Better Thought Technology 

“Technological innovation, in the conventional sense, won’t help us slow the publishing process back down. Slowing down requires better thought technology. It requires a willingness to draft for the sake of drafting. It requires throwing away most of what we think because most of our thoughts don’t deserve to be read by others. Most of our thoughts are distractions—emotional sleights of the mind that trick us into thinking we care about something that we really don’t—or that we understand something that we really don’t.”

—Eddie Smith, “From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography.” Practically Efficient. October 13, 2017.

Pretty good overview of the history of mathematical typography.

Commercial Surveillance State

“Manipulation campaigns can plug into the commercial surveillance infrastructure and draw on lessons of behavioral science. They can use testing to refine strategies that take account of the personal traits of targets and identify interventions that may be most potent. This might mean identifying marginal participants, let’s say for joining a march or boycott, and zeroing in on interventions to dissuade them from taking action. Even more worrisomely, such targeting could try to push potential allies in different directions. Targets predicted to have more radical inklings could be pushed toward radical tactics and fed stories deriding compromise with liberal allies. Simultaneously, those predicted to have more liberal sympathies may be fed stories that hype fears about radical takeover of the resistance. Such campaigns would likely play off divisions along race, gender, issue-specific priorities, and other lines of identity and affinity.”

—Matthew Crain and Anthony Nailer, “Commercial Surveillance State.” N+1. September 27, 2017.

The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar – Topic

“By 1976, reporter Pam Zekman was well-acquainted with the everyday corruption that permeated Chicago. After all, the city was so well-known for shady dealings it birthed its own shorthand: ‘Chicago-style politics’ was used with frequency to describe boss-style rule and graft in government. 

Zekman was part of a four-person Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at the Chicago Tribune, where she had gone undercover in a nursing home, for a collections agency, in a hospital, and at a precinct polling place, exposing wrongdoings ranging from medical malpractice to election fraud. ‘We had become known for doing this kind of undercover reporting with one caveat: When there’s no other way to get the story,’ says Zekman. ‘We didn’t do it just for the idea of doing it and we did not do it cavalierly.’

When Zekman was poached by a rival paper, the feisty Chicago Sun-Times, she proposed a daring project that would go down in the annals of journalism history as both a feat of reporting and a focal point for ethics debates still raging today. For years, Zekman had been collecting tips about city employees extracting bribes from local businessmen, but couldn’t get sources to go on the record; she figured the only way to get the story would be to get inside the system. So she convinced her paper to buy a bar. They would staff it with newspaper workers, run it like any other watering hole (with some notable exceptions that included concealed photographers), and wait to see what happened.”

—Andy Wright, “The Story Behind the Chicago Newspaper that Bought a Bar.” Topic. Issue No. 4, October 2017.

Scuttlebutt – An Off-Grid Social Network

“It’s a decentralized system for sending messages to a specific community, rather than the global internet. It works by word of mouth. Instead of posting to an online service like Facebook or Twitter, Scuttlebutt applications hold onto their data locally. When a user runs into a friend, the system automatically synchronizes its stored updates with them via local-network transfer—or even by USB stick. Then the friend does likewise, and word spreads, slowly and deliberately.

For the contemporary internet user, it sounds like a bizarre proposition. Why make communication slower, inefficient, and reliant on random interactions between other people? But Tarr and others building SSB applications think it might solve many of the problems of today’s internet, giving people better and more granular control of their lives online and off.”

—Ian Bogart, “The Nomad Who’s Exploding the Internet Into Pieces.” The Atlantic. May 22, 2017.

Originally came across Scuttlebutt in this article in The Atlantic a few months ago. It’s relatively easy to set-up.

  1. Get an invite code to a pub.
  2. Download a release of Patchwork, a Scuttlebutt client, for your operating system and install.
  3. Follow the prompts to connect to the pub.

It strikes me as reminiscent of the old BBS systems. But, much would look familiar to the people that came of age using Facebook. There are public forums, public user journals and private messaging. The reason it’s more like a BBS is that it is built around the idea of asynchronous updating rather than real time.

The problem—like with alternative, decentralized social networks everywhere—is the existing user base does not include people you already know. Then, for most people, it’s a question of why not just use Facebook? 

