Articles of Interest, February-March 2019

Articles of Interest is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month period. The intent is for there to be a few weeks of “lag” time between when I first read the articles and when I curate this collection, so that my selection isn’t biased by ongoing hype or sensationalism. The articles aren’t necessarily published during this period, although many of them are – I choose my collection from what I’ve bookmarked over the two months. Here are my picks for February and March:

Buckminster Fuller’s Chilling Domes (with further commentary and notes here) by Stuart McMillen

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I discovered Stuart McMillen during this interval of time, and summarily binged through his modest and very high quality archive of comics. I don’t endorse all opinions that McMillen espouses in his comics, but I do think that they’re all good and thoughtful reads. Two of them were in fact readings for the salon sessions I hosted last term: Supernormal Stimuli and Deviance in the Dark.

But I’m choosing to feature Chilling Domes, because while I enjoy culture war hot takes, they’re a pretty common sight in my corner of the internet. Conversely, it’s an incredibly rare delight when my interests in radical planning initiatives and quirky mid-century polymaths get indulged, at the same time. And an even rarer delight when that happens without the polymath getting real authoritarian or racist.

Check out the notes too for more on the physics and some plausible sounding explanations for why this phenomenon hasn’t been further explored in the almost-century since.

A Surgically Sculpted Face, the Newest Back-to-School Necessity by Wang Lianzhang

Chen isn’t worried she might not like her face after 10 years. “I can do more surgeries to change it again,” she says. “Any woman who can make the cruel decision to be pretty is brave. They will have better chances to make money and they will have a stronger desire to make money. They will be more hardworking than anyone else — because that’s the only way to cover the cost of further plastic surgeries.”

If you only had time to read one piece out of the five, make it this one. It’s such an interesting, meaty piece. And it’s talking about a social phenomenon that I guarantee you will make its way across the pond in the coming decades. It touches on so many interesting things! The role of social media in making being pretty more important than ever! The changing perception of what plastic surgery is (empowering, practical, incremental, something you can take out a loan for because banks recognize it as a good investment to boost your earning power)!! The very existence of FACE TRENDS!!! Can you imagine having to get a new face every five years to be considered stylish??? Holy CRAP.

I will say that this piece made me realize that maybe I’m not as transhumanist as I thought I was. I felt vaguely unsettled by the way that the interviewees spoke negatively about their original features. I thought the “before” picture of Chen Siqi was quite cute and I felt sad that she didn’t, or that her culture didn’t, and that in either case she felt better after having it changed. But since I feel comfortable with my own features, I’m definitely not in a position to judge, either.

And there’s some really interesting sociological aspects to transhumanism to think about here. If people want to augment their bodies with improvements that aren’t actually improvements but just because of societal norms or trends, would allowing that be a net positive for society? What are the circumstances under which it wouldn’t be? The closest frame of reference that I have is the Discourse surrounding facial feminization surgery for trans people, where body dysmorphia is seen as a reasonable justification for surgery. It looks like in plastic surgery circles though, dysmorphia in general is a big no-no. From this piece: 

A small percentage of patients have body dysmorphic disorder and will never be satisfied with their appearance… it is essential for hospitals to hire psychological counselors to evaluate the patients.

There’s also this recent piece on incels getting plastic surgery (which JSYK I’m breaking my no-hype policy to post; this week it’s been linked everywhere and I’m extra grumpy about it because to add insult to injury it’s kind of bad and irresponsible as a piece of journalism), which had something similar to say:

Some surgeons will not operate on patients they believe may have body dysmorphia. “To me, that’s a red flag when someone has 200 pictures of themselves on their phone,” says Joe Niamtu, a cosmetic surgeon in Virginia, who declines to operate on many young male patients seeking sculpted faces. “The risk is they’ll never be happy.”

That’s going to be an interesting tension to observe.

