Article highlights of 2021
Following my yearly tradition (2020, 2019, and 2018), here were my favorite articles from 2021. It's hard to come up with coherent groupings, but overall I definitely read more about emergence, evolution, equilibrium and complexity-related stuff. I tried to make sense of Russia, China and where the US sits in the new world order. Notably, I read a lot of Construction Physics, as if preparing for an ambitious but unspecified building project.
I may have overindexed on articles and non-fiction books this year, at the expense of reading novels. This is at odds with my stated belief in the Power of Fiction. Looking back at my book list, I only read two fiction books the whole year — possibly an all-time low. My aim for 2022 is to double down on reading for pleasure, relieving pressure to capture every insight.
Happy New Year!
Lenses and mental models
- Important Concept: Kayfabe (Edge) - Eric Weinstein describes Kayfabe, a term from professional wrestling about a situation where there appears to be a real contest but the outcomes are predetermined. Unsportsmanlike conduct happens from the appearance of actual competition (called "shooting", as opposed to scripted deception, which is called "working"). This phenomenon organically emerged, because real wrestling is pretty monotonous for the audience, and for the participants, features occasional but extreme peril. Weinstein speculates that Kayfabe occurs in other domains too.
- Convex and Concave Dispositions (Vitalik Buterin) - Vitalik explores situations where the polarity model (two desirable attributes in conflict with one another) are resolved better by picking one of the poles than trying to find something in-between. His main example is lockdowns: a 100% effective travel ban is far more useful than a half-hearted lockdown. Given the choice of war with country A and war with country B, a little bit of A and B is not generally a great choice. Interesting lens nonetheless.
- Live versus Dead Players (Samo Burja) - In Samo's definition, Live Players are able to do new things. Dead players are repeating stereotyped behaviors, often cargo-culting what Live Players have pioneered.
- Our Brain Typically Overlooks This Brilliant Problem-Solving Strategy (Scientific American) - People often limit their creativity by continually adding new features to a design rather than removing existing ones.
- A Big Little Idea Called Ergodicity (Tyler Pearson) - An accessible explanation of ergodicity using startups and Russian Roulette as analogy. In an ensemble probability, the ruin of one individual does not affect the others (eg. you are a VC, "some of your startups may fail", but one of them IPOs, so you still make out like a bandit). In a time probability, the ruin at one point in time affects all future points in time (eg. you are a founder, and years of effort are completely wasted).
- Deliberate Practice for Knowledge Work (Simon Sarris) - Simon answers Andy's question provocatively: "Deliberate practice of knowledge work requires testing knowledge, and that is achieved by doing. Note taking is not the under-studied force of knowledge, play is."
- Creativity in Management (John Cleese) - Cleese gave a great speech to Video Arts in 1991. Humor is a natural concomitant in the open mode, but it’s a luxury in the closed. I add Cleese to the stable of believers in open, divergent, wandering, exploratory, beer drinking hill finders.
- The fallacy of mood affiliation (Marginal Revolution) - A form of motivated reasoning where you first choose a mood or attitude, then find confirming evidence that matches the mood.
- Concept: Bisociation (Edge) - Arthur Koestler, who has transformed into a kind of totem for me over the last few years, coined this word bisociation, which integrates two (or more) apparently incompatible frames of thought. In humor, the canonical example is a pun. For Koestler, the ability to simultaneously view a situation through multiple frames of reference is the source of all creative breakthroughs.
- Edge of Chaos (Systems Innovation) - Right between the two extremes, order and chaos, at a kind of abstract phase transition called the edge of chaos, you also find complexity: a class of behaviors in which the components of the system never quite lock into place, yet never dissolve into turbulence.
- Evolution as Tinkering (Larry Moran)† — Argues that natural selection has no analogy with any aspect of human behavior, but the closest thing might be tinkering. Often without even knowing what she’s going to create, the tinkerer uses whatever she can find to make a workable object.