There are good answers to that question, e.g., it’s not a platform that makes money doing surveillance on its users in order to make money selling ads to them, it’s an augmentation to occasional social interaction rather than a surrogate for it, the built in delay cuts out some of the addictive attraction of social media, etc. Still, these are rarely persuasive arguments that convince people to change from Facebook, Twitter, and so forth to a much less polished social media platform.

Regardless, Scuttlebutt is an interesting alternative—one I’ll be watching in the coming years.

 

Freedom vs. Sovereignty

“The reward for accepting unpredictability is meaning. Unlike the abyss faced by makers, the plurality of other humans who are the object of action don’t just stare back. Sometimes they accept your invitation to play on; they join you in continuing the game. To act, in the Arendt sense, is to issue a call to play an infinite game in the James Carse sense (Carsean finite games, obviously, map to maker-theaters).

The reward for dealing with others through promises and forgiveness, rather than fuck-yous, is freedom, a richer mode of being than sovereignty.”

—Venkatesh Rao, “How To Make History.” Ribbonfarm.com. September 14, 2017.

There seems to be an interesting overlap going on here where the element of surprise is the hallmark of agency and freedom, and Baggini’s bringing in the same when talking about truth.

No Regrets

“VEDANTAM: I understand you got married about a year ago. And you applied some of your own research on regret when it came to choosing a wedding dress.

SUMMERVILLE: I did. So I actually wasn’t applying my own research. I applied to work by Sheena Iyengar on the phenomenon of choice overload as well as work by Barry Schwartz and colleagues about the idea of maximizing versus satisficing as strategies for decisions – maximizing being the idea that you want to pick the best of all possible alternatives and satisficing being the idea that you’re going to pick something that meets all of your standards but may or may not be the absolute best.

So when I was wedding dress shopping, I went to a couple of stores. I tried on five or 10 dresses at each one. And I found a dress that I absolutely loved and was in my price range. And I realized that what the research told me was I would never be happier than I was at that moment – that if I kept dress shopping, I was going to wind up feeling overwhelmed. You know, I could find a hundred different lace sheaths with a V-neck in ivory, and I would wind up feeling confused about what are the differences between these, and that the very act of trying to get the absolute best would mean that I could never really be sure if I’d done it. Whereas, if I adopted a satisficing strategy, I could be sure I’m in a dress that looks beautiful on me and is in my price range, and I should just buy it and be done. And so that’s how I chose my wedding dress.”

—Emma Maris, “Feminine And Unapologetic.” Lastwordonnothing.com September 25, 2017.

h/t Hidden Brain. What I find puzzling about Emma’s commentary is she, in her writing, is both criticizing the trivialization of gendered examples and at the same time does it herself. Crying while doing dishes and listening to the radio is only female in so far as women are more likely to be washing dishes in the first place. 

Cambrian Explosion

“The hox genes are, more or less, the standard library for the structural assembly of animal bodies. It’s a DNA-modifying type of gene, one that activates specific other regions of DNA during early development. Need a leg? Activate the ‘leg’ hox gene, and that will start a huge cascade of related processes that make a torso segment that contains a couple legs plus all the necessary hip-joints and such in a somewhat standardized way.** This makes it easier than you’d think to adapt animal body plans on the fly; rather than reinventing legs from the ground up every time you want to adapt from quadruped to hexaped, you can just have a mutation that calls the hox gene two more times. It is also a primary mechanism of directionality, in which animal bodies have a clear orientation with a front and back.

As you might imagine, animals almost never survive a mutation to the hox genes proper, let alone thrive and speciate. It tends to mean that you get born without a head or something. So, both humans and house flies tend to have a very similar set. That holds true across the entire animal kingdom, with only a few exceptions- hox genes are frozen in time, proportionate with their importance. Care to guess which types of animal lack fully formed hox genes?

That’s right: sponges and jellyfish. Even those have a rough proto-hox thing going on, but it’s a far cry short of ours.

It goes without saying that this will have implications for species diversity in the animal kingdom. Adaptation isn’t as easy as building an animal out of legos, but it has at least gotten a lot easier. Animals can experiment with body shapes in more radical ways, and be successful more often when they do so—they’re now exploring a much larger space of possibilities.

We’re starting to piece together a rough framework here, in which the rise of oxygen and the slow development of meta-genomic advantages work together to provide space for a more dynamic ecosystem, but is that enough to make sense of something as dramatic and surprising as the Cambrain Explosion? It’s a start!”

Anonymous. “Notes From an Apocalypse.” Lesserwrong.com. September 23, 2017.