And lastly, here is a hot take: when our generation reaches boomer-age, one thing our grandkids will post in the 2070 equivalent of r/forwardsfromgrandma would be memes about how much we suck because of our regressive af views on cosmetic surgery. We’ll be writing very embarrassing opinion pieces about how our kids are super selfish for choosing to not look like us at all, and it’ll get as soundly mocked as this piece is now. And they would be entirely correct for mocking us.

Why America’s New Apartment Buildings All Look the Same by Justin Fox

A TL;DR: In the mid-90s someone discovered that building codes classified wood treated with fire retardant as noncombustible, and because “stick construction” brings down the development cost of housing by 30% it’s quietly overtaken the States and Canada as well as a handful of other wealthy nations since then. It would depend on developers working against their own economic interests to close this loophole, and in the meantime there’s been quite a few sketchy fires and close calls. Some municipalities and industry professionals are starting to raise alarm bells about this issue.

Glenn Corbett, a former firefighter who teaches fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, took me on a tour of some of New Jersey’s “toothpick towers,” as he calls them, pointing out places that fire engines can’t reach and things that could go wrong as the buildings age. “You’re reintroducing these conflagration hazards to urban environments,” he says. “We’re intentionally putting problems in every community in the country, problems that generations of firefighters that haven’t even been born yet are going to have to deal with.”

So that’s interesting and terrifying. But not really interesting and terrifying enough to be top 5 out of the hundred or so things I’ve read in this 2 month period by itself. It’s here because it made me reflect upon the planning education that I’ve gotten in the last four years, in a university that’s known to be the most STEM-oriented in the country. A planning education where I’ve taken seven or eight social justice-oriented courses, three being mandatory. A planning education where I’ve heard the term “stick construction” exactly once.

SlateStarCodex published a photo essay on the 2019 APA Annual Meeting, and his third thing is a similar observation about the psychology field. Like psychology, planning is a field where you do need a considerable amount of Wokeness to do your job properly. But should I have been learning more about building codes?

The Route of a Text Message by Scott B. Weingart

My leg involuntarily twitches with vibration—was it my phone, or just a phantom feeling?—and a quick inspection reveals a blinking blue notification. “I love you”, my wife texted me. I walk downstairs to wish her goodnight, because I know the difference between the message and the message, you know?

It’s a bit like encryption, or maybe steganography: anyone can see the text, but only I can decode the hidden data.

My translation, if we’re being honest, is just one extra link in a remarkably long chain of data events, all to send a message (“come downstairs and say goodnight”) in under five seconds across about 40 feet.

This is just such a neat piece of longform writing. I don’t know what else I can really say about it, I just really enjoy pieces that is a person enthusiastically infodumping about a thing that I know just enough about so that it barely doesn’t goes over my head. So that it barely punches me in the face, I guess? What makes this piece particularly appealing is the romanticization of tech that is a constant thread throughout. Not in the “it’s going to save us all” type of way which is boring and dangerous, but in the “look at this thing that we built, that generations of humans had a hand in shaping, that now exists in the world and against all odds works for us despite how much of it is cruft and duct tape” type way, which is MY JAM.

Fantasy Birding is Real, and it’s Spectacular by Ryan F. Mandelbaum

“Fantasy birding is basically the offspring of three unrelated obsessions of mine,” says Matt Smith, fantasy birding’s creator. “One is obviously birding, which I fell into pretty hard as a kid in Mississippi. The second is sports, baseball in particular, which always turned me on because of all the numbers. And the third is making things for the web.”

I just. Really love weird internet communities. They’re like online equivalents of stores that sell just one thing, which is another thing that I love.

And if you’re not familiar with 21st century birding, you might be surprised by the pretty impressive amount of online infrastructure and citizen-science-stry that happens when it comes to birds, which makes fantasy birding possible. I remember learning about the Cornell Lab and eBird in my second year field ecology course, and being blown away. I kind of thought that birding was a thing that retirees did with guidebooks from the seventies and a trusty set of binoculars? But reality in this case was so much cooler. And sometimes, you just need a reminder that reality is pretty cool, you know?