- The Inner Ring (C. S. Lewis) - Every organization has a legible hierarchy. A general is superior to a colonel, and a colonel to a captain. But the way things really work is via a series of concentric rings, a shadow organization that is illegible to the uninitiated. To a young person, just entering on adult life, the world seems full of “insides,” full of delightful intimacies and confidentialities, and he desires to enter them. But if he follows that desire he will reach no “inside” that is worth reaching. The true road lies in quite another direction: mastering a craft.
- 100 years of whatever this will be (apenwarr) - Decentralized, distributed systems aren't a panacea, and often need to be regulated. Furthermore, if no regulation is present, some other shadow hierarchy will emerge, and it may not be one that we like.
- Secrets Of The Great Families (Scott Alexander) - A fun overview of a few impressive families and their multitalented members. I learned about the Tagores and their amazing names, all of which end with "dranath". Seriously though, how do great families remain great without reversion to the mean? Three ways, at least: 1. having a lot of children, and 2. marrying people from other great families, 3. children of great people feel pressure to do something great.
American Culture Wars
- A Global Leader in Obsolete Technology (Cato Institute) - Punchy article mocks high-speed rail for being functionally obsolete technology. Slower than flying, less convenient than driving, and more expensive than either one. Most of the argument against has to do with cost, and even China's rail efforts have put it into great debt. The author suggests building more highway instead. It's a pretty weak argument, but could be buttressed if self-driving cars and trucks become a norm. I highlight this because I'm a rail fan and think this was a valuable perspective.
- California Is Making Liberals Squirm (NYTimes) - Ezra Klein criticizes progressives for being symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative. Signs professing love for Immigrants and how much BLM are placed in communities that organize against efforts that would bring those values closer to reality.
- The Meaning of Trump’s Mass Cancellation (The Atlantic) - A critique of swashbuckling CEOs pretending to do a great deed by banning Trump from their platforms. In fact they punished a lame-duck president at the nadir of his power.
- Why Wokeism Will Rule the World (Bloomberg) - Tyler Cowen of all people calls for a bit more nuance when criticizing wokeness. Indeed, we are a little bit too woke here in the US private sector. It's also unclear whether wokeness will ultimately help Black Americans. But globally, it's pretty clear that more wokeness might not be such a bad thing. It would be nice if Afghans let women work again, and if Saudi Arabia would stop executing gay people.
- Liberalism and class (Interfluidity) - The obligation to be tolerant in a liberal society has shifted from “try not to be a dick” to understanding the sensitivities of diverse communities and taking care to respect them. But this has the paradoxical effect of further isolating the "professional" class from the bulk of the public, for whom the burden of staying current with everchanging mores is simply too much. The requirement of diplomacy has become a kind of regressive tax. The same high standards are expected of everyone, but only a certain class of people can easily afford to meet them.
- The Economic Mistake the Left Is Finally Confronting (New York Times)† — Ezra Klein argues that the world we should build toward requires more than redistribution: it requires progress, inventions, and advances that will boost productivity and ultimately grow the supply of goods and services.
- How America Tried (and Failed) to Solve Its "Servant Problem" (JSTOR Daily) - In the early part of the twentieth century, most middle-class American homes had at least one servant. The “servant problem” boiled down to the fact that wealthier women wanted reliable, cheap, willing labor, but poorer women (many of them black) did not want to be their servants. Somewhat unsatisfying since the article presents no real explanation, but an interesting snapshot of a long forgotten era.
- Strategic Extremism, published 2004 (New York Times) - In the mid-20th century, a majority Americans that voted were moderates, their views shaped by the Big Three TV networks. But over time the Big Three's hold grew weaker, and the shifting media landscape made it easier to appeal to smaller and smaller groups of people. Televangelists began to appeal to Evangelicals. Fox News appealed to the right. Direct mail allowed politicians to narrowcast to more specific demographics. Modern social media lets you do this easily, and at scale, and we have seen the results.
- Russian elections once again had a suspiciously neat result (The Economist) - unusually high number of turnout and vote-share results were multiples of five in this most recent Russian election (eg, 50%, 55%, 60%), a tell-tale sign of manipulation. Two thoughts: first, hire some smarter election frausters next time. Second, I was tickled by this since it's so directly related to age heaping.
