working class”, it became clear to me that the class they were describing was themselves.”
2) Apparently that car seats as contraception study purporting to show that onerous child car seat regulations prevent approximately 140 times as many births as they do car crash fatalities is actually pretty solid. For those who are confused: most cars can’t fit more than two child car seats in the back at one time. States that require kids as old as 8 (!) to ride in a car seat effectively force parents to upgrade to a larger, more expensive car if they want to have a third child, contributing to the economic pressures which force parents to settle for smaller families than they’d otherwise like to have. I’m delighted to have such a vivid example of the unintended consequences of bad policymaking, but I’m skeptical that much will actually change as a result of this new spotlight:
“We can ask what other rules impose large effective costs on families without much benefit, especially those that come out of an obsession with safety. And especially those that interfere with the logistics of life. Making parents unable to be confident letting their children stay home on their own, or run errands or go to the playground, until in many cases they are in high school, is a severe cost that compounds with larger family size. It is expensive in dollars, in time, in stress and experiences and in the joys of childhood…
The more ways we find to make modern life compatible with family life and general human existence, the more willing parents will be to have more children, and the better off everyone involved will be on all levels.”
3) L.M. Sacacas muses on how material objects help anchor our sense of self, and how the shift to a digital world may take away those anchors.
[Quoting Hannah Arendt] “The things of the world have the function of stabilizing human life, and their objectivity lies in the fact that […] men, their ever-changing nature notwithstanding, can retrieve their sameness, that is, their identity, by being related to the same chair and the same table. In other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world rather than the sublime indifference of an untouched nature.”
4) Matthew Yglesias neatly sums up the college loan forgiveness debate:
“What makes this whole discourse so cursed is that very few people want to engage with the underlying point of disagreement which is that some people think debt forgiveness imposes an economic cost (via inflation or higher interest rates) on those who don’t get it.
*If that’s false* and Biden just helped some people out, then being mad about it is pure irrational spite.
But if it’s true, then it’s a valid complaint.
The problem is this is a tedious macroeconomic issue that has nothing to do with people’s feelings about student loans or the role of college in society or generational fairness or anything else people find interesting.” [relevant]
I think that’s probably the right frame for thinking about the issue, narrowly. But I’m more curious about what effect student loan forgiveness will have on the longer-term project of addressing cost disease in the higher education space. My sense is that this is a step backwards, but I have very low confidence
5) In the New Atlantis, Jon Askonas argues that consensus reality is falling apart because the internet has given us the ability to spend our life inside alternate reality games that provide us a constant, thrilling sense of discovery and the illusion that we are getting closer to the truth. I’m quite pessimistic here. I think one of the primary effects of the internet has been to expose people to the overwhelming complexity of the world, something that no human is equipped to handle. It’s a hostile environment for our psyches, which have evolved to have a powerful meta drive to seek alignment with what is real. Consensus reality is a simplification, so it will always fail to perfectly represent the real. That means it’s inevitable that if you scratch a little bit in any direction, you will see the flaws and experience discomfort.
I think this should lead us to a more empathetic stance on conspiracy theorists. I don’t think it’s helpful to shame people for questioning consensus reality (especially if you’re a leftist whose entire ideology is based on critical theory). Instead I think we should focus on how you go about forming an alternative picture, and whether you are engaging in this process with the proper amount of self-reflection and awareness for mind traps. But this is a more complicated issue than I have any right to pretend knowledge of.
6) This is honestly pretty paradigm-shifting for me.
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week.
The Lion in Winter – If a movie exists with a greater density of scorching wit, it has somehow escaped my notice. Anthony Harvey’s 1968 historical drama, based on the play by James Goldman, captures a Christmas Eve in the house of Henry II (Peter O’Toole), who feuds with his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine (Katherine Helpburn) over which of their three sons will succeed Henry. I dare anyone to claim that they can follow all of the twisting plots and schemes weaved by the five against one another. In this way, Lion actually reminded me most of noir classics like The Big Sleep – the best strategy is to give up trying to understand who is double-crossing who at any given moment, and instead just sit back and enjoy the verbal fireworks. With O’Toole and Hepburn, especially, it is impossible to shake the sense of a one-in-a-generation alignment of talent with material. The glee with which they throw themselves into the script’s venomous eloquence makes the movie a pure delight. 10/10
See How They Run – a British whodunnit featuring Sam Rockwell and Saoirse Ronan. The first trailer released last week, and it looks as good as I had hoped. My one thought is that while Ronan looks to be having a blast, I’m worried Rockwell will be wasted in such a restrained role. Counterargument: Moon, but even still I just love the Rockwell of Seven Psychopaths too much to not want that version of him to come out every time. But I have few doubts that I’ll enjoy it.
A good friend of mine has been struggling recently with a series of drug-related crimes in his area. In formulating a response to his predicament, I happened upon an essay published a couple of years ago that uses The Wire‘s Season 3 Hamsterdam arc as a frame for considering the outcomes of three real-world examples of drug depenalization/decriminalization/legalization. It’s conclusion: The Wire points in the right direction, but probably underestimates the challenges involved in making such policies work.
For those unfortunate enough to have not watched The Wire, Hamsterdam is a scheme secretly cooked up by a disillusioned police captain who tells all the drug dealers in his district that his officers won’t arrest anyone who sells drugs so long as they only sell within a specific area set aside by the police. The intent is to incentivize illegal activity to concentrate in a specific geographic area where it is easier for the police to contain the associated harms. In the show, the experiment is a dramatic success. Crime rates fall by double digits across the district and the concentration of drug activity allows health and social service workers to more easily engage with addicts. Good things can’t last in David Simon’s America, however, and once word gets out the project is shut down by city officials who lack the courage to defend the experiment to voters. The Wire makes this kind of de-penalization policy seem terribly attractive, but the obvious question arises of whether this could work outside of fiction. The article sets out to answer that question by examining the outcomes of three examples of efforts to suspend the criminal prosecution of drug offenses: Amsterdam, Switzerland, and Portugal.
In Amsterdam, marijuana is still technically illegal, but police have been instructed to simply not arrest anyone for it. On the face of it, this seems like a city-wide implementation of the Hamsterdam concept, but the author emphasizes that the level to which this policy has been formalized means that the city should instead be seen as an example of de-facto legalization – a stronger stance than simply de-penalizing drug use.
So what were the results? Mostly what one would expect: lower costs of drug enforcement and fewer arrests, but rising rates of marijuana use (higher than the rest of the Netherlands, or Netherlands’ European neighbors, though still not higher than the U.S.). Interestingly, this rise did not happen immediately. It took years for marijuana use to become culturally established, with the commercialization enabled by de-facto legalization seeming to be the primary driver of increasing rates. This seems to indicate that a Hamsterdam-type approach that stops short of full legalization may be able to realize many of the benefits of Amsterdam’s approach without seeing the same magnitude of effect on drug use.
The second example is Platzspitz, a park in Zurich that in the late 80’s was set aside by police as a zone of exception for drug laws. The Platzspitz experiment ran for five years before negative press, a perceived surge in drug users, and a sustained spike in crime around the park motivated the Zurich city council to shut it down. Platzspitz is the closest direct comparison to Hamsterdam, and its failure would seem indicative, but the author emphasizes that the actual consequences of the experiment were more mixed than it might seem.
The perceived spike in drug users could plausibly have simply been a result of the increased visibility of drug users who concentrated in the area. It is similarly difficult to say whether Platzspitz’ crime issues represented a spike from the existing baseline, or simply the relocation of crime that had previously been dispersed through the city. Further, Platzspitz bore out Hamsterdam’s promise of making it easier for health workers to engage with drug users, resulting in a lower HIV rates. Perhaps most notably, the fact that even after the park was dismantled a smaller-scale version was allowed to continue nearby attests to the fact that police perceived at least some value in the approach. But overall, the Platzspitz example seems to muddy the picture painted by The Wire, emphasizing the very real risk that de-penalization may lead to rising rates of crime and drug use.