The Car Ride Home

[Epistemic effort: a dreamy recollection of some events that occurred on April 29th, 2019]

It’s late April. My school term has ended, but I have two weeks before my internship starts in another city, and my dad is driving my back home to hang out for a while in the meantime. As is tradition for I suspect possibly a lot of CBCs like me, the best of Teresa Teng, a 70s Taiwanese superstar, is being blasted at full volume inside the car.
 
“I think I first heard these songs when I was the age that your brother is now,” he tells me, for the first time. Henry is finishing up 10th grade right now. He’s gone nocturnal in recent years and is just beginning to think about summer jobs and what university he wants to go to. “It was the first time I’ve heard music that wasn’t communist propaganda. I immediately fell in love with her.”
 
I mull this around in my head, integrating this tidbit into the rest of what I know about his childhood.

Falling in someone without seeing their face, but because of their voice and because of what they were singing sounds. Sounds romantic, sounds pure, sounds like something that isn’t possible now.
 
“So did every boy I knew who listened to any of her songs,” he continued. He’s in a chatty mood, which I always enjoy. “I would always feel a little guilty listening to her though, because I was committing a crime. Her songs were banned on the mainland; it was illegal to enjoy something so bourgeoisie.”
 
It’s sad to think about, what it would be like to live in a society where romantic love was considered decadent and sinful. To me, Teresa wasn’t really singing about anything that was like, Rich Kids of Instagram worthy. She was singing about the soft, tender feelings that emerge when you do something like waiting for a boy to return to you. Is my distinction of the two just a sign that I’ve lived too long in the Decadent West?

After a few more songs where I ponder this, I resume the conversation. “Dad, if her songs were illegal, how did you get a hold of them in the first place?”
 
I admit, I was kind of imagining a literal black market, a nightly enterprise operating from the hours of midnight to 3am, with sketchy vendors in darkened stalls hawking their ill-gotten wares under the moonlight. Even as I generated the image I felt a little silly, and yet-
 
“I recorded it from a friend,” he told me. I deflated a little bit, but he didn’t notice. “My parents bought me a cassette player for ninety bucks, because English classes began in middle school. We used this tape called ‘900 English phrases’ to practice diction.”
 
He goes on, already knowing what question I was going to ask next. “Ninety bucks would be what your granddad and grandma makes in a month, combined. But there weren’t a lot of expenses then, either. The apartment we lived in was collectively owned, so rent was five dollars a month.”
 
I try to think of how much that is in terms that are useful to me, but then realized that that would get depressing real fast and stopped.
 
“So I would go buy some blank cassettes, and go to a friend who already had some songs, and get them to play it, and record it onto my own tapes to take home.”
 
“How was, uh, how was the quality?”
 
“Ha! Utter crap. The chain of recording could have been 20 people deep for all I know. The genuine tapes were rare; you’d need to be a fairly high up bureaucrat to get it across the border.”
 
I listen to the crystal clear recording that we have on with a newfound appreciation. “When did you finally hear it the way that it was meant to sound?”
 
“By the time I got to university, there were vendors selling tapes that were advertised as being recorded from an original recording, but the quality was still kind of bad. I don’t think I listened to a genuine recording until after I started working. I would have been older than you are now.”
 
I try to imagine what it would be like to hear something with crystal clarity for the first time, after 10 years of waiting. The album ends, and loops back to the first song. We drove on, appreciating the music.

Articles of Interest, December 2018-January 2019

Articles of Interest is a bimonthly post on things that I found on the internet that are interesting. The intent is for there to be 2-3 weeks of “lag” time between when I read the articles and when I review them, for hype to die down on any given hot topic. This is why this post is being published near the end of February. Featured articles aren’t necessarily published in the titular two-month period; that’s just when I read the pieces for the first time.

I’m going to do something slightly different for this edition. Instead of looking at the articles that are the most “interesting” per se, I’m going to use them mostly as a proxy to talk about what’s going on in my personal life. Cool? Cool.

Gwern on nicotine

When someone or something says that “nicotine” is harmful and you drill down to the original references for their claims, the references often turn out to actually be talking about tobacco rather than nicotine gums or patches…  Technically, nicotine is not significantly addictive, as nicotine administered alone does not produce significant reinforcing properties.

