Category Archives: Art

What strange and ancient things might we find beneath the ice?

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-Hillel

Nature is not good, only proto-good.
-Paolo Soleri

Epistemic status: literally a dream

I awaken.

I am in the desert, alone.

I see the ribcage of a long-since-dead animal. I see a long row of such bones, twisted in a way that reminds me of - but is definitely not - the double helix.

I know what this means.

Evolution, on the margin, always eats free energy, to make more energy-eaters. It is a race with no upper bound, and there will be no victory. Instead, the cosmic commons will be exhausted by resource-claimers with no plan to do anything with the resources. Not that there will be anything left when the race is over.

If I do not take the next step in the dance of life, my line ends. I am just a corpse along the way.

If I do take the next step in the dance of life, then I do no better than life.

And if not now ...

Then I look again. Instead of bones I see a railroad. For longitudinal bones, metal tracks laid by the hand of industrial humanity, stretching in a straight line towards infinity. For ribs, the crossties that allow the uneven ground to support those even rails.

I know what this means.

The economic logic of global capitalism. Another race towards infinity, leaving nothing. Quarterly returns. Goodhart's law. Accountability and automation replacing judgment wherever they can, culminating in a Disneyland with no children. The symbol of this, the train, no natural place for the line of tracks to end, stations but no terminals, stretching on forever.

I look again. I see a road.

I awaken.  Continue reading

Poets are intelligence assets

Aeschylus’s Oresteia is an ancient Greek tragedy about the dialectic between the natural desire for vengeance, order, and the rule of law. This is most likely what contemporaries thought the play was about, including Aeschylus himself.

It is also a play about sexual politics, and the relationship between the idea of the rule of law as actually implemented in the West, and patriarchy.

This is a good example of the well-known phenomenon in which literary criticism and other forms of textual analysis frequently get something “out of” the text that the author had no apparent intent of putting into it - and that many coherent narratives can be extracted from the same text. Far more than an author could plausibly have meant to put into the text. This is often taken as evidence that such readings are spurious.

Robin Hanson argued that one way to extract information from published studies that was comparatively uncontaminated by publication bias, was to look at the coefficients of control variables. The idea is that if your study is about, say, the effect of alcohol on life expectancy, journals may be unwilling to publish it if you get an improbable-seeming result, or no significant result. But less scrutiny is applied to the estimated effect of alcohol if you’re studying something else, and simply “control for” alcohol (i.e. include it in your model as a possible predictor).

Likewise, great literature is typically an integrated, multi-dimensional depiction. While there is a great deal of compression, the author is still trying to report how things might really have happened, to satisfy their own sense of artistic taste for plausibility or verisimilitude. Thus, we should expect that great literature is often an honest, highly informative account of everything except what the author meant to put into it. Continue reading

New York culture

Recently, a friend looking to support high-quality news sources by subscribing asked for recommendations. I noted that New York Magazine had been doing some surprisingly good journalism.

I'd sneered at that sort of magazine in the past – the sort that people mainly buy to see who's on the annual top doctors list or top restaurants list. But my sneering was inconsistent. I'd assumed that such an obviously gameable metric must already be corrupt – but when I lived in DC, Washingtonian Magazine's restaurant picks were actually pretty good, and my girlfriend found a really good doctor on the Top Doctors list. Nor was he an expensive concierge doctor – he took her fairly ordinary health insurance. I'd assumed there would be paid placement, but there wasn't. The methodology of such lists is actually fairly clever: they survey doctors, asking for each specialty – if you needed to see a doctor other than yourself in this specialty, whom would you go to? Now I live in Berkeley, and the last time I needed to see an ear doctor, I found one on the list just a few blocks from my house – and he was excellent.

But even after correcting for my prejudices, New York Magazine is special. They recently published some of the best science reporting I've seen – it's nominally about the Implicit Association Test, but it's really about the sorts of bad science that contributed to the replication crisis. Here are some excerpts I thought were especially clear: Continue reading