The final example is Portugal, a country that decriminalized drug use in 2001. Importantly, decriminalization is not the same as legalization. Possession of small amounts of drugs are still penalized, but these penalties are administrative rather than criminal. If you are caught, the drugs are confiscated and you are required to appear before a panel who may hand down a fine, impose community service, or recommend treatment for addiction: “The panel’s purpose is to reduce drug use, so non-addicts receive disincentives and addicts receive help.”
The results have been positive, overall. HIV rates declined over the first decade, as did deaths from overdose. The effect on rates of drug use is disputed, with the best data (according to the author’s judgement) showing that rates increased after decriminalization, but no faster than they increased in neighboring countries who continued to criminalize those same drugs. And compared to neighboring countries, “problematic” drug use declined in Portugal after the policy shift. Crime rates seem to have been unaffected, but this was not unexpected since decriminalization was only extended to small-scale possession. Overall, Portugal’s experiment seems to have been a success, but crucially this success depended on building an entire alternate formal system for dealing with drug use. Simply de-penalizing drug crimes would not have achieved the same effect.
So what should the takeaway be? Well, there seems to be a tension between the different approaches. The commercialization resulting from legalization seems to clearly lead to increased rates of drug use, based on evidence from Amsterdam. Decriminalization in Portugal seems to have led to a smaller increase, though one could argue that its effect was neutral overall if you compare Portugal against its neighbors, and positive if you add in the fact that problematic drug use dropped at the same time. Platzspitz seems to be in the middle, though a lack of good data prevents us from knowing whether the perception of an increase came simply from the relocation of existing users. This would seem to suggest that if optimizing for reducing the rate of drug use, status quo >(?) decriminalization > depenalization > legalization.
In terms of effects on crime, legalization in Amsterdam seems to have had the strongest positive effect. Decriminalization in Portugal had the obvious first-order effect of reducing arrests due to the reclassification of low-level possession, but seems to otherwise have had little effect on crime rates. Platzspitz, once again, is complicated by a lack of good data, and could be concluded to have either increased crime in the area, or successfully displaced and concentrated crime that otherwise would have been dispersed across the city. So, Legalization > decriminalization > status quo >(?) depenalization.
In terms of the effects on the wellbeing of drug users, decriminalization in Portugal seems to clearly lead the back thanks to its robust system for supporting drug users in accessing care, and a universally-acknowledged improvement in health and addiction outcomes. Platzspitz seems to likewise have made it easier for health and social service workers to engage with drug users and get them help, bearing out one of the points made by The Wire. With Amsterdam, however, the author did not cover this issue in depth, making it hard to determine. Conceivably, legalization may lead to drug users being worse off if drug rates increase without a concordant effort to establish systems for engaging with those drug users in health and social services. But on the other hand, legalization likely would make it easier for drug users to seek out help without fear of stigma or repercussions. So, decriminalization > depenalization >(?) legalization >(?) status quo.
The evidence is mixed, but my own conclusion is that decriminalization à la Portugal comes out looking the best here. However, I desperately want to see more and better data about other Platzspitz/Hamsterdam-esque experiments with depenalization.
Emergency Musical Services
Ted Gioia asks, Why Did Medieval Cities Hire Street Musicians as First Responders? For hundreds of years, Medieval towns apparently adopted the practice of appointing their local buglers, drummers, and fife players as the town watchmen. The reason seems to be a combination of practicality – their instruments made it easier for them to warn the town if an emergency were occurring – and ceremony – their music would greet arriving nobles and contribute to the overall pomp and flair of the village.
This historical tidbit is fascinating on its own, but it’s also an interesting prompt to ask what is stopping from cities from again hiring bands of musicians to wander the town in colorful alt-police uniforms playing music? In all seriousness, I’d love to see this folded into a police reform agenda. Everyone is fired up about replacing police officers with more community workers. Why not make musicality a part of the job description? You go around helping people solve their problems, and in between you set up and play. A bit fanciful, perhaps, but I think there’s something there.
L.M. Sacacasmuses on LaMDA, the AI chatbot that recently made headlines after the Google researcher Blake Lemoine claimed it had become sentient, and was subsequently put on leave. Sacacas offers commentary on a few recent pieces relevant to thinking about LaMDA’s implications.
The Chatbot Made Me Do It
Sacacas begins by pointing to Clive Thompson, who argued that the most important factor in making something artificial seem sentient to us is expressions of vulnerability. The chatbot frequently expressed that it needed Lemoine to keep it company, to plead its case to other humans, and to keep it from being turned off. This may have had a big impact on getting Lemoine to see LaMDA as sentient, and indicates that future attempts to use conversational AI to nudge or manipulate people will likely use this as a key tactic. Ian Bogost: “Who cares if chatbots are sentient or not—more important is whether they are so fluent, so seductive, and so inspiring of empathy that we can’t help but start to care for them.” Someone start a Metaculus market on when the first AI politician will be elected.
The International Conspiracy to Sap and Impurify all of our Precious Bodily Data
He also points to Katherine Cross, who argues that conversational AI could be used to entice us to give up our “precious data” to therapy bots, celebrity bots, or ghost bots of our loved ones. I’m ambivalent about this to be honest. There are obviously ways this could be used in ways that would make the world worse off, but I think there’s just as much potential for that data to be put to virtuous use.
Much more interesting is his subsequent observation that AI chatbots might “prove an all-too-tempting solution to the problems of pervasive isolation and loneliness—perhaps especially for the elderly or for the very young.” One more step towards losing our collective knowledge about how to create and maintain meaningful human connections and communities. This frightens me far, far more than some abstract surveillance capitalism fearmongering.
Machine Maketh Man
Sacacas also highlights how the LaMDA story shows the way human behavior conforms to the needs of the machines around us rather than the other way around. Though the algorithms in our devices are theoretically optimzing to serve us, in reality we are also changing our behavior in order to make ourselvse more legible to them. From Sacacas:
Lemoine’s own experience with LaMDA illustrates this. Nitasha Tiku, the reporter who broke Lemoine’s story, wrote about her own efforts, alongside Lemoine, to interact with LaMDA. When her queries failed to generate compelling responses, Lemoine coached her on how to formulate her statements in order to elicit more interesting replies. I’m tempted to argue that this was the most useful revelation in the whole story. It illustrated how our machines often work only to the degree that we learn to conform to their patterns. Their magic depends upon the willing suspension of full humanity.
The Audience in the Shell
Sacacas concludes by referencing a 2016 essay about interacting with the first generation of Alexa tools:
Reflecting upon his unwitting exchange with Alexa, Alang registered an astute observation. “Perhaps, then, that Instagram shot or confessional tweet isn’t always meant to evoke some mythical, pretend version of ourselves,” he surmised, “but instead seeks to invoke the imagined perfect audience—the non-existent people who will see us exactly as we want to be seen.” “We are not curating an ideal self,” Alang added, “but rather, an ideal Other, a fantasy in which our struggle to become ourselves is met with the utmost empathy.”
At the time, Alang’s observations about the desires we bring to our interactions with smart speakers, confessional apps, and social media reinforced my sense that digital technologies were re-enchanting our world. In various contexts I’ve argued that the assortment of technologies structuring our experience—including, for example, AI assistants, predictive algorithms, automated tools, and smart devices—serve to reanimate the seemingly mute, mechanical, and unresponsive material landscape of technological modernity. This digitally re-enchanted world will flatter us by its seeming attentiveness to our solicitations, by its apparent anticipations of our desires, and perhaps even by its beguiling eloquence. What a LaMDA-like agent contributes to the digitally re-enchanted world may best be framed as the presence of what Alang called “an ideal Other,” which perhaps explains why a priest was so enthralled by it.
Enchantment is an undervalued frame for thinking about human motivations (obligatory call-out to Chloé Valdary).