This is actually a piece that I first read in November, but to be fair I’ve reread it half a dozen times between December and January. For a while now, I’ve been idly thinking about experimenting with nicotine for a) being a more alert and competent student in 8:30 classes and b) positive habit formation, and this is the post that made me start to do more research on it in earnest. I won’t bother summarizing all the interesting things about nicotine here because it’s not worth the effort when Gwern’s writeup is so stellar. But here are some more personal insights:

Even though now that I’ve done enough research to be entirely convinced that nicotine lozenges are incredibly safe, and resolved to take them in an incredibly responsible and safe manner to reduce the already minuscule chance of addiction (never two days in a row, maximum 3 times a week), I still haven’t worked up the courage to buy them on Amazon. This is weird, because I didn’t have nearly the same amount of reservations when it came to starting caffeine, alcohol, and more exotic substances. I think that this is the case because of two main reasons.

One, the anti-tobacco lobby did a pretty good job. What can I say, the experience of having to design a poorly researched anti-smoking poster in fourth grade must have really stuck with me. The second thing is that tobacco is low-status to someone in my social class, moreso than coffee, alcohol, and weed. I remember getting super defensive about trying it out when I first broached the subject with my friend group. I literally think that some of them would have reacted more positively if I told them that I was contemplating starting up a coke habit. And, well, status and class is a very powerful reinforcer of norms, who would have thought.

How To Build a Lumenator (And some other articles on winter illumination)

Once upon a time, a friend was sad. Specifically, they had seasonal affective disorder. They tried to fix it by adding lights to their room during the winter.It didn’t work.They tried adding a LOT of light.It worked.They called the giant bundle of lights they assembled a Luminator. Other people wondered how they, too, might summon a sun into their living room. The task was not exactly complicated or hard, but it was a little confusing and inconvenient. Instructions were passed around by word of mouth, and individuals cobbled together luminators in their own homes. Some of them has seasonal affective disorder, and some just liked their rooms to feel line sunshine all the time.Bit by bit, people’s lives grew brighter.

Aaaaaand, now I have a lumenator!

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It pumps out around 10,000 lumens, and it’s bright enough that when you turn it on in the middle of the day with the windows open, it still manages to make the room significantly brighter. I’ve had it for a month now and while I can’t say for sure whether or not it’s made my SAD go away, it does make me ridiculously happy and I will enthusiastically LUMENATE the rest of my house bit by bit.

I first came across this concept in Eliezer Yudowsky’s book Inadequate Inequilibra, which I highly recommend.

[NSFW – cw for female breasts] Posts wrongly purged by Tumblr’s NSFW ban, like this one

Another one:

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I’ve been collecting these posts as they come up with the intent of writing a post-mortem after the dust settles, and I’m up to 30ish. I’m very glad that I did, because there were some important pieces and criticisms that are now gone.

There were shitposts, and people talking about their mixed feelings for this platform that they grew up and into themselves on, and informative pieces on the broader implications and why tumblr did this in the first place.

I’ll start on that soon, it’s been a while since I did any sort of interesting longform.

“Where’s My Cut?”: On Unpaid Emotional Labor, Jess Zimmerman

We are told frequently that women are more intuitive, more empathetic, more innately willing and able to offer succor and advice. How convenient that this cultural construct gives men an excuse to be emotionally lazy. How convenient that it casts feelings-based work as “an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depths of our female character.”…Housework is not work. Sex work is not work. Emotional work is not work. Why? Because they don’t take effort? No, because women are supposed to provide them uncompensated, out of the goodness of our hearts.

Since I’ve moved back to Waterloo for my school term, I’ve started hosting some bi-weekly salons to try to mitigate the damage academia is doing to my sense of intellectual curiosity. We started experimenting with doing readings before the meetups and this is the one that I picked to go along with our topic, emotional labour. In a more ideal universe I would have assigned the metafilter thread instead, but we’re all tired students and no one really has the time for 50 additional pages of readings.