- Papa Stalin and the Happy Family (Jewish Book Council) - Underscores the role of propaganda in Soviet Jewish children's literature, which tended to sketch portraits of children with absent or incompetent parents, mostly focusing on Kvitko.
- How Soviet Children's Books Became Collectors' Items in India (Atlas Obscura) - A look into the obscure world of Soviet children's literature like Денискины рассказы translated into Marathi, as part of an Comintern play of the early Soviets. But there was feedback too, eg. Бродяга (1951).
- Information Sovereignty (London Review of Books) - A system based on cynicism and paranoia means people end up distrusting everything. The Kremlin has, by most accounts, produced a decent vaccine for the coronavirus. But the government can’t persuade the Russian people that they need to take it. Only 13 per cent are vaccinated, despite Putin’s claim that the Sputnik V is ‘just as reliable as Kalashnikov assault rifles’
- Why China’s Political Model Is Superior (New York Times) - Written in 2012, I found this to be a surprising article for the gray lady to publish.
- Why is China smashing its tech industry? (Noah Smith)† - Smith argues that, after the Cold War, the West’s priorities shifted from survival to enjoyment, but China has doubled down on survival, moving toward the view that “hard tech is more valuable than products that take us more deeply into the digital world.” That, in turn, explains the crackdown on sectors that don’t help China stockpile national power.
- The Mechanism of the Five-Year Plan (Chinese Characteristics)† — Tech analyst Lillian Li explains how the Chinese government’s famous Five-Year Plans work, drawing a parallel to big tech companies’ “OKR” processes.
- Tired of Running in Place, Young Chinese ‘Lie Down’ (Sixth Tone) - Some young Chinese are resolving to just scrape by, exerting the bare minimum effort at an unfulfilling job, as opposed to the futility of raging against the capitalist machine. When you can’t catch up with society’s development — say, skyrocketing home prices — tang ping (lying Down) is actually the most rational choice,” he said.
Religion, broadly construed
- How limiting Latin Mass may become the defining moment for Pope Francis (The Conversation) - Vatican II (1965) decreed that the mass be translated into the local vernacular. Hardcore Catholics really wanted their mass conducted in Latin, some were excommunicated over it. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI expanded the use of the traditional Latin Mass. Then in 2021, Pope Francis reverted back to the Vatican II rules, banning the Latin Mass once more. See also this enraged response from a Rad Trad.
- We need highly formal rituals in order to make life more democratic (Aeon) - A somewhat naive take on the need for collective rituals, and an implementation of this as a pseudo religion in College residence. Borders on cosplay, but I do agree in spirit: "I hope we all come out of quarantine wearing our Sunday best, ringing bells, lighting candles and burning incense."
- The Death of the Festival (Charles Eisenstein) - My encounter with some of the ideas of Rene Girard. "Without respite from the conventions of the social order and without respite from our roles within it, we go crazy as well ... A real festival is essentially a repeated, ritualized riot that has evolved its own pattern language."
- Johann Sebastian Bach Was More Religious Than You Might Think (NYTimes) - I already thought Bach was pretty religious, but this article makes his religiosity more specific and extreme, and grounded in his own annotations of the Calov bible, a biblical tome compiled by Abraham Clov with Martin Luther's sermons and writings. The article paints Bach at odds with progressivist currents even of his own day. Bach favored biblical revelation over human reason, disparaged notions of human autonomy, held non-Luteran faiths in contempt, exalted German goodness, and the divine right of kings.
- What Happens When the Last Jew Leaves Afghanistan (NYTimes) - It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past.
- Hundreds of Israel’s Archaeological Sites Are Vanishing Under Concrete (Nature)† — Explores the tension between “salvage digs,” done to document archaeological remains in danger of destruction due to Israel’s extensive development projects, and the commercial sources of archaeological funding in Israel.