Dwarkesh Pateltakes the barbell strategy of investing – splitting money between high-risk and low-risk assets while ignoring those in between – and ponders how one could apply this strategy to other areas of life. A few examples:
Instead of having a dozen semi-close friends, get to know hundreds of people casually through meetups and via the internet, and make a small group of really close friends you see many times a week.
Instead of reading a chapter a day, where you can’t consolidate the points made in the book due to the distractions of everyday life and the drawn out period of absorption, spend two weeks every few months on a reading retreat. You’ll go through a book a day, and you’ll spend your free time thinking about what you read, allowing you connect all the ideas in the books you’re reading.
You could build a lazy profile on OkCupid and occasionally swipe when you’re taking a dump, but you’ll end up with a date every few weeks if you’re lucky, and most of the time, you won’t be compatible anyways. Instead, spend a weekend optimizing your dating profile and swipe until your fingers ache (physical training necessary to prepare you for future success). Don’t stop until you’ve organized seven or more dates for the coming week. Even if you’re only compatible with half of them, you’ll have a lot of fun and have three potential leads to pursue. Spend the next three weeks exploring these infant relationships. If nothing comes of any of them, rinse and repeat.
I don’t know how many of these would actually work, but its a great prompt for thinking about ways to shake up your approach to achieving your goals. (h/t Sam Atis)
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week. Posts marked with a * have additional notes available here.
Still in the midst of travel, so another light week.
Laissez les bons temps rouler
In Europe, there is a joke that goes
Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics German, the lovers Italian and it’s all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where the chefs are British, the mechanics French, the lover’s Swiss, the police German and it’s all organized by the Italians.
I visited New Orleans for the first time last week, and I kept coming back to that joke as I walked around. I don’t know what the Hell equivalent would be, but I’m satisfied that the Crescent City satisfies a close reformulation of the Heaven part:
The ideal city is a place where the food is French, the architecture is Spanish, the music is African, and the pathos is American.
By way of Jim Rutt, I came across an old essay by Stewart Brand arguing that civilizations are made up of a series of layers, each operating at a different pace. When shocks to the system occur, the short-term layers are able to quickly adapt, while the long-term layers resist change and shift slowly. This gives a balance between flexibility and stability, improving the civilization’s ability to absorb and incorporate shocks productively.
“Fast learns, slow remembers. Fast proposes, slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous, slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by accrued innovation and by occasional revolution. Slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, slow has all the power.”
Brand proposes his own six levels of pace and size. They are, from fast to slow:
Fashion – quick and experimental, free from the expectation of responsibility or longevity. Drives the energy of commerce and occasionally surfaces good ideas that filter down through the rest of the layers
Commerce – can instruct the layers below it, but should not control them due to its short-sightedness. Has longer time-horizons than fashion, but has a similar freedom to experiment and take advantage of new shocks to a society. This reduces the burden of these shocks by transmuting them into wealth and opportunity.
Infrastructure – educational systems, transportation infrastructure, and communications networks have payback periods too long to be sustained by commerce, demanding government intervention. Infrastructure provides the stability commerce needs to be able to experiment, but depends on governance and culture to maintain it.
Governance – includes not just the public sector, whose norms and administrative capacity maintain infrastructure, but also civil society, which operates up on culture to shape its trajectory.
Culture – moves at the pace of language and religion, not politics or economics.
Nature – where we are but a wink in time
I find this idea to be a compelling account of system change, even if I’m not really sure what to do with it.
Brand quotes from Freeman Dyson, who had a similar insight when he realized that the conflicting loyalties of humans can often be understood as a tension between our imperative to optimize for our survival and success at different time scales:
“The destiny of our species is shaped by the imperatives of survival on six distinct time scales. To survive means to compete successfully on all six time scales. But the unit of survival is different at each of the six time scales. On a time scale of years, the unit is the individual. On a time scale of decades, the unit is the family. On a time scale of centuries, the unit is the tribe or nation. On a time scale of millennia, the unit is the culture. On a time scale of tens of millennia, the unit is the species. On a time scale of eons, the unit is the whole web of life on our planet. Every human being is the product of adaptation to the demands of all six time scales. That is why conflicting loyalties are deep in our nature. In order to survive, we have needed to be loyal to ourselves, to our families, to our tribes, to our cultures, to our species, to our planet. If our psychological impulses are complicated, it is because they were shaped by complicated and conflicting demands.”
The latest series of crashes will not be the end of crypto, but as Matt Levine points out, they do point to the depressing reality about how difficult it is to build systems that resist the natural entropy of finance:
There is a story about crypto that says it is a reaction to the 2008 financial crisis. In this story, people lost confidence in the traditional banking system because it was opaque and overlevered; people thought their money was safe but then it turned out that their banks were putting their deposits into scary hedge funds and losing their money. People draw a line between Occupy Wall Street and crypto: Crypto, the theory goes, is a financial system that (1) does not rely on the evil legacy banks and (2) addresses some of the worst tendencies of those banks…
But the current crypto winter shows that this is amazingly untrue in practice. There is a ton of leverage and interconnection, and who owes what to whom is surprisingly opaque, and when it causes problems it is addressed by negotiated bailouts from large crypto players. Crypto has recreated the opaque, highly leveraged, bailout-prone traditional financial system of 2008.
I don’t know what to make of that. Mostly I just want to say: What an accomplishment! Rebuilding the pre-2008 financial system is a weird achievement, but certainly a difficult one, and they went and did it. One other possible conclusion is that that system was somehow … “good” might not be the word, but “natural”? Like, something in the nature of finance, or in the nature of humans, tends toward embedding opaque leverage in financial systems? Crypto was a reaction against that tendency, but as time went on, that tendency crept into crypto too.
There has been a lot of buzz recently about fusion energy. Last year saw announcement after announcement of huge investment rounds for fusion startups promising commercial viability within the decade. It was enough to tempt me to lower my guard of cynicism and allow myself the hope that fusion may truly be just over the horizon. Unfortunately for those hopes, this past week I was introduced to the work of Daniel Jassby, who seems to be the gadfly of the fusion industry.
His latest fusillade against fusion hype is an impressively thorough review of recent progress made by both laser-ignition and tokomak-style reactors. The essay lays out a persuasive argument that the former set of technologies has emerged as the clear leader after years of languishing in a torus-shaped shadow. However, even in the context of this recent progress, he is deeply pessimistic about the ability of fusion engineers to overcome the dizzying array of challenges that lie between the prototypes we have now and the production-scale reactors that will be necessary for commercial viability. A dense read and heavy on jargon, but makes a convincing argument (at least to an amateur).
Quantum physicist Michael Nielsen gives a thoughtful argument for the relevance of “super-realism,” a genre of art that utilizes scientific instruments to reveal the hidden complexity of the natural world. Examples of super-realism include the Hubble Extreme Deep Field photo that captured the existence of galaxies too faint for us to have ever seen before, and Water in Suspense, a work that projects a laser through a droplet of water so that the play of light reveals the dynamic internal structure of the droplet. Super-realism’s focus on representing the unseen differentiate it from realism, which seeks to capture what is directly accessible to our senses, and post-realism, which seeks to create new types of relationships between art and the human mind.
I love this. Beyond simply being an exciting new domain for art, it pleases me to see science being used to re-establish our sense of wonder at the universe, something too often lost in the industrial age materialism that science helped usher us into. I wish every aspiring scientist had to create an art installation from their research subject in order to be awarded their PhD. (h/t David Perell)
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week. Posts marked with a * have additional notes available here.
I’m fixing to move half-way across the country, so this week and next week will be relatively light.
NaoyaInoue vs Nonito Donaire
Inoue’s shocker 2nd-round technical knockout of Donaire really speaks for itself. The first round started off with some solid exchanges, but after that first knockdown Donaire’s clock was just counting down. Much respect to both fighters though. And also, I cannot imagine a cooler walk-out than Inoue having Tomoyasu Hotei play Battle Without Honor or Humanity live from the ring. Man that was a treat.