I was thinking that everyone would agree with Zimmerman at the beginning of the session and I could then lead people to a more nuanced “actually maybe what Zimmerman is promoting also isn’t that great” state, but what ended up happening was that people were dunking on the article right away. At first I felt a bit put out by this because oh no I couldn’t flaunt my intellectual superiority, but honestly being surrounded by really smart and critical people is cool af, so I got over it pretty fast and now I basically don’t come to salon with any sort of agenda in mind and I just bask in everyone’s conversation. It’s probably an even better thing for my mental health than the lumenators are. If any of my salon members are reading this, sorry for thinking that you were dumber than you actually were 🙁

[NSFW – cw for blood, and graphic bodily harm] Welcome to Hell World

In January of 2005 in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, Samar, five years old at the time, was riding in the back seat of her parents’ car as they returned from bringing her young brother to the hospital. It was getting dark, and nearing curfew, and her father, likely aware of this, was driving faster than normal. Fearing that the driver was a suicide bomber, an army patrol in the area that evening were given permission to open fire and so they did because that is what army patrols do.

I understand if based on the excerpt you already feel tired and don’t want to click through; if I didn’t know the author I would feel the same way. Luke O’Neil’s newsletter is always gut-wrenching and never fails to ruin my day, but I never fail to click on it the instant in appears in my mailbox. He’s got a writing style that hooks me in the belly and he’s good at humanizing the people who aren’t being humanized enough, cutting through the bullshittier parts of the culture war woven by those in privileged coastal enclaves to tell you about the blood and the sweat and the suffering of those actally being crushed by what’s happening in the world today.

If I had to choose only one newsletter to subscribe to, hell world would be it, and I’m so happy that I’ve found it even though it only ever makes me sad.

Thus concludes this ed of articles of interest, hopefully I’ll have a “real” blog post up before the next one hits!

Immigrant Threnody

I hope your winter holidays went okay, it was kind of a mixed bag for me to be honest. I was looking to hanging out with my parents but my mom’s shitty boss has basically told her at the end of every work day (meaning days that she worked, including weekends) that she has to come in on the next because she booked her for some patients then and there is a lot of money to be made when people realise that their un-roll-overable insurance is about to expire and so she’s been doing 10-12 hour shifts every single day since the 20th (it is the 1st) despite the fact that she’s asked for a week off for the hols. Her boss just keeps pressuring her into giving up more and more of her time and she doesn’t really have a choice here. She has told me that this is probably not going to continue into February, like I should be happy to hear that she’s only going to get exploited this heavily for another entire month at most. And hey, at least she managed to take today off finally since it was new years and she spent it with some of her friends playing cards and loudly arguing about poker strategy which is something that she really enjoys so you see it’s not all bad.

I’m really angry about this but for two separate reasons. The first is very straightforward; it’s just really frustrating and heartbreaking for me to see that her reality is so different from mine and because she’s working at a Chinese clinic and for a Chinese boss in the Chinese community none of the labour laws that we have will protect her. I guess I kind of naively thought that you get to escape this kind of shit if you’re making well above minimum wage.  She just shrugs it off with some casual racism(?) like, “oh you know, my boss can’t help it, she’s from [specific Chinese province] and people from that province are all misers who get angry if they think they’re leaving money on the table, she will never forgive me for doing that to her” etc etc. Like what the fuck do I do here, I tell her that this seems terribly wrong and she just looks at me like I’m a little kid who doesn’t understand how the world works, and honestly that’s kind of fair because her world and mine are so different. She tells me that this year it’s especially bad because the other employee there is on maternity leave so next year it’ll be easier, but come on guys what’s obviously going to happen is that the boss is going to work both of them this hard next year. There’s going to be money left on the table if she doesn’t.