Geopolitics and War
- State Collapse and Nation Building in Afghanistan (Peter Turchin) — The now ex-president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, started his career as an academic and wrote a book called Fixing Failed States. Turchin reviews the book and argues that deliberate state-building is hard, but perhaps accidental state-building has been happening in the background in Afghanistan.
- When Terrorists and Criminals Govern Better Than Governments (The Atlantic)† — Argues that hierarchies imposed from outside are not part of the local feedback system and thus may be ineffective: “if people can’t get the leadership they crave from the state, they’ll find somebody else to do the job.”
- Mismatch of Mindsets: Why the Taliban Won in Afghanistan (The Guardian)† — An anthropologist argues that many recent military blunders can be attributed to Westerners’ confusion around their own values and the values of others, and an assumption that all parties are willing to negotiate and compromise more than they really are, especially when it comes to group belonging and sacred values.
- “Dune,” “Foundation,” and the Allure of Science Fiction that Thinks Long-Term (Long Now) - Asimov and Herbert took diametrically opposed stances — the trust-the-plan humanistic optimism of Foundation in one corner, the esoteric pessimism of Dune in the other. The author speculates that Dune fits the current "moment of broader cultural gloominess" better than Foundation does.
- Isolated Demands for Rigour in New Optimism (Applied Divinity Studies) - A battery of optimism is upon us. You should be ashamed of yourself, says the author. "The recent trend of rhetoric against stagnation is not founded in evidence or driven by data. It is pure mood affiliation."
- Scenario Planning for the Long-term (Long Now) - Scenario planning is not about prediction; it’s about making better decisions. That is, if you really do your homework well in multiple scenarios, you’re probably going to see this future.
- Forecasting s-curves is hard (Constance Crozier) - Many social and biological systems follow the S-curve. What first looks like exponential growth, slows and increases linearly, and finally levels off (therefore end up looking like a wonky s). Constance shows how difficult it is to mathematically extrapolate S-curves in a compelling video.
- So, You Want to Build a House More Efficiently (Austin Vernon) - There's a naive high modern take that is tempting to apply to house construction: "Let's build buildings like cars". Unfortunately this doesn't work: materials are too heavy and no cost dominates the cost of new home construction.
- Mass Effects (Construction Physics) - Advancing construction technology over the last 200 years has seen the weight and volume of construction materials plummet. The Eiffel Tower is twice as tall as the Pyramid of Giza, but uses 1/300 of the volume. Less material means easier transportation, simpler assembly, smaller foundation. But thick and heavy building elements confer advantages like being less prone to vibration, more thermal and sound proofing, and feeling nicer.
- Balloon Framing is Worse is Better (Construction Physics) - Impressed by Austin Vernon's post, I decided to follow up and read the source. This article digs into pre-fabrication and transport vs. on-site construction, and explains why the balloon frame has persisted for as long as it has.
- Where Are The Robotic Bricklayers? (Construction Physics) - Masonry seemed like the perfect candidate for mechanization, but a hundred years of limited success suggests there’s some aspect to it that prevents a machine from easily doing it. At least a couple of reasons: 1. Mortar has sort of complex physical properties, eg. viscosity increases when it’s moved or shaken, 2. Heavy bricks require larger, more expensive machinery, and 3. In the US, masonry walls are constructed with a large amount of reinforcement.
- Logistics, Production Volume, and Industrialized Building (Construction Physics) Why have prefab homes not completely replaced bespoke, on-site construction? Economies of scale naturally push us towards this end of the spectrum. The answer lies in product value density. Buildings have low product-value density, and the logistics costs for transporting a fully assembled building are enormous. Even if transport was easy, there are still be significant site costs. Permitting, grading, setting foundations, etc. can be up to 20% of overall construction costs, and aren't easily addressed by any sort of mass-production method.
- The DIY Family (Institute for Family Studies) - Like a modern lower end version of a Gilded Age baron, many Americans are now catered to by an army of part-time servants (grocery & restaurant delivery, nannies, uber drivers, house cleaning). This article points to a pandemic spurred reversal. Closing childcare centers meant more parents choosing to stay at home and watch the kids. More people were doing DIY projects than calling the handyman. More people cooking for themselves. Will this trend persist over the long term? I don't think so.