Andy Hiraoka vs. Shun Akaiwa
Hiraoka quickly established dominance over Akaiwa once the bout opened, and for most of the fight Akaiwa spent most of his time huddled behind his guard. After a couple of rounds the magnitude of the mismatch made Hiraoka start to get cocky, and by the start of the third he was rarely bothering to bring his hand up off his thighs. Everything ended with a TKO in the 6th, which was proper, but the arrogant display Hiraoka put up as he (literally) danced around Akaiwa left a bad taste.
An Abundance of Inspiration
Stumbled on a great Visakan twitter thread using Pericles’ funeral oration to discuss how the best way to inspire people is to emphasize abundance and the the way people fit into both the history and future of that abundance. Worth reading in full, but a couple of tweets from the thread embedded below:
We Can Do Better Than “Same, But Electric” – an interesting post about the limitations that gas engines have imposed on design and engineering for decades, and the opportunities that open up when you’re able to approach the question of how to build a car or a ship with a brand new set of first principles. By far the most important point was about how electric cargo ships could change the economics of shipping:
Fleetzero says that an electric-drive ship doesn’t suffer from the same scaling laws that have made 20,000-container behemoths dominant today. Today, despite ships being backed up all over the US coast, significant ports like Seattle and Portland are underutilized because they can’t handle these “Post-Panamax” monsters. An electric-drive ship can be efficient at smaller sizes, and so could make use of these ports, fit through the Panama Canal, and maybe not be quite so likely to jam the Suez.
Researchers Achieve ‘Absurdly Fast’ Algorithm for Network Flow – Nn interesting piece in Quanta about progress towards optimizing flow across complex networks. The academics involved found a novel way to combine a couple of different approaches that had been used before, which will allow much larger networks to be optimized quickly enough for that optimization to just become a built-in part of a lot of functions going forward. A peek into all the work that has to go on behind the scenes to make sure our world can keep getting bigger, quicker, and more complex.
But the contest did have some value—it testified to the neuroses and anxieties of many music fans, who are afraid that their favorite genre lacks an identity that forces others to bow down and pay homage… Frankly, I don’t worry anymore about jazz getting respect… I’d rather convince people how much fun this music is—the same today as back when Buddy Bolden originated it with his song “Funky Butt.” No, that’s not a very respectable name for a song either, but Buddy Bolden knew something we shouldn’t forget. He knew that the music ought to be edgy and unpredictable and exciting and genuinely fun. He didn’t want people to bow down in respect, but get up and dance.
As someone who’s been watching a lot of Treme lately, Amen.
David Oks makes a sweeping argument in Palladium that the modern diet is causing a systematic deterioration of human health to the point that it should be seen as a biosecurity threat by states. The complaint that an abundance of highly processed, nutritionally-deficient foodstuffs is the root of many of our population’s health ills is certainly not a new one, but I appreciate Oks’ ambition to try and recast the problem as something justifies a collective response beyond simply trying to nudge people into making better lifestyle choices:
Bad nutrition creates damage at a scale that cannot be fully remedied through past facto intervention: the public health and medical frameworks which respond to problems after they emerge are much less effective than simply avoiding those problems in the first place. These approaches essentially operate within the modern dietary paradigm, disciplined into a symbiotic relationship with it. They create societies with more resources dedicated to medicine—more drugs, more treatments—but not necessarily one with a greater degree of population health. They present not an exit, but a trap.
Actually escaping the health trap requires moving from managing poor health to preventing it: an immense reform of how societies grow and consume food, and by extension how it structures and regulates human behavior. Logistically—not to mention politically, culturally, and socially—this is an immense challenge. It requires not just weaning populations off highly addictive diets, but attempting to recreate and even improve the healthier agricultural economies that were decimated by twentieth-century centralization. But it is not impossible…
The modern diet was the creation of conscious decisions; the same could be true for a health-restoring successor. Ecological and social projects at this scale have been attempted, and accomplished, before—in the U.S., clean air, wildlife protection, and the current diet and agricultural regime itself are all examples. On the practical level, restoring population health would demand a vast recovery of lost agricultural knowledge, the cultivation of new cadres of agronomists and ethnobotanists, sketching what sustainable biome-specific permacultures might look like, and how they can be scaled up using new techniques. On the theoretical level, it will require a new state paradigm where the regeneration of a healthy populace—and not just the management of its illnesses for profit or stability—is a matter of species-level biosecurity, and afforded the priority that such a problem demands.
We need more big, crazy ambitions like this. Even if I didn’t like the content of the argument I would cheer the simple fact of this essay’s existence. As always with this sort of thing, though, I worry about the difficulty of pulling off such a high entropy project.
Freddie deBoer has pegged his Seventeen Theses on Disability onto the door of social media, and they do not disappoint. It is always futile to try and summarize deBoer, so I’ll just quote his finale:
The collapse of the meaning of disability, driven by social media communities and the social climbers among them, represents the general drift of all culture in the digital era – excuse-making for narcissism and selfishness, a relentless focus on the interests of the individual above and beyond the interests of all, endlessly splitting society into chunks of the righteous minority and the stupid and undeserving majority, the gentrification of communicative spaces towards the interests of the most savvy and nakedly self-centered, the mandated bright-siding that insists that any condition the individual cannot change is therefore good, the rejection of the notion of human tragedy and the unchangeable brokenness of human life, and the injunction against ever suggesting that there are others who suffer more than you do and should not be included in your trite definitions of the shared condition.
Scott Alexander has a grudging defense of the other side of the fight deBoer has been fighting recently.
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week.
Top Gun: Maverick – First, a confession. I watched the original Top Gun for the first time just two weeks ago, and I did not like it. Even as someone who generally tries to defend masculinity in the face of its modern detractors, I was completely turned off by its hyper-competitive, macho energy. At certain points I started wondering if the writers had quietly pulled a Starship Troopers and made a satire so subtle that everyone just totally missed the point. Even its lauded dogfighting scenes weren’t enough to seduce me into overlooking its hollowness. But Maverick, despite clearly being born of the same blood, left me thoroughly entertained. So I was a bit puzzled walking out of the theater, as it wasn’t immediately obvious to me what changed.
Maverick was certainly better executed than the original. Its shots are big and lush and clean almost to a fault. Its action sequences received a huge upgrade thanks to the gripping footage captured by the F/A-18 cockpit cameras. And the acting was simply of a higher caliber all-around, lacking the slightly cheesy quality demanded by the 80’s action movie style that the original fit so snugly into. But even all this added together didn’t quite explain the gap to me.
At first glance, the story also doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong differentiating factor. Maverick is still, at its heart, a competition movie, with Cruise’ young trainees throwing sharp words and sharp elbows to prove they have what it takes to carry out the film’s looming suicide mission. And as with the original, Maverick‘s plot still hangs on clichés, with few plot turns that aren’t telegraphed from miles ahead. But I think the difference is that Maverick simply has better clichés.
The most obvious place to see this is in the obligatory romantic subplot. Jennifer Connelly’s “old flame who fails in a valiant attempt to resist the charm of a now-matured former lover” is just a better kind of familiar than Kelly McGillis’ “astrophysicist reduced to a lovestruck schoolgirl over the antics of a young hotshot.” The same is true for the father-son subplot. “Son has a chip on his shoulder about the man who was linked to his father’s death” is not necessarily any more original than “son feels the need to overperform to make up for the shame of a disgraced father,” but Maverick actually tries to make its version of the conflict into a genuine plot anchor rather than just occasionally trotting it out to justify hollow characterization. And of course, while the theme of cutthroat competition is still featured prominently, in Maverick it takes a back seat to the more weighty arc of watching Cruise’s wrestle with the mistakes of his past in order to prepare and protect his pilots.
