Links Retrospective, March – April 2020

Links Retrospective is a bi-monthly post on the five or so most interesting things I’ve read during the titular two-month time-frame. 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. Of ~200 articles that I liked enough to bookmark during this period, I shortlisted 15, and now here are my top 5 picks for March and April, 2020 in no particular order:
 
Hyperobjects and the End of Common Sense – Timothy Morton, 2010
We have created things that we can hardly understand, let alone control, let alone make sensible political decisions about. Sometimes it’s good to have new words for these things, to remind you of how mind-blowing they are. So I’m going to introduce a new term: hyperobjects. Hyperobjects are phenomena such as radioactive materials and global warming. Hyperobjects stretch our ideas of time and space, since they far outlast most human time scales, or they’re massively distributed in terrestrial space and so are unavailable to immediate experience.
 
I think that this could be a really useful term. Go take a look at the plutonium, really look. Because I felt a new emotion when I did.
Reiki Can’t Possibly Work. So Why does it? – Jordan Kisner, 2020
To note that touch-based healing therapies, including Reiki, simulate the most archetypal care gestures is hardly a revelation. Several scientists I interviewed about their work on Reiki mentioned the way their mother would lay a hand on their head when they had a fever or kiss a scraped knee and make the pain go away. It is not hard to imagine that a hospital patient awaiting surgery or chemotherapy might feel relieved, in that hectic and stressful setting, to have someone place a hand gently and unhurriedly where the hurt or fear is with the intention of alleviating any suffering.
 
I’m generally very, very anti-woo. But honestly, this doesn’t even feel like woo. This just seems like a pretty reasonable thing for humans to respond to.
Zeroth Person Writing – Tumblr thread, 2020
Anyways, what I’m trying to talk about here is: there’s this thing that… I guess philosophers talk about sometimes which is, how certain kinds of information can’t really be transmitted via just, text, in the generalized sense (like, not necessarily writing, also images, sound, etc) and the point is usually that like, those are the things that you Just Have To Go Through. And math has a specific construct which, in effect, lives kind of in the middle of that gap.
 
Exercises.
 
No solutions are ever given, though; the strictures of the genre are strong enough that when you find a solution, you’ll know it, and the author can just give you the challenge and expect you not to fuck it up.
 
A delightful but rambly discussion thread that goes in many directions.
 
I Don’t Know What These Food Videos Are, But I Can’t Stop Watching Them – Scaachi Koul, 2020

Chefclub recipes are pure id — an expression of the most primal desires of someone who enjoys food, taken to an extreme no one asked for. Bread good, cheese good, meat good. Me like big food tower. Me like when cheese go in bread hole. If you were to claim that none of Chefclub’s videos are enticing to you, you would absolutely be lying. Imagine you went to a party — do you remember what it’s like to be at a party? — and saw the host made finger sandwiches in the shape of flip-flops. You’re telling me you’re not going to eat one? You’re telling me you’re not going to eat eight?? And that for the rest of your life, you wouldn’t tell everyone you know about the insane foot-themed party where you ate shoe sandwiches??? Come on, bro, grow up.

Can’t wait until quar is lifted and I can host a garden party and serve finger sandwiches in the shape of flip flops B’)

The Asshole Filter – Siderea, 2015

When you set up a situation in which other people’s choices are between, on the one hand, respecting your espoused wishes and being significantly disadvantaged, and, on the other hand, transgressing against your wishes to be effective, you have essentially posed a test that discriminates against those who are less willing to transgress against your espoused wishes: an asshole filter.

If you tell people “the only way to contact me is to break a rule” you will only be contacted by rule-breakers.

Another very useful concept.

The Turing Test

[Epistemic status: assume that I know absolutely nothing about computers.]

So I know that if a machine passes the Turing test, it means that it fools humans 50% of the time, right? At that point it emulates a human perfectly, and whether the interrogator chooses “correctly” is left to chance.

But imagine a machine that passes the test more than 50% of the time. Wouldn’t that be an interesting tool to realise and analyse inherent biases that humanity has about itself?

Maybe the machine will portray itself as having been shaped by childhood experiences more than most of us really are. Maybe the machine must exaggerate different traits in different cultures. Maybe we’ll realise that we’re all pretty boring when it comes down to it. The same way that characters in Serious Broody Literature™ are incredibly realised but my personality can pretty much be boiled down to “really, really likes naps”, maybe we’ll find that the archetype of the renaissance man or the “fully realized human” or whatever has only ever been an abstract ideal.

This is something that’s interesting to me, because humanity has always defined itself as being superior in all the ways that “count”, right? We’re the most intelligent species, the ones that are capable of abstract thought and symbolic language. We have that divine spark. It’s hard to find that upper bound on humanity when we are the definition of the upper bound, although one can argue that having something we made be the upper bound isn’t that much better.

And then, well, if we aren’t the best at being “human”, what then? How will we define ourselves, when programs can not only automate all our jobs, but can come up with more sublime poetry, more moving choreography, wittier social commentary? Will we let ourselves be defined by our sudden mediocrity?

Will we start put emphasis on the importance of that one thing that the system haven’t figured out perfectly yet? Imagine if, due to some inexplicable bug, the machine cannot answer convincingly the question “Why do you like the movie Mean Girls?” Imagine if, because of that, suddenly everyone is thinking Very Seriously about the movie

Mean Girls and writing think-pieces about how the movie

Mean Girls is the single most thorough interrogation about what being human entails. 

Imagine if cults start up worshipping the holiness that is being able to be allergic to things, being able to get sick, having breakable skin and fragile bones and dying. A return to worshipping death would be kind of poetic. 

And then the methods we’ll develop to get that percentage back down to 50% is also pretty fun to think about:

Interrogator: “So what do you do in your spare time?”

Player A: “I’m super into making origami models, because it’s soothing to me and I like making stuff with my hands, although making anything more substantial has always seemed daunting to me.”

Player B: “lol i smoke doobies and play overwatch”

Interrogator:

image