- The ancient Persian way to keep cool (BBC) - Wind catchers were ancient Persian buildings designed with natural cooling systems. They were tall so they could catch wind, funnel it down to the dwelling below, while depositing any sand or debris at the foot of the tower. Yazd, UNESCO world heritage site is home to many.
- What Do GDP Growth Curves Really Mean? (Less Wrong) - Even granting that GDP doesn’t measure happiness, or leisure time, or household work, GDP calculations are misleading because they ignore the effects of technological revolutions. GDP is calculated at recent prices, dominated by the things which are expensive today (eg. real estate). Things which are cheap today are ignored in hindsight. So goods whose prices drop dramatically because of some technological revolution are downweighted to near-zero.
- Why Tunnels in The US Cost Much More Than Anywhere Else in The World (Tunnel Business Magazine) - It costs $2.5B/mi in New York, $900M/mi in other parts of the US and Australia, $500M/mi in Europe and the Middle East, and $200M/mi in India & China to build tunnels. Many complex cost drivers, including labor costs, labor laws, regulations, bureaucracy.
- American Gentry (Patrick Wyman) - Patrick points at a certain kind of usually invisible wealthy family, whose wealth is not flashy, but stays in the family for generations. The sort of family that owns seventeen McDonald’s franchises in eastern Tennessee, or owners of the third-biggest construction company in Bakersfield.
- The Games People Play With Cash Flow (Common Cog) - Deep dive into trade-offs of raising capital early. Succinctly answers why so many profitable SaaS companies still want to take on venture funding. "in many businesses, you must spend money now to make money later. This implies that you’ll need a source of capital at the start of many business ventures".
- Why Behavioral Economics is Itself Biased (Evonomics) - Turns out that the study showing that there is no "Hot Hand" in basketball was biased, and in fact the phenomenon is real. The winds of change are blowing, and behavioral economics is not immune to its own critiques.
- Could Index Funds Be ‘Worse Than Marxism’? (The Atlantic) - Some $11 trillion is now invested in index funds, up from $2 trillion a decade ago. And as of 2019, more money is invested in passive funds than in active funds in the United States. Index funds increase inertia, and they get too dominant, capital will get allocated only to the big companies and not necessarily to good, promising, or efficient companies. Also, index fund managers like Vanguard get outsized control of votes in companies in the index. Perhaps we could all use a little more of that manic stock-picking energy, not less.
- The Martian (No Mercy/No Malice) - A look at Elon Musk's financial machinations and outsized influence on markets.
- Why YKK zippers are the brown M&Ms of product design (The Prepared) - A surprising look at YKK, a Japanese manufacturer of high quality zippers. The authors suggest using this and other signs to look for quality in products.
- WTF happened in 1971 (Coin Telegraph) - Still very confused on this one. But alarmingly, hours to buy a single unit of the S&P 500 has increased to an all time high of 126 hours today, up from an average of 30.9 hours since 1860.
Tech: AI to XR
- The Macintosh Spirit (Folklore) - One of many great anecdotes about early Apple culture which shaped the Macintosh. The original team was driven more by artistic values, oblivious to competition, where the goal was to be transcendently brilliant and insanely great. And there was a Pirate mentality: "it's better to be a pirate than join the navy".
- The Wrong Abstraction (Sandi Metz) - Abstraction is an important part of computer programming. It helps reduce duplication, and reason about things as systems interacting with one another. But we often over do it, anticipating a complicated future that never comes, or end up with the wrong abstraction. If you find yourself in a situation like this, go backward! It's better to unroll the abstraction, duplicate code, and find new, more meaningful abstractions.
- The Part Time Creator Manifesto (Shawn Wang) - Not the greatest article, but a nice existence proof that some people are able to combine a full-time job with profitable part-time work, and live to tell the tale.
- What's strategic for Google? (Craig Dixon) - Hardboiled look at Google strategy circa 2009.