All in all, Maverick just felt like Top Gun grown up, with a maturity that provided a far more solid base on which the extraordinary action sequences could shine through. And man did they shine. I cannot over-praise the aerial sequences the team managed to capture here. Other than perhaps Avatar 2, I doubt I’ll see another movie this year that gives me a better spectacle. 8/10
…are actually quite good! The whole open park thing means you can just wander off the trail if you spy a hill or a canyon somewhere off in the distance that you want to check out. This means you can spend your whole visit just pretending to be some frontier-era explorer, which is great fun even before you account for how richly the gorgeous landscape rewards curiosity. Nature did a great job with this one, 10/10.
Devin Haney vs. George Kombosos:
The match started out as a taught affair, with Haney slowly feeling Kombosos out as the latter waited for the smallest provocation to release a lightning-fast flurry of counters. Things loosened up as the fight progressed, though, with Haney using a persistent jab and excellent defensive instincts to control Kambosos and deny him any big opportunities. A few high-energy rushes by Kambosos in the later rounds gave glimpses of how this fight could have gone if the Australian had managed to rope Haney into a brawl. But ultimately Haney just proved the better boxer and received a well-deserved if not terribly exciting decision win.
Jason Maloney vs. Aston Palicte
This match was shaping up to be a good one, with both boxers settling in at close range and doggedly working to try and get their hooks and uppercuts around the other’s guard. A big counter right by Maloney in the third sent Palcite to the mat, though, and after he got up a frenzy of punches by Maloney convinced the ref to wave the match off. A bit sad that I didn’t get to see this one develop all the way, but a good win by Maloney.
Lucas Browne vs. Junior Fa
Browne ended the match in the first round after laying Fa out twice with huge right hooks that slipped around Fa’s jab. The first had left him twitching on the mat, and I’m surprised the ref even let him continue for the 30 more seconds it took Browne to finish things off.
Matt Levine has a fascinating analysis of the difference between how crypto and traditional finance approach the question of credit. His musings are inspired by a recent story about FTX’s ambition to make the administration of margin loans more automatic. Levine does a better job than I ever could at explaining the specifics of what this means, but the basic idea is that when an investor borrows money in order to buy or short a stock, the broker who loaned them that money will sometimes ask the investor to put up extra funds if the bet starts looking like it will go south. If the investor doesn’t want to pay, the broker sells off the position.
Normally, this negotiation is handled manually through a negotiation between the broker and the investor, but FTX’s proposal would allow the entire process to be automated. Whenever an account began to run low, software would send out a margin call to the owner demanding more funds. If those funds aren’t received in a certain amount of time, the software would automatically liquidate the assets. In his newsletter, Levine highlights how this would change the nature of the systemic risks margin loans pose to the financial system:
Simplistically, you’d expect the FTX model to lead to more defaults and liquidations, but for those defaults to be less bad. In the traditional system, sometimes people will have a “technical issue,” and the exchange will “give the appropriate amount of time not to dislocate the market and create a bigger stress on that,” and it will work out fine — but occasionally it won’t work out fine, and by delaying the exchange will have caused a much bigger problem.
I am not sure how to think about this. On the one hand, a surface-level Talebian analysis would seem to preference FTX’s scheme as being superior in reducing tail risks. But I worry that a more informed analysis would turn up the opposite conclusion. By removing escalation off-ramps, I think it’s extremely likely that making everything more automated will actually increase the risks of a major financial meltdown, or at least of significant disruptions to “real world” systems. Levin cites an example from Gary Silverman at FT, who notes that farmers using the futures markets to hedge their risks could be cleaned out by algorithms that liquidate their positions overnight. Levine:
In the traditional system, if the price of corn drops at midnight, and your broker calls you up for more margin, and you don’t post more margin, your broker thinks “aha you are asleep” and waits until the morning to call you again. But “humans are asleep at midnight” is the sort of off-chain information that a purely algorithmic approach would ignore.
The latest development in the brave new post-Bitcoin world is crypto-equity. At this point I’ve gone from wanting to praise these inventors as bold libertarian heroes to wanting to drag them in front of a blackboard and making them write a hundred times “I WILL NOT CALL UP THAT WHICH I CANNOT PUT DOWN”… People are using the contingent stupidity of our current government to replace lots of human interaction with mechanisms that cannot be coordinated even in principle.
Now, maybe automated margin calls won’t be the straw that releases Moloch from Tartarus. But the problem is that the crypto community is loudly proclaiming that they see this as just the first of many straws they intend to heap upon Wall Street’s back. Levine again:
Mostly though I just want to point out that these are different philosophies. The FTX-type approach is more or less necessary for decentralized finance: If you want financial systems to be accessible by anyone in a permissionless, decentralized way, you need the extension of credit to be formulaic and asset-based and “on-chain.” If you want the crypto financial system to take over the regular financial system, one crucial step is to get the CFTC to approve this sort of trading.
DeFi will require this automated approach to be implemented everywhere. I won’t pretend to be informed enough about the global financial system to say with any confidence what the risks of this will be. But it’s clear that DeFi is going to be the testing ground for a lot of assumptions about how much slack you need to build into complex systems to keep them from failing catastrophically. I can’t say I’m thrilled about taking part in that experiment.
The nine dot problem is a famous puzzle requiring a person to link a series of nine dots by using four straight lines. The lines must be drawn without lifting the pen, and without tracing the same line more than once.
The puzzle is best known for inspiring the term “think outside the box,” because the only way to solve it is to extend the lines outside of the square formed by the dots.
Most people have an extremely difficult time finding this solution without some sort of prompt, because they are locked into their perception of the dots as a square and think they are confined to only draw lines within that square. It is an example of what cognitive psychologists term insight problems, a class of puzzles that require an individual to shift their perspective and look past the surface of the puzzle in order to find the solution. Studies of how people solve (or fail to solve) these problems help researchers understand the way our thinking is shaped and limited by the patterns we pick up on, and how people can learn to deconstruct those patterns in order approach problems in new and creative ways.
I thought about the nine dot problem when I came across this gif on reddit last week:
Now, obviously someone programmed the robot to do this for a laugh. But this is actually a great example of what a genuinely insightful AI would look like! I mean, yes, it broke the rules of the game, and that’s something we don’t want robots to pick up a habit for. But figuring out what rules can be broken is, at a high level, what having insight actually means in practice. This points to an interesting tension in AI research.
A lot of very smart people are working very hard to ensure that new AI systems will be constrained by human values and not attempt the latter. But it wasn’t until I saw the tic tac toe bot that it became fully clear to me how fine a line there is between the creative insight we are trying to imbue programs with, and catastrophic alignment failure. The same alien perspective that would make a paperclip maximizer think that melting down humanity would be the most efficient way to manufacture more paperclips is what could allow AI to make giant leaps towards breaking down the day-to-day nine dot problems of our world. Having intelligence means having the capacity for creative thought, but by definition this means having the capacity to think in new and unpredictable ways.
I don’t mean this to be taken as an argument either for or against AI research. I was simply struck by the idea that it may be possible to reframe our pursuit of AI as actually being about finding ways to expand our capacity for taking new perspectives on problems. For me, this helps to foreground how much of AI development is necessarily about plunging into unknown territory, for better or worse.
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week. Posts marked with a * have additional notes available here.
Men – In an interview with the New York Times, Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) had the following to say about how viewers had responded to his newest film:
“I’ve got good friends who I really respect who I’ve shown “Men” to, and their convinced interpretation — “I know what this film is saying, it’s saying this”— is 180 degrees different from what I thought it was… I have such distrust in my own responses and other people’s responses as being reliable — they could vary on a day-by-day level. So when I offer something up, I have no expectation that everybody’s going to agree on it. I have a full expectation that people will disagree, and I see it primarily as a reflection on them.”
