Why Sigmoids Are So Hard To Predict is a very abstract post. If you think sigmoids are really really important, go read it. If you don’t think sigmoids are really really important, sigmoids are how new things happen. Nobody does it, it becomes possible, we start exploiting it a little, soon it becomes widespread, and then it’s hit everyone it can and there’s not much more to do. Sometimes you can stack them, sigmoid after sigmoid representing new innovations, but the basic shape is how to analyze new technologies, and understanding a bit better why they’re hard to predict is useful.
Plough is included because I realized I wasn’t entirely sure why ploughs were used. No, seriously, one of the most important pieces of farming equipment, something that shapes gender roles (friend, academia, media), species (mules would be much much less common if not for plows and they are literally incapable of reproducing due to genetic manipulation), and more. And I didn’t have a clear idea of what it did: I was reduced to theorizing and guessing.
Origin of COVID is a story to keep paying attention to. While the claim that COVID was deliberately released to attack America is absurd, it seems that the bulk of the evidence supports the lab release story, and the coverup efforts have not helped (it is, to be clear, entirely plausible that the Chinese government is suppressing evidence either because they’re not sure if it was a lab escape or because they’re doing other shady things they don’t want discovered).
If you’re already on board with the nuclear energy train but don’t feel very qualified, Devanney On The Nuclear Flop will probably provide some interesting information about how specific things failed. Personally, I’m suspicious of it: the story it tells matches my own attitudes a little too nicely, and the arguments about the specific failures of the industry don’t really have a compelling meta-reason behind them as I would like. Still, interesting and recommended.
List of Highest-Grossing Media Franchises will shatter expectations you never knew you had.
Amateurs Talk Cancel, Pros Talk Silence is a hard piece to read well. It is, mostly, about the Irish Famine, and the reaction, or rather non-reaction, of the British literary class to an untold tragedy that was happening next door. Jane Eyre was published two years after the famine began, David Copperfield just a little later. Neither say anything about the famine. It would be like publishing a Great American Novel today and not talking about Xinjiang, or what ICE and CBP do at the border.
As it always has been, as it will likely always be. Still, it is striking that Dickens does not include a single Irish character in any of his 16 novels. And, having read some of them, they are very long novels indeed.
The Membership You Weren’t Allowed To Talk About is Now Open to New Recruits is a terrible piece of journalism, being a somewhat glorified press release. It is, however, a delightful story about American higher society, of which I can find some traces.
Amtrak’s Continued Ignorance expresses well Alon’s continued point: Americans do not understand other countries. Some of the criticisms lobbed by Europeans are unfair: Los Angeles and Boston are more distinct than England and Ireland, for example, and the snobbish tone is one I find generally objectionable. And I would not wish to go to far: as Alon says, Not Everything Is Like Rail Transport. Rail transport is stunningly bad in America: it is faster for me to take a bus from LA to Oakland than to take a rail+bus combination. But the broader point about how to learn from elsewhere is useful.
To pick just one example, has anyone tried…identifying differences between US cops and comparable European cops and reconciling them? No, of course not, we’re Americans, we couldn’t possibly learn from Europeans except by saying that they’re better so we’re going to implement our home-grown solutions instead of copying the people who are already getting it, if not right, at least less wrong.
Neofeudalism and the Digital Manor is a good piece that explains a useful term. I may be giving it a more positive gloss than Schneier or Doctorow would be happy with, but I draw a comparison to Mancur Olson’s stationary bandit model, to wit: in the bad old days, everyone swiped all the data they could, and consumers were fiercely opposed, turning to every adblock they could find. Faced by innumerable data threats, internet users had low trust and low willingness to participate. Apple and Google, as the co-owners of the smartphone market and having substantial influence outside, made privacy protections, in the sense that they actually have decent security and will protect you from anyone else.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol as a Rejection of all Law and Politics transcends “good” and “bad” to be moving, just as Wilde would have it. I can’t, in good faith, recommend it, for I know not what it is, but I am glad I read it. Recommended to fans of the Ballad of Reading Gaol, and for those who are not fans, you should at least try reading it.
A Katana, An Iron Bar, and Prison gave me the term “legal veil”, for which I am very thankful. In essence, we allow things under color of law that would be transparently unacceptable when done outside of it, even when the legal version is obviously worse (such as a politician saying that they really did ensure the conviction of tens of thousands to give them felony records that prevent them from voting).
I suspect that this is related to the way I will sometimes see people use the term “unregulated” to describe the horrible state of affairs where some aspect of human interaction is only governed by our normal laws (against fraud, assault, etc) and is not also given a special set of laws. To me, this seems fine: I think laws against fraud, assault, etc are good and important, but I tend to think that, given a strong general framework, individual aspects of life can mostly be left alone, possibly supplemented by minimum payouts for certain harms and mandatory insurance.
Killing the Ants is sad. I think it is hard for anyone to read it and be happy. It is about the moral decisions involved in killing ants, from people who are trying very very very hard to do the right things.
Classic reread: Power of the Powerless, by Vaclav Havel.