- The Bitter Lesson (Rich Sutton) - Rich names a trend that has been happening in ML research for a long time now. Throwing large amounts of compute at pretty generic neural networks yields better results than hand-crafted, specialized non-neural model architectures.
- Deepfake satellite imagery poses a not-so-distant threat, warn geographers (The Verge) - Far from presenting deepfakes cartography as a novel challenge, "humans have been lying with maps for pretty much as long as maps have existed, they say, from mythological geographies devised by ancient civilizations like the Babylonians, to modern propaganda maps distributed during wartime". No mention of Potemkin villages, but same genre.
- Hey, Facebook, I Made a Metaverse 27 Years Ago (The Atlantic) Zuck isn't building the metaverse because he has a remarkable new vision of how things could be. The futures it imagines have been imagined a thousand times before, and usually better.
- Ivan Illich: Silence is a Commons (indiana.edu) - Ivan Illich is doing to computers what he did to education (De-Schooling Society, 1971), to energy (Energy and Equity, 1974), to medicine (Medical Nemesis, 1975), etc.
- The MAYA Principle: Design for the Future, but Balance it with Your Users’ Present (Interaction Design Foundation)† - Google Glass has not become the success it was anticipated to become. How do we learn to strike the right balance between the most advanced design and our users’ ability to accept our product?
- Preserving the Person in the Emerging Kingdom of Technological Force (The Frailest Thing) - L. M. Sacasas presents a coherent critical theory take on why it is that Google Glass has so far been rejected by society.
- The miracle count (Dimitri Glazkov)† - Put simply, the miracle count is the number of unlikely events that we need to happen for a project to succeed. If your startup needs zero miracles to work, it probably isn't a defensible startup. If your startup needs multiple miracles, it probably isn't going to work.
- VCs should play bridge (Alex Danco) - In bridge, your bids have to serve two purposes: they are both literal commitments (if your bid wins, you must follow through with it) and also coded signals which you use to try and telegraph information to your partner about where you see opportunity. This seems like a useful analogy to understand insanely high startup valuations.
- Why the Canadian Tech Scene Doesn’t Work (Alex Danco) - Canada has too many Bad Angel Investors. They focus too much on guaranteed winnings. They want to see structure: milestones, accelerators, incubators, mentorship programs, and other process-heavy things. Canada needs more Good Angels playing an infinite game. They need to contribute to a community; not in order to win something definite, but to earn the right to keep participating in the scene. I found this explanation a useful application of an otherwise annoying book.
- Spreading Slow Ideas (New Yorker) - Considers the speed of technological diffusion by comparing the fast spread of anesthesia to the slow spread of antiseptics. It comes down to fast feedback loops of seeing effects and technical complexity of applying the tech. Very insightful deep dive into more modern examples of slow diffusion of medical ideas and how to catalyze the process with human connection.
- Ideas not mattering is a psyop (Alexey Guzey) - Against the "ideas are cheap" trope, which I often invoke. I think this changed my view from "all that matters is execution" to some more balanced version of ideas mattering, execution mattering, and a million other things mattering.
- The Deployment Age (Jerry Neumann) - A somewhat long overview of Carlotta Perez's theory of technological change. Roughly speaking, Progress advances in surges, and each surge has two major stages. The first is "Installation", where a new technology irrupts and results in a speculative frenzy. The bubble pops, leads to a lot of broken hearts and empty wallets, but the frenzy leaves behind useful infrastructure. The second stage is "Deployment", during which the new technologies really revolutionize the world and reach maturity.
- Combinatorial Innovation and Technological Progress in the Very Long Run (What’s New Under the Sun)† — Introduces the concept of “combinatorial innovation,” where new inventions are composed of two or more older inventions; shows how this should, in theory, lead to explosive growth in technological progress; and explores some limiting factors that, in practice, limit us to slowing or constant progress.
- Experts From A World That No Longer Exists (Collaborative Fund) - The biggest risk to an evolving system is that you become bogged down by experts from a world that no longer exists. Clarke's First Law: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong." Henry Ford has a remedy for this problem: don't keep a record of failures: "If you keep on recording all of your failures you will shortly have a list showing that there is nothing left for you to try – whereas it by no means follows because one man has failed in a certain method that another man will not succeed". Definitely thought provoking, and interesting example of note taking as an info hazard.