The second reason makes me sound like a child. I’m really upset that I didn’t get to spend any time with her. There are some surface reasons for that, she works weekends so I don’t see her much when I visit during school terms. And for the last four months I was a 5 hour drive away for an internship in another city so I only managed to visit two or three times, and she was of course working then too. It seems like I haven’t been able to see her this entire year, even though she’s right there. Sometimes we call but my already bad chinese is worse on the phone so i can’t even say anything really meaningful. I should call more anyways. But I was looking forward to this break, and being able to spend time with her.

At this point I think I kind of need to spend some time talking about the microtrauma (archive) of being raised by parents who do not partake in your native culture and who don’t speak your language both in a figurative and literal sense, by parents who are trying their best to escape a cycle of abuse for you but sometimes not perfect in their execution of that. And how those two things intersect – see, they would probably object to me calling my grandparents’ child-rearing tactics abusive, because they turned out fine. They’d say that I was looking at the world through the eyes of white colonizers. They might be right. We will never see eye to eye on this topic.

So if you didn’t know this about asian parents, they have a hard time telling you that they love you after you’re old enough for pre-k. Looking back I think there were some supports that I learned to live without growing up with them that I thought was completely normal, or even rationalized as “freeing” at the time, and it wasn’t until moving out and seeing healthy interactions between my non-asian friends and their parents (I was raised in a heavily Chinese suburb and all my friends were Chinese, which meant that for the most part my parents were the ones everyone else coveted because they didn’t hit me with metal coat hangers or leather belts or indeed at all and they were relatively chill about Bs on report cards and I never had to spend hours practising an instrument on the daily) that I realised that maybe my parents weren’t at the pinnacle of, uh, parenting. But it’s been okay, through the complete fluke of me being a giant bookworm and aspiring polymath with good research skills and also good friends on my wavelength I’ve been able to get a well-rounded childhood. And now that I’m older and financially independent I’m starting to really enjoy talking with them on relatively equal ground, getting to know them as people, and the way that their experiences have shaped them.

Here’s other things that are happening too: many people in my family have died this year and it’s the first time that I’ve had to confront the fact that my loved ones are mortal. I’m thinking about my future and how it’s not so far away, which means thinking about their future too. Being away from them for long stretches means it’s very apparent that every time I visit their hair is greyer, their wrinkles deeper, their movements fractionally slower, that the time I have with them is limited.

And I don’t know if this is a cultural thing or just because my language skills are crap, but i can’t seem to convey to them the idea that I actually want to spend time with them. Their way of showing love is through the food that they would make me and they way they keep buying me things that I mention offhand to them and how they keep my room in order and don’t even ask me to do chores anymore because they just want to make life easy for me when I visit. I know they feel deeply ashamed that they don’t have a house paid down for me for when I graduate, which is a very ridiculous thing to me. What I actually enjoy the most is the post-dinner chats that I have with them. Learning about them as people.

I brought all this up with my parents as well as I was able to in my ex-mother tongue, but I don’t think it’s something that they’re even capable of processing. My mom kept reassuring me that it’s fine and she’s not too tired from the job so I don’t have to worry about her health. I told her that had I known her only days off when I was on vacation was when I was in mexico with my boyfriend then I wouldn’t have went, I only went because I thought there would be days enough left to also hang out with you. She told me to not be dumb because she just wants me to be happy and obviously I was happier in Mexico away from us doddery old folk. I told her her that no, because I’ll be seeing my boyfriend more than her next term, I would have really valued spending time with them instead.

There was a long pause. Then she and my dad commended me on my familial piety. Then they said that they actually didn’t expect that from me in such a large amount because they knew that I was too westernized for that and have made their peace with it long ago(???). Man, so much for not hitting me, because I was SLAPPED.

So yeah, there’s three days left before I have to move back to Waterloo for school and I’m upset because I was really looking forwards to hanging out with the rents some more. Mom told me that she would be free after the 27th but make that the 28th actually you know what things will calm down after the new year well no actually it won’t but I already invited guests over today I guess I’ll just never get a chance to interact with you when you’re home this time around.

And I feel childish for whining about my parents not giving me more attention and in the exact specific form that I want because I’m too ungrateful to appreciate what they actually do but there you have it, my mood to start off 2019. At least it can only be up from here.