The manager of a fruit-and-vegetable shop places in his window, among the onions and carrots, the slogan: "Workers of the world, unite!" Why does he do it? What is he trying to communicate to the world? Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world? Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment's thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?
I think it can safely be assumed that the overwhelming majority of shopkeepers never think about the slogans they put in their windows, nor do they use them to express their real opinions. That poster was delivered to our greengrocer from the enterprise headquarters along with the onions and carrots. He put them all into the window simply because it has been done that way for years, because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble. He could be reproached for not having the proper decoration in his window; someone might even accuse him of disloyalty. He does it because these things must be done if one is to get along in life. It is one of the thousands of details that guarantee him a relatively tranquil life "in harmony with society," as they say.
Obviously the greengrocer is indifferent to the semantic content of the slogan on exhibit; he does not put the slogan in his window from any personal desire to acquaint the public with the ideal it expresses. This, of course, does not mean that his action has no motive or significance at all, or that the slogan communicates nothing to anyone. The slogan is really a sign, and as such it contains a subliminal but very definite message. Verbally, it might be expressed this way: "I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace." This message, of course, has an addressee: it is directed above, to the greengrocer's superior, and at the same time it is a shield that protects the greengrocer from potential informers. The slogan's real meaning, therefore, is rooted firmly in the greengrocer's existence. It reflects his vital interests. But what are those vital interests?
Let us take note: if the greengrocer had been instructed to display the slogan "I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient;' he would not be nearly as indifferent to its semantics, even though the statement would reflect the truth. The greengrocer would be embarrassed and ashamed to put such an unequivocal statement of his own degradation in the shop window, and quite naturally so, for he is a human being and thus has a sense of his own dignity. To overcome this complication, his expression of loyalty must take the form of a sign which, at least on its textual surface, indicates a level of disinterested conviction. It must allow the greengrocer to say, "What's wrong with the workers of the world uniting?" Thus the sign helps the greengrocer to conceal from himself the low foundations of his obedience, at the same time concealing the low foundations of power. It hides them behind the facade of something high. And that something is ideology.
Between the aims of the post-totalitarian system and the aims of life there is a yawning abyss: while life, in its essence, moves toward plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution, aud self organization, in short, toward the fulfillment of its own freedom, the posttotalitarian system demands conformity, uniformity, and discipline. While life ever strives to create new and improbable structures, the posttotalitarian system contrives to force life into its most probable states. The aims of the system reveal its most essential characteristic to be introversion, a movement toward being ever more completely and unreservedly itself, which means that the radius of its influence is continually widening as well. This system serves people only to the extent necessary to ensure that people will serve it. Anything beyond this, that is to say, anything which leads people to overstep their predetermined roles is regarded by the system as an attack upon itself. And in this respect it is correct: every instance of such transgression is a genuine denial of the system. It can be said, therefore, that the inner aim of the post-totalitarian system is not mere preservation of power in the hands of a ruling clique, as appears to be the case at first sight. Rather, the social phenomenon of self-preservation is subordinated to something higher, to a kind of blind automatism which drives the system. No matter what position individuals hold in the hierarchy of power, they are not considered by the system to be worth anything in themselves, but only as things intended to fuel and serve this automatism. For this reason, an individual's desire for power is admissible only in so far as its direction coincides with the direction of the automatism of the system.
A post-totalitarian system can be identified by the speech that is required to participate in the rest of public life. The flag pin on the lapel of a politician is an example, the obligatory praise to a creator another. Pay attention to the obligatory statements, the ones that fade into the background. The things that are done to stay “in harmony with society”: you haven’t necessarily thought much about them, or you might not entirely agree (perhaps you even resent them), but these are the things you do to keep the peace.
Here’s a personal one: I am five weeks vaccinated, but I still wear a mask when indoors in public. It provides no serious health benefit, but I want to get along, and don’t want to cause problems at the grocery store. I can, of course, tell a story about signalling and mass compliance and the unfortunate incentives of anti-masking and anti-vaxing being correlated, but that isn’t why I do it. I wear a mask indoors to stay in harmony with society.
To Listen: Prayer. I commented at a picnic that I believe, in a very virtue ethicist fashion, that it is a moral good to expand the range of experiences that you can savor and appreciate. To find delight in John Singer Sargent, a good instance of Taiwanese-American fusion, or laminar flow of water off of a spoon: there can be joy and beauty in all of these, and you do not yet know what your heart sings for. So experience the world as broadly as you can.
As usual, Mill said it better:
In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the family, do not ask themselves--what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usually done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is customary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?
But all this is but digression. Upon hearing my argument, Anna Tchetchetkine, NYT-acknowledged pianist and translator of Beautiful Tomorrow, offered to teach me about Russian Bardsong. She had grown up on the genre but had found it difficult to sell to Americans. Prayer is one of her recommendations, and it strikes an interesting contrast to the American protest songs I grew up on. While Russian bardsong is similar in terms of listeners and impact, due to the constraints of the USSR they’re not going to do any equivalent to The Preacher and the Slave or Which Side Are You On. Instead of rallying people to opposition, they’re much softer and more reflective: someone died and that is sad, and I miss them.