- The Vision Thing (Fred Wilson) - Leadership comes in two flavors, visionary leadership and operational leadership. Founders are almost always visionaries and hired CEOs are almost always operators.
- We need a career path for invention (Roots of Progress) - “Inventor” is not a role one can be hired for. The aspiring inventor finds themselves straddling science and business. They could join a research lab, or become an engineer at a technology-based company. In either case, they will be misaligned with their environment.
- Why I’m a proud solutionist (Jason Crawford) - Jason highlights that there is a middle way between starry-eyed optimism and nihilistic pessimism. Nothing new here, but a good reminder of a stance that I am sympathetic to.
- Why Germany Is So Much Better at Training Its Workers (The Atlantic) - Laments how hard it is to imagine many American firms, generally focused on short-term financial gain, building the kind of in-house training centers we saw at every German plant. They focus on "Dual training", which captures the idea at the heart of every apprenticeship: Trainees split their days between classroom instruction at a vocational school and on-the-job time at a company.
- Japanese Zoning (Urban kchoze) - US zoning laws impose one or two exclusive uses for every zone. Japanese laws tend to view things more as the maximum nuisance level to tolerate in each zone, but every use that is considered to be less of a nuisance is still allowed. So low-nuisance uses are allowed essentially everywhere. How did American zoning get so prescriptive and over-regulated? In general I am enjoying articles that point to a better system, or suggest concrete improvements to the existing one.
- Urban sprawl is a tragedy of the commons (Devon Zuegel) - Space and access form a polarity. You want to have a big house, but you also want it to be close to places you like and need. Acknowledges that the underlying coordination problem is wicked, but also that there are many low-hanging fruit to increase access to amazing things without sacrificing space.
- Cars and second order consequences (Benedict Evans) - Evans follows two major trends in cars through some speculative scenarios: moving to electric means much more than replacing the gas tank with a battery, and moving to autonomy means much more than ending accidents. What happens to public transport? To parking garages? To long commutes? To surveillance due to multiple video cameras in every car?
- Lost cities #5: how the magnificent city of Merv was razed – and never recovered (The Guardian) - I only learned about Merv recently from Lost Enlightenment by Frederick Starr. A shocking story of collapse — from the largest city in the world in the 13th century to dusty, windswept remains. Even the name is lost.
- Drawing pictures of cities (Noah Smith) - Smith breaks down what makes the famous Solar Punk image !Imperial Boy Solar Punk Art.png so appealing. I loved the systematic breakdown of solarpunk aesthetics, which is still nascent and thus impervious to analysis.
- The Buddhist History of Moveable Type (Tricycle) - A deep look into early Buddhist Zen prints using metal typesetting. This predated Gutenberg’s press, but was not practical. It did not included mechanisms modified from wine or oil presses that allowed for lowering a metal frame over the top of the paper. The improved method was even, reliable, and fast.
- Japanese Typewriters (Gatunka) - A mechanical kanji typewriter is obviously complex for the sheer number of characters involved. But further difficulties arose from complicated glyphs such as 曇 or 驚, required striking with additional force to compensate for the large surface area of the typeface. Some echoes back to the printing press and challenges with movable type.
Climate change and resilience
- Climate Change Challenges for Alpine Ski Resorts in Western Canada - A deep look at how climate change will affect ski resorts over the next half-century. I really liked this analysis because it was scientific and specific, not hand-wringing, but also extremely sobering in terms of implications: "Under the worst-case scenario (by 2085) all of the coastal resorts will become much too warm to support winter recreation".
- Ruggedize Your Life (The Snap Forward) - No place on Earth will escape climate and ecological upheaval, but some are better than others. Mostly this is a process of elimination: discard from consideration the places with severe risks, or multiple overlapping risks, and take a closer look at what’s left. The old advice that it’s smart to buy the smallest house in the best neighborhood you can afford is especially true from a "shit hitting the fan" perspective.
