Standardized Thought

“From this [advertising] expert he learned that the key tool of the ad trade was to “standard[ize] thought by supplying the spectator with a ready-made visual image before he has time to conjure up an interpretation of his own.3 In that instant before the process of making sense was completed, a presupplied image and, subsequently, a thought (not quite your own) could take hold. Thought was being standardized.”

—Rebecca Lemov, “Into the Whirlpool.” The Hedgehog Review. Summer 2020.

A discussion of legibility and mass manipulation from print media through YouTube and Facebook algorithms. Nothing new here for people familiar with James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State or Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent. However, I did like this idea of standardizing thought, which is clearly what the 24 hour news networks, YouTube, Twitter, etc. are doing.

Black Death, COVID & Renewal

“So, our outline for today:

1. Renaissance Life was Worse than the Middle Ages (super-compressed version)

2. Where did the myth come from in the first place? (a Renaissance story)

3. Why is the myth of a golden Renaissance retold so much? (a post-Renaissance story)

4. Conclusion: We Should Aim for Something Better than the Renaissance”

—Ada Palmer, “Black Death, COVID, and Why We Keep Telling the Myth of a Renaissance Golden Age and Bad Middle Ages.” ExUrbe.com. June 4, 2020.

What does the history of Black Death suggest for our post-COVID-19 future? A complicated question. This is a precis, i.e., most essential points, of a book length answer to that question. Academic and long, but also interesting.

GPT-3 Creative Fiction

Creative writing by OpenAI’s GPT-3 model, demonstrating poetry, dialogue, puns, literary parodies, and storytelling…

[In Dr. Seuss style:]

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your way!

—Gwern Bradwen, “GPT-3 Creative Fiction.” Gwern.net. June 19, 2020.

It’s interesting to read GPT-3’s take on different writing styles.

Market Inefficiency vs. Other Values

“Efficient systems have limited ability to deal with system-wide economic shocks. Those shocks are coming with increased frequency. They’re caused by global pandemics, yes, but also by climate change, by financial crises, by political crises. If we want to be secure against these crises and more, we need to add inefficiency back into our systems.

I don’t simply mean that we need to make our food production, or healthcare system, or supply chains sloppy and wasteful. We need a certain kind of inefficiency, and it depends on the system in question. Sometimes we need redundancy. Sometimes we need diversity. Sometimes we need overcapacity.

The market isn’t going to supply any of these things, least of all in a strategic capacity that will result in resilience. What’s necessary to make any of this work is regulation.

—Bruce Schneier, “Bruce Schneier says we need to embrace inefficiency to save our economy.” Quartz. June 30, 2020

Why Does DARPA Work?

DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego. Why does this matter? When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps. PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. A large ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of top down problems and bottom up solutions.”

Ben Reinhardt, “Why does DARPA Work?benjaminreinhardt.com. June 18, 2020.

Kondratiev Waves & Social Unrest

“In the United States, 50-year instability spikes occurred around 1870, 1920 and 1970, so another could be due around 2020. We are also entering a dip in the so-called Kondratiev wave, which traces 40-60-year economic-growth cycles. This could mean that future recessions will be severe. In addition, the next decade will see a rapid growth in the number of people in their twenties, like the youth bulge that accompanied the turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s. All these cycles look set to peak in the years around 2020.”

-Peter Turchin, “Political instability may be a contributor in the coming decade.” Nature 463, 608 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/463608a

“What does it mean for the current wave of protests and riots? The nature of such dynamical processes is such that it can subside tomorrow, or escalate; either outcome is possible. A spark landing even in abundant fuel can either go out, or grow to a conflagration.

What is much more certain is that the deep structural drivers for instability continue to operate unabated. Worse, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated several of these instability drivers. This means that even after the current wave of indignation, caused by the killing of George Floyd, subsides, there will be other triggers that will continue to spark more fires—as long as the structural forces, undermining the stability of our society, continue to provide abundant fuel for them.

-Peter Turchin, “2020.” Clio Dynamica on PeterTurchin.com. June 1, 2020.

Always on the Side of the Egg

“Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.”

Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will decide. If there were a novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?

—Haruki Murakami, “Always on the Side of the Egg,” Haaretz.com. February 17, 2009.

How to Become a Hacker

“Learning something new that’s complicated often feels difficult at first – if it feels easy it may be something you already know or you may not really be testing your knowledge (it’s a lot easier to read about how to solve a physics problem and think ‘this makes sense’ than it is to solve a problem yourself with the tools you just read about). The struggle can be a good sign – it means you’re really learning and by focusing on doing similar types of things it’ll become easier as you get better…

…Learning something complicated for the first time should feel a little painful – you should get used to that feeling since it’s a good thing and means you’re growing. Don’t let it scare you away because you don’t think you’re smart enough. Since there’s so much to learn and a lot of different avenues to go down (just in computers there are things like computer graphics, security, machine learning, algorithms, mobile, web, infrastructure, etc.), having a mindset where you allow yourself to grow and get out of your comfort zone to learn new things is critical.”

Zach Alberico, “How to Become a Hacker.” zalberico.com. April 19, 2020.

The modern reality is that there are two computing revolutions going on. In one, computers are being made accessible to everyone, where everyone from small children to the elderly can navigate app icons and do useful things with a program designed by someone else. In the other, you are given a sophisticated tool and have to learn to use it to accomplish useful things you design yourself.

Everyone involved in the second revolution is a “hacker” in some sense of the word. They might not be writing code, but perhaps they are using git for version control, Photoshop to manipulate images, machine learning to look for patterns in data sets, designing objects to be printed in a 3D printer using Autocad, et cetera. There are many facets of this kind of computing that require no coding at all. However, you are using a generalized tool to accomplish a task, one that was previously impossible to perform.

So, we might need a newer, more expansive term for the people involved in this second revolution. One that include the plain text social scientist, computer artists, 3D designers and others.

Counterglow

“This map shows factory farms and other animal facilities in the United States.”

Counterglow

“The map is meant to offer a rare bird’s-eye view of the scale of the industry, while also providing a research tool for activist investigators. Kecia Doolittle, the leader of the team that created the map, is an animal rights activist who has participated in a number of farm investigations herself. Footage uncovered by Doolittle and others over the years has revealed conditions such as overcrowding; wounded, sick, and dead animals left in pens with the living; painful procedures like tail removal and castration without anesthesia; and physical abuse by farmers, at times resulting in boycotts or criminal charges.

Most recently, as The Intercept reported on Friday, activists with the organization Direct Action Everywhere captured footage of a harrowing mass kill method called ventilation shutdown. The closure of meatpacking plants due to Covid-19 outbreaks has left farmers with nowhere to take mature livestock; in response, they have exterminated millions of animals. One particularly torturous tactic involves corralling pigs into a barn, closing the doors and windows, and shutting down the ventilation system. ‘This causes the buildup of excessive temperature and moisture from body heat and respiration of the animals and results in death from hyperthermia,’ according to guidelines from the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, which endorses ventilation shutdown in ‘constrained circumstances.’

Doolittle said that despite her knowledge of the industry’s brutal practices, this method caught her off guard. ‘I didn’t believe it was real,’ she said. To Doolittle, the use of ventilation shutdown should be a call to action, and more than images are needed.”

-Alleen Brown, “Animal Rights Activists Uncover the Locations of Thousands of Factory Farms.” The Intercept. May 31, 2020.

In light of the recent protests, it is hard not to notice that the way we treat The Other, whether it be people of a different race or different species, have a commonality.