Going Critical

“But as much as I’ve thought about networks over the years, I didn’t appreciate (until very recently) the importance of simple diffusion.

This is our topic for today: the way things move and spread, somewhat chaotically, across a network. Some examples to whet the appetite:

  • Infectious diseases jumping from host to host within a population
  • Memes spreading across a follower graph on social media
  • A wildfire breaking out across a landscape
  • Ideas and practices diffusing through a culture
  • Neutrons cascading through a hunk of enriched uranium”

Knausgaard’s Secular Confession

“In Buddhism, on the contrary, absolute detachment is an end in itself. Since all attachments entail suffering, only absolute detachment can bring about the elimination of suffering that Buddhism holds out as your salvation. What ultimately matters is not who you are or what you do, what ultimately matters is that you attain a state of consciousness where everything ceases to matter—so that you can rest in peace.

The aim of Knausgaard’s mindfulness is the opposite. By attending to the struggles that emerge from his attachments, he seeks to identify more deeply with them: to become more attached to the life he is living. This is the third sense of his imperative. You must attach yourself to what you see—even at the cost of suffering—because without attachment there is no meaning: nothing to care for and no one who binds you to the world. To counter such nihilism is the animating ambition of Knausgaard’s secular confession. “Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life,””

The Tyranny of Ideas

“Lately, I’ve amused myself by operating through the lens that the world is run by ideas, rather than people. We tend to discuss mimetic effects in relation to mass consumption – its distributive effects – but less-frequently discussed is how mimetics affect creators themselves.

I like thinking of people as vessels, which provides a refreshing counterbalance to the well-trodden “great man theory”. Rather than viewing people as agents of change, I think of them as intermediaries, voice boxes for some persistent idea-virus that’s seized upon them and is speaking through their corporeal form. You might think of this as “great prophet theory”.

Ideas ride us into battle like warhorses. We can witness, participate in, and even lead these battles, but their true meaning eludes us. We don’t really know where ideas come from, nor how to control them.”

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’

Descartes was wrong: ‘a person is a person through other persons’

“A grimmer example might be solitary confinement in prisons. The punishment was originally designed to encourage introspection: to turn the prisoner’s thoughts inward, to prompt her to reflect on her crimes, and to eventually help her return to society as a morally cleansed citizen. A perfect policy for the reform of Cartesian individuals. But, in fact, studies of such prisoners suggest that their sense of self dissolves if they are punished this way for long enough. Prisoners tend to suffer profound physical and psychological difficulties, such as confusion, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, and a distorted sense of time. Deprived of contact and interaction – the external perspective needed to consummate and sustain a coherent self-image – a person risks disappearing into non-existence.”

Rent Control Poem

Rent Control Poem

“There is a very long list of documented harms that rent control causes. It provides a strong disincentive to build more rental housing. It drives landlords to reduce spending on maintaining their units until the quality of the housing has drawn down to the point where it matches the allowed rent. And thus by reducing property values, it reduces property tax revenues. It reduces mobility for renters, causing them to stay in their rent-controlled housing rather than move when a better job or the needs of their family require it. It misallocates the total housing stock by encouraging people to stay in housing that doesn’t match their needs. It encourages rental property owners to convert apartments to condominiums, thereby reducing the rental housing stock. It inevitably leads to a “cluster” of regulations piled on top to try to legislate away all of rent control’s problems. And it doesn’t help the people with the greatest need, but rather the people most capable of gaming the system.”

Vimeo: Rough: The Music Video

Rough: The Music Video

Rein in the four horsemen of irreproducibility

“Yet many researchers persist in working in a way almost guaranteed not to deliver meaningful results. They ride with what I refer to as the four horsemen of the reproducibility apocalypse:

  • publication bias
  • low statistical power
  • P-value hacking, and
  • HARKing (hypothesizing after results are known).

My generation and the one before us have done little to rein these in.”

Revisiting Fred Rogers’ 2002 Commencement Address

“It’s not the honors and the prizes, and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted.”

1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled

“To review: population growth increases technological growth, which feeds back into the population growth rate in a cycle that reaches infinity in finite time.

But since population can’t grow infinitely fast, this pattern breaks off after a while.