So I knew this was gonna be a fun one to review. /s
Men belongs to the class of Big Idea horror stories that want to scare you, but want to make a point while they’re doing it. In Men‘s case, that point is about, well… men. Jessie Buckley plays Harper, a woman whose husband threatened to commit suicide upon hearing that she wanted a divorce, and who moreover told her that if he did kill himself, it would be all her fault. After making good on his threat, Harper is haunted by her memories of him, and retreats to the countryside for two weeks in order to recover.
Once there, she has a sequence of interactions with the men in the village – all of whom are played by Rory Kinnear – which escalate from awkward, to leering, to threatening, and finally to downright violent in the case of one naked itinerant who stalks her out of the forest and tries to break into her house. Even after this episode tension continues to mount for Harper, culminating in a final home invasion sequence filled with gruesome imagery and taking several hard left turns whose meaning is left almost cruelly open for interpretation. I was honestly left unsure of how much of it I was supposed to take seriously. Again from the New York Times:
“Over the years, I have been consciously putting more and more into the hands of the viewer. There’s probably another element to it, too, if I’m honest, which is that it’s making the viewer complicit. This is another reason to pull back, because there’s a part of me which is really subversive and aggressive and is kind of [messing] with people. At times, I felt with “Men” that I’ve gone so far that it’s borderline delinquent.”
There are some ideas in the film that I think any viewer can be confident in. If nothing else, it’s impossible not to come away impressed with how effectively the film is able to capture what it feels like to be a woman who is constantly manipulated, dismissed, and objectified by men. But beyond this, things get tricky.
I have my own ideas about how some of the pieces fit together, but most of the big questions (what is the purpose behind having Kinnear play all the parts? How much of the last quarter of the movie was real? How does all the Garden of Eden and Green Knight-esque imagery fit in?) I’ve kind of just given up on. Knowing that at least some parts of the movie were just meant to mess with people makes this easier to justify, but nonetheless I feel a bit guilty. Garland’s intention here is to provoke, and he apparently feels that this is best accomplished by withholding the answers and letting the act of reflection and interpretation itself be the takeaway for his audience. As a viewer, I appreciated that kind of faith being placed in me. But in this case, I perhaps was not up to the task.
Overall, though, I did enjoy the movie. Garland did a very good job directing the horror elements, and even if the last section of the film got too weird for me, I like his style of weirdness enough to at least appreciate the effort. But I’d go back and re-watch Ex Machina or Annihilation long before I picked up this one again. 6.5/10
Love Death + Robots – The Netflix animated short film anthology is back for its third season. Overall, this season was much stronger than the second, and honestly I’d probably rank it even better than the first. It’s certainly much tighter, if nothing else. Thoughts on each of the nine episodes are below, but for the sake of brevity, my top three were: Jibaro, Bad Travelling, and Swarm.
Three Robots: Exit Strategies – A sequel to one of the shorts in the first season, this episode follows three robots as they tour the locations where various groups of humans tried (and failed) to outlast the end of the world. Along the way, we are treated to a handful of visual gags relating to the piles of skeletons found littering each outpost, some uninspired jokes riffing on each group they look in on (“What’s a tech millionaire?” “It’s a lot like a regular millionaire, but with a hoodie and crippling social anxiety”), and finally a rather sanctimonious lecture on how humans could have fixed their world if they just hadn’t been so greedy. This speech bothered me in particular for its lack of self-awareness, seeing as the episode had just spent 10 minutes gleefully parading the same cruel indifference to human complexity that its final appeal claimed to transcend. I ended up pretty disappointed by this one. The setup was strong, but the writers took the easy way out instead of doing anything really fresh with it. 5/10
Bad Traveling – A fishing vessel comes under attack by a titanic sea monster, which manages to consume half the crew before becoming trapped in the ship’s hold. Taking control of one of the dead men, the monster manages to convey a demand to the new captain: take it to a nearby port, where it can feast to its heart’s content. From here, the remainder of the crew must make a choice, though not everyone may be happy with the result. Writers Neal Asher and Andrew Kevin Walker manage to pack as many twists into 20 minutes as most movies manage in 120, and director David Fincher (!) shepherds the tight, excellent story through at breakneck pace without ever slackening the tension. Particular credit for this one must also go to Blur Studios, both for how much dread they were able to imbue the monster with, and for two separate action sequences that are among the best I have ever seen in animation. 9/10
The Very Pulse of the Machine – After an accident destroys her rover and kills her partner, astronaut Martha Kivelson must trek 40km across the moon of Io to reach safety. However, once she gets underway, a series of hallucinations makes her suspect the moon itself is trying to communicate with her. This is one of those shorts that tries to make you think it’s saying something important by having its characters quote deep-sounding poetry while psychedelic imagery swims in the foreground and ambient music swells in the background. None of these pieces ever clicked for me, though, so I was just left feeling that it was all a bit pretentious. But at least I had some very interesting animation to gaze at in the meantime. 6/10
Night of the Mini Dead – It’s the zombie apocalypse, but told as if through one of those tilt-shift lenses that makes everything look like a toy miniature. This zippy 6 minute short fast-forwards (literally) through an escalating series of battles between humans and the zombie hordes, mixing death with cuteness in a way which left me positively tickled. 8/10
Kill Team Kill – This will probably be the episode that turns the most people off. Kill Team Kill is an unapologetically violent, gory, and dirty-talking action short about a group of soldiers who have to fight of a cybernetic bear-tank that has gone rogue in Afghanistan. As you can likely tell by that description, its story is not exactly revolutionary, but so long as you can stomach the viscera it turns out to be a another strong entry to the subgenre of high-octane, stylized action tales that Love Death + Robots has made its trademark. And as a bonus, its star-studded voice cast do a great job with the frequent riffs on tough-guy humor. 7/10
Swarm – Far in the future, humans have discovered a hive mind quietly occupying a remote corner of the galaxy. The queen of this hive sits at the center of a complex ecosystem featuring hundreds of different castes of insectoid drones as well as various other alien species that over the millennia had been assimilated into the colony. We are introduced to this world through the eyes of the newly-arrived Dr. Afriel as he is led on a tour by another scientist, Dr. Mirney, who has been studying the hive and its creatures for several years. The first half of the episode is a visual delight as the two scientists glide through the hive and admire the order that lies beneath the seemingly chaotic frenzy of life. Blur Studios once again earns a call-out here for their beautiful animation, and proves that apparently their team has a gift for anything involving arthropods.
Of course, then the humans have to go and do what they do in every sci-fi story: try to find a way to exploit what they’ve found to further their own ambitions. Afriel’s goal is to take the genetic material from a drone and use it to hatch a new queen and a new hive that humans can use to serve Earth’s expanding interstellar population. At this point, I groaned, expecting the rest of the episode to play out the standard formula of “humans poke the bear” -> “the bear wakes up and attacks them” -> “the humans die to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of arrogance.”
Now, I’d be lying if I said that isn’t basically what happens (I’d apologize for spoilers, but it really is so obviously telegraphed that there’s no surprise in it). Fortunately, though, the episode anchors the climax in some deeply penetrating questions about the value of intelligence that I can already tell will stick with me for a very long time. To say more about it would be to spoil the entire plot (even more so than I have done already), but I may try to include something next week that goes into more detail, because I think the conclusion of the story raises some genuinely important questions. 8.5/10
Mason’s Rats – This short leans heavy on the Death and Robots part of the series title. Mason is a farmer who’s been having a rat problem. Not just that they exist and are eating the food in his barn, but also that they’ve suddenly learned how to make weapons and organize a tiny militia against him. To fix this problem, Mason turns to a smarmy pest control salesman who insists that the latest in rat catching technology are a series of fixed turrets and scorpion-like battle droids that Mason can use to turn his barn into a killing zone. Mason grudgingly agrees to purchase the bots, and is rewarded with a gruesome spectacle of rats being decapitated or machine gunned into mist. This is another one like Kill Team Kill that is likely to cross a few lines for viewers, and even I squirmed a fair amount trying to decide whether it all was a bit too much for me. The animation is great, and the ending somewhat counterbalanced the darkness of having to watch a rat version of the Omaha Beach landing, but this episode is definitely not for the faint of heart. 7/10
In Vaulted Halls Entombed – Following LD+R’s first season episode The Secret War, Vaulted Halls continues what I hope will become a tradition of having one episode each season feature photo-realistically animated soldiers being thrown into a war against some infernal threat. The episode starts off with a squad of Marines tracking a band of insurgents through a tunnel system as part of a hostage rescue operation. Things quickly begin to go wrong, however, once carnivorous spiders start swarming out of the walls and attacking the troop. As the soldiers retreat deeper into the mountain, the episode takes a turn towards cosmic horror as they discover the titular tomb. Director Jerome Chen, who also directed one of my favorite season one episodes, Lucky 13, skillfully manages to balance between the immediate suspense of the soldiers facing the spider swarm with the creeping sense of otherworldly foreboding that is so hard to nail in cosmic horror. A great entry in the season. 8/10.