- Is It Better to Plant Trees or Let Forests Regrow Naturally? (Wired) - Planting a trillion trees over the next three decades would be a huge logistical challenge. A trillion is a big number. If natural forest growth is cheaper and better, does that make sense?
- Why has nuclear power been a flop? (Roots of Progress) - A multi-faceted look at Nuclear energy failure in the US. Super interesting angle is regulation around radiation levels. Specifically, ALARA: As Low As Reasonably Achievable "might seem like a sensible approach, until you realize that it eliminates, by definition, any chance for nuclear power to be cheaper than its competition."
- How to design a sailing ship for the 21st century? (Low Tech Magazine) - Seriously considers what it would take to rebuild global shipping on sailboats. Docking a 500 ton sailboat under sail? No thanks — we'll need tugboats! How practical it would be given today's population and appetites? (Not very)
- Checkpoints (Robin Sloan) - Made me aware of an internet subculture Robin calls checkpointing, after checkpoints in JRPG games which typically come between dangerous sections. Barely surviving, you come by surprise, to peaceful oasis where you can save your game before the boss fight. People have been leaving heartfelt comments to this effect. You have to see it to believe it.
- The YouTube Revolution in Knowledge Transfer (Samo Burja)† — Samo observes that an overlooked benefit of YouTube is that it allows novices to observe experts at work, reminiscent of the master-apprentice model. This has unlocked a form of mass-scale tacit knowledge transmission that is historically unprecedented.
- A history of metaphors for the internet (The Verge) - If the internet is a highway, the government should regulate what people do on it. The cloud is weightless and intentionally vague, in sharp contrast with the industrial reality of remote datacenters. Skimps on a few interesting ones, like filesystems, which are an analogy from filing cabinets. And also the modern obsession with the Metaverse, a science fiction analogy.
- A Few Notes On The Culture (Iain M. Banks) - In which the author goes deep on his book series on The Culture. A fascinating tidbit which echoes in the books: "A planned economy can be more productive — and more morally desirable — than one left to market forces."
- Heresies of “Dune” (Los Angeles Review of Books) - Frank Herbert's grandparents helped found a socialist commune in Washington State, north of Tacoma. His father was raised there, and Herbert spent many of his young years there. Growing up, he rebelled and become a republican.
- The three kinds of non-fiction books (Commonplace)† - There are three kinds of non-fiction book: 💁♀️ narrative, 🌳 tree, and 🌿 branch. Tree books are books that lay out a framework of ideas (eg. Thinking Fast & Slow). Branch books consist of a single idea. IMHO, these shouldn't be read.
Medicine and health
- Doctor’s Orders (Real Life)† — A deep dive into vaccine hesitancy through the lens of a broader trend of the medicalization of society: when previously non-medical issues become medical and thus fixable, medical knowledge is elevated to the status of society’s ground truth, and medical advertising targets the individual consumer.
- All the "wellness" products Americans love to buy are sold on both Infowars and Goop (Quartz) - Many of the alternative-medicine ingredients in Amanda Bacon's wellness Moon Juice brand are sold—with very different branding—on the Infowars store, run by Alex Jones, a conspiracy theorist. The horseshoe theory of craziness.
- How Methamphetamine Became a Key Part of Nazi Military Strategy (TIME) - Pervitin, a methamphetamine (aka speed) helped German soldiers go on working for 36 to 50 hours without feeling any noticeable fatigue. Part of the speed of the Blitzkrieg literally came from speed. The drug was even dispensed to pilots and tank crews in the form of chocolate bars known as Fliegerschokolade and Panzerschokolade.
- The mind does not exist (Aeon) - Somewhat incoherent argument against the terms 'mind' and 'mental'. Mainly linked because of a pointer to a field called Psychoneuroimmunology. A fascinating study by Ader & Cohen showed that the nervous system can affect the immune system. In the same way that Pavlov's dogs can be conditioned to drool on hearing a bell ring, rats given sugar water became immunosuppressed.
†: Previously recommended in The FLUX Review.