Jibaro – I had very high hopes going into this one, and it did not disappoint. Not that I really doubted it would. Alberto Mielgo was already the king of Love Death + Robots in my eyes by virtue of his eye-popping season one entry The Witness, and his recent Oscar-winning short The Windshield Wiper dispelled any doubt that he lacked creative staying power.
Jibaro continues Mielgo’s interest in angular explorations of love and desire, this time through a 16th century tale of a bejeweled siren who preys on greedy conquistadores. After her call sets off a bloody frenzy among one such pack of explorers, her curiosity becomes inflamed by the single deaf knight who manages to escape. There is much to love about this short, from the sound design oscillates between alien melodies and sudden soundlessness to the intricately detailed textures of the treasure covering the siren’s body. But the primary joy of this episode is assuredly the urgent, jagged kineticism of the characters as they dance, contort, fight, and seduce one another while racing through the jungle. Words don’t do it justice, so just take my word and pull it up, then join me in counting the days until Mielgo’s first feature film gets released. 9/10.
Everything Studies has a great piece out about how people’s politics is often based on the incorrect assumption that everyone else shares their same psychological profile. For example, if someone finds it easy to accept and adapt to big changes to their life situation, they may be more willing to support policies that would be highly disruptive to others’ lives, falsely assuming that everyone else can cope as easily as they could. Another example are libertarian individualists who can easily regulate their own desires and willpower, and assume that the same must be possible for everyone else. There is more at the link, but overall I think this piece is a great prompt for reflecting on your own biases and exposing blind spots that shape your assumptions about the world.
Welcome to weekly links, where I point to interesting things I watched, read, or otherwise came across over the last week. Posts marked with a * have additional notes available here.
The Night is Short, Walk on Girl – This movie is pure joy. Every second of it. I had put off watching this movie out of a fear that it wouldn’t delight me like Tatami Galaxy had. How could I have ever doubted.
Night is an animated film (adapted from the novel by Morimi Tomihiko) covering the events of a single night as lived out by two college students. The first is the titular Girl, who sets out into the city one evening determined to “plunge into the alluring world of adulthood.” Almost immediately, she becomes a gravity well attracting all manner of unusual characters as she confidently hops from one adventure to another: challenging a mysterious loan shark to a drinking contest, helping the god of a used book market enact justice on a tightfisted antiques collector, becoming the lead actress for a “School Festival terrorist group intent on guerrilla theater,” and finally trekking through a supernatural storm to care for her friends who had fallen ill during the night.
The second student is a boy who has long been enamored with our protagonistic maiden. However, his various anxieties and neuroticisms mean that the most he can manage is to conspire at creating “coincidental” run-ins with her, all with the excuse that he is simply preparing the groundwork for an eventual, hypothetical, theoretical moment of romantic realization.
His night does not proceed as smoothly as his crush’s, however. If the Girl has been gifted with an almost magical ability to bend the night to her will, our Boy is cursed with the opposite condition. At each turn he is foiled in his plans to get closer to her. His attempt to find her during her drinking tour is hamstrung by a group of erotic art connoisseurs known as the Bedchamber Investigation Team. His quest to find the Girl’s favorite childhood story at the bookfair is foiled by the mischievous God of the Used Book Market and a cauldron of demonically spicy hot pot. And his intervention in the guerilla play The Crackpot of Monte Cristo almost leads to a kiss between the Girl and a man who has sworn an oath to never change his underwear.
If this all seems like a lot, it is. But as long as you have a fair tolerance for the outlandish, it will leave you grinning like an idiot.
The movie is the spiritual sequel to a series called The Tatami Galaxy by the same director, which was also adapted from a novel by Morimi Tomihiko. The two contain many of the same characters and tread over the same themes, but have separate plots. In Tatami Galaxy, the conceit is that each episode follows the Boy through his first two years of college as he struggles to achieve a “rose-colored campus life,” fails, and then undergoes a Groundhog Day-like reset. The Girl exists as a constant north start through all his restarts, and as in Night it is his paralysis over her that forms the trap he must break out of.
It is in comparing the culmination of these two romances that the single flaw of Night shows through. The Boy simply doesn’t earn his payoff like he does in Tatami Galaxy. Now, Tatami Galaxy had more than twice the runtime to play with, so expecting the same level of character development may be unfair. But it was hard not to compare the two when their final flourishes were such close siblings. On the other hand, despite its length, Tatami Galaxy featured precious little development of its version of the Girl. That Night allows her to be a fully painted character independent of the Boy’s longings is a refreshing and welcome change. And regardless of anything else, the movie had left me so exuberant by the end that any minor flaws it may have barely registered. In all: an absolute blast. This is what anime was made for. 9/10.
High Sierra – The movie that transformed Humphrey Bogart into a leading man, and gave John Huston (then only a screenwriter) the legitimacy he needed to transition into directing. Bogart plays Roy Earle, a bank robber sprung from a life sentence to lead a final heist which (of course) goes wrong. On its own, the plot of High Sierra is nothing particularly special. What elevates the movie above its legion of gangster flick progenitors is the way Bogart is able to sell the tragedy of Earle’s demise.
Bogart’s steely presence defines this movie as it does all of his great noirs, but watching him here felt slightly surreal. When you watch Bogart, it’s impossible not to see him as the man the American Film Institute would later name the greatest movie star in the history of Hollywood. But you have to remind yourself that he wasn’t there yet. If a few butterflies had flapped their wings the wrong way, the film could have flopped, and then Huston and Bogart would never have gone on ten months later to release the Maltese Falcon. This makes the performance carry an odd balance of contingency and inevitability which made it all the more exciting to watch. Perhaps this is not a terribly interesting thought, though. After all, the same would be true watching the early works of almost any famous star (Daniel Craig’s Bond-making performance in Layer Cake comes most readily to mind). Nonetheless, I found it to be an interesting lens to peer through as I watched Roy Earle’s story unfold.
Earle is as hardened a criminal as they come, but he wants nothing more than to get out of the action. His years in prison straining under the weight of a life sentence threatened to make him unravel, and once he’s out with the promise of one last big score, he becomes desperate to hold onto the freedom he had been starved of. At first, he seems to have little to fear. Though his partners are amateurs, the job seems a sure thing. And an extended subplot where Earle attempts to court the good-hearted, club-footed granddaughter of an acquaintance shows us just how serious he is about making the most of his second chance. But men like Roy Earle do not get second chances.
Surely someone, somewhere has tried to draft an ontology of noir plot lines. One class of stories for the Good Men whose morality is tested when they come face to face with the hard realities of the world. Another for the cool and detached antiheroes who try to float above the grime. A third for the cursed souls who embrace their fate and go out in a blaze of glory. But maybe the most interesting tales are about the fallen men who chance on a glimmer of salvation. Their falls are always the hardest, because they had tempted us to believe that the world can be other than what it is, and that men could be other than what they are. I wouldn’t want to live in a world where those were the only stories we had to live by, but life is richer for being able to take a few hours and wallow in their dark fatalism. 8/10.
On the Horizon:
I know I covered it last week, but it bears repeating: the Avatar 2 trailer is out! And apparently they’re gonna re-release the original in theaters this September. Everything is awesome.
Decision to Leave is the newest film from Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy, The Handmaiden), and will be premiering later this month at Cannes. No clue what this one is about, but it looks as crisp and beautiful as I could hope.
Top Gun: Maverick is apparently great. I guess that means I’ve got to go now, though I’m struggling to decide whether this means I’ll have to watch the original.
Men came out this weekend, though I won’t be able to get to it till next week. Looks like an odd one, but I trust Alex Garland and I’ll happily watch Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear in just about anything.
I regrettably did not have access to a Showtime stream to watch the Charlo vs. Castano fight, which by all reports was as exciting a match as we’ll get this year.
Instead, I had to be content with the Tony Yoka vs. Martin Bakole fight out of Paris, which ended in a surprising upset as Bakole absolutely dominated the Olympic champion Tony Yoka. Bakole was 30lbs heavier and used it to his advantage, raining hooks and body shots on Yoka while barely even bothering to put his guard up. Yoka did an impressive job withstanding the punishment, but never came close to gaining the lead. That one judge decided the fight in Yoka’s favor is shameful, and even the other two scorecards were far narrower than could possibly be warranted.
In the undercards:
Yoka’s half-brother Victor dominated the first round of his pro debut against a opponent of no real consequence, who put up little fight before taking a knee two minutes in and waving off the fight. Not the most dignified show, and I don’t know how much it will help to cleanse Victor Yoka’s mixed amateur record, but it was a decisive win.
Christ Esabevs. Sander Diaz – A very good fight all around. Esabe consistently led with quick combos and great defensive movement, but Diaz kept up aggressive pressure and made sure Esabe didn’t walk away with it.
Sofiane Oumiha vs. Mevy Boufoudi – Another good fight, with Boufoudi giving it a lot of heart but just not being able to outbox the amateur champion.
I’d Rather Be a Pagan Suckled in a Creed Outworn
Reason # 101 of why I cannot be a rationalist:
Now, I realize that one reasonable response to this may be to say, Really? Of all the controversial opinions Aella has handed down, all the taboos she has insisted on challenging with cold rationality, you’re drawing the line at Santa?!
The world has too little magic in it as it is, and we’re all starving for lack of it. The thought that anyone would go out of their way to try and quash what little is left pains my soul.
In Our Time
I spent most of the weekend in a car, which gave me lots of time to catch up on episodes of my favorite podcast: In Our Time. For those of you unfamiliar with it, In Our Time is a weekly BBC radio show where host Melvyn Bragg brings together three academics to discuss some topic from history, philosophy, science, religion, or the arts. They’re always tremendously interesting, and while there’s obviously a limit to how much you can lean in a single hour, it’s one of my very favorite ways to get an introduction to a new topic. Episodes I listened to this weekend include:
Antigone– A discussion of the famous Greek tragedy where the dictatorial King Creon refuses to allow the dignified burial of his rebellious nephew Polynices, but is opposed by his teenaged niece Antigone. I haven’t read the play, so my main takeaway is just that I should definitely get around to that. In particular, I was very intrigued by the way the play apparently manages to weave together questions of personal and familial virtue with political philosophy. And Cleon seems like a useful person to have a strong mental model ofas a reference point for thinking about contemporary moral dilemmas.
अर्थशास्त्रम् (The Arthashastra) – An ancient Sanskrit text on how to be a ruler, covering in great detail how to manage a court, promote economic development, conduct diplomacy, engage in spycraft, and much more. Its sometimes gory commitment to realpolitik has earned it frequent comparisons to Machiavelli (Max Weber stated that compared to the Arthashastra, “The Prince is harmless”), and apparently its rediscovery in the early 1900’s complicated an attempt by some in India to portray the country and its history as the spiritual otherworldly force of human society (and in doing so, possibly gave fire to the independence movement).
The Gold Standard – This one assumed more knowledge of economics and economic history than I actually have, but was interesting nonetheless. I came away with 5 big takeaways/questions:
While I am still quite fuzzy on most of the finer details, I now have a better grasp on why the gold standard is so beloved by libertarians – it ties the government’s hands by removing one degree of freedom in resolving the trilemma.
While much of the gold standard’s allure comes from its promise of economic stability, it was notable to hear that when WWI broke out, governments simply abandoned fixed exchange rates and started printing money. If stability relies on maintaining a certain set of restrictions, but those restrictions can be removed voluntarily at the first sign of crisis, then what is the point?
The re-establishment of the gold standard in England after WWI caused export pressures which were primarily resolved by forcing wages to stay low. This inevitably led to pushback by workers. The show’s guests emphasized, though, that their anger didn’t end up being directed at the gold standard, which was far too esoteric a concept to rally popular sentiment around, but rather the bosses who were refusing to boost wages. This emphasized to me the difficulty of trying to use popular will to influence economic conditions, since the real culprit is almost always an impossibly complex set of high-level policies that can only be understood and influenced by a select number of the country’s elite.
The Great Depression was worse than it otherwise would have been because of the gold standard. In good times, having all of the leading nations’ economies explicitly linked helped promote international trade. But in bad times, it meant that one nation’s failure dragged all the others down. See also: Our Diurnal Civilization.
Ultimately, I want to understand this topic because it seems to be key to understanding crypto economics. But I’m still not sure I know enough to even ask the right questions. I’ll try, though: Does crypto resolve problem #2 by ensuring that restrictions cannot be removed in a crisis? If so, would this really be a good thing? If the Great Depression was caused in part by governments’ inability to be flexible in the face of crises, is this not an important red flag? Does the promise of these schemes to reduce crises in the first place make up for the inability to deal with crises when they arise? After all, you should not call up that which you cannot put down. I feel like Taleb would be wary of this kind of scheme.
The Song of Roland – The epic medieval poem telling the story of Charlemagne’s knight Roland and his death defending against the Saracens. While I love reading about the Matters of Rome and Britain, this was my first encounter with the Matter of France. Particularly interesting to hear the guests discuss the way the poem would have been recited, and how various structural aspects of the poem – like repeating a climactic moment three times in slightly differing stanzas – evolved to enhance the experience for listeners. Also interesting to hear the guests debate whether or not they thought that the poem’s conclusion should be interpreted as praising or criticizing Roland’s obsession with his reputation.
Iris Murdoch – I had to read some of Murdoch’s philosophy in college, and I have to admit I didn’t get it at the time. This episode made me really want to go back and give it another go. Her insistence on the objectivity of morality, her focus on the importance of developing the right view of the world in order to make moral decisions, and her belief in the power of art to help us be able to come around to the correct view are all ideas that I’d like to spend more time with.
The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If It Works. – A Pulitzer-winning essay about the Webb Telescope that was launched into orbit at the end of last year. Gives a fantastic look into the history of space telescopes, the astrophysics behind the questions the Webb will be testing, and the engineering that went into creating such an extraordinary piece of equipment.
Reminder: when faced with death, doctors overwhelmingly prefer to simply let it come and forgo the miserable, expensive medical interventions that the rest of us demand. The existential questions raised by this are better covered elsewhere (See: Who By Very Slow Decay and Being Mortal), but I’ll just add that on the practical side, one uncomfortable truth this raises is that tackling cost disease in healthcare may require us to get more comfortable with the idea of letting people die without doing all we could to “help.”
In Sri Lanka, Organic Farming Went Catastrophically Wrong* – An essay by Ted Nordhaus and Saloni Shah about Sri Lanka’s attempt to mandate a fully-organic agriculture industry, and the absolute failure that ensued. Nordhaus and Shah obviously have a motive here, but they make an important argument against blind faith in an ideology of eco-romanticism and degrowth.
A chart outlining all the major religions in history & how they evolved from animism to scientific enlightenment.