The Industrial Revolution tried hard to compensate for the “missing” population; it invented machines. [… But …] tractors can’t invent things.


AI potentially offers a way to convert money into researchers. Money = build more AIs = more research.

If this were true, then once AI comes around – even if it isn’t much smarter than humans – then as long as the computational power you can invest into researching a given field increases with the amount of money you have, hyperbolic growth is back on.”

Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds

“Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.


One way to look at science is as a system that corrects for people’s natural inclinations. In a well-run laboratory, there’s no room for myside bias; the results have to be reproducible in other laboratories, by researchers who have no motive to confirm them. And this, it could be argued, is why the system has proved so successful. At any given moment, a field may be dominated by squabbles, but, in the end, the methodology prevails. Science moves forward, even as we remain stuck in place.”

‘Nones’ now as big as evangelicals, Catholics in the US

“Americans claiming “no religion” — sometimes referred to as “nones” because of how they answer the question “what is your religious tradition?” — now represent about 23.1 percent of the population, up from 21.6 percent in 2016. People claiming evangelicalism, by contrast, now represent 22.5 percent of Americans, a slight dip from 23.9 percent in 2016.

That makes the two groups statistically tied with Catholics (23 percent) as the largest religious — or nonreligious — groupings in the country.”

What’s Wrong with Moral Foundations Theory, and How to get Moral Psychology Right

“A review of this literature suggests that there are (at least) seven well established types of cooperation: (1) the allocation of resources to kin; (2) coordination to mutual advantage; (3) social exchange; and conflict resolution through contests featuring (4) hawkish displays of dominance and (5) dove-ish displays of submission; (6) division of disputed resources; and (7) recognition of prior possession.

In my research, I have shown how each of these types of cooperation can be used to identify and explain a distinct type of morality.”

The Sting of Meritocracy

“Even when today’s elites devote themselves to public service, as many do, they tend not to see it as fulfilling an obligation to give back for an unearned privilege but as further demonstrating their own high-mindedness and merit.


The claims to legitimacy of today’s elite are met with skepticism not so much because it is too hard to enter the upper tier of American life (even if it is) as because those in that tier seem to be permitted to do whatever they want. Our elite is increasingly guilt-ridden, and the broader democratic public is increasingly cynical about its leaders, less because too few Americans can get into elite colleges than because those who do too often act as though they are then entitled to exercise power without restraints or standards.”

The Great Miscalculator

“The neoclassical economist sees the economy in a deterministic equilibrium and asks how that equilibrium can be improved. If instead we looked at economic outcomes as contingent, we would ask how catastrophic failure can best be prevented. Instead of assuming that the economy is robust, we would look for sources of fragility. Instead of hunting for market failures to avert, we would look for fragilities to mitigate.”

Ibn Tufayl and the story of the feral child of philosophy

“Like the islanders, we follow principles that can undermine themselves. To be hospitable, we must be open to the stranger who violates hospitality. To be democratic, we must include those who are antidemocratic. To be worldly, our encounters with other people must be opportunities to learn from them, not just about them.

In the end, Hayy returns to his island with Absal, where they enjoy a life of ecstatic contemplation unto death. They abandon the search for a perfect society of laws. Their eutopia is the quest of the mind left unto itself, beyond the imperfections of language, law and ethics – perhaps beyond even life itself.”

How to Apply a Matrix Number Grid Effect to Images in Photoshop

“Use Image > Adjustments > Posterize to reduce the number of shades of gray in the image. A value of 4 levels works well.

Finally, change the mode of the photo layer from Normal to Multiply. Now all you’ll see will be the numbers, tinted to exactly match the shades of gray in your photograph.”

How translation obscured the music and wordplay of the Bible

“It might be objected that the books of the Bible are, after all, fundamentally religious texts, not works of literature but, for reasons we cannot altogether fathom, this tiny Israelite realm, though rather crude in comparison with its larger and more powerful ancient Near Eastern neighbours in regard to visual art and material culture, produced writers of genius who chose to express their vision of the new monotheistic worldview in artful narrative and finely evocative poetry. If a translation fails to get much of its music across, it also blurs or even misrepresents the depth and complexity of the monotheistic vision of God, history, the realm of morality, and humankind.”

Why the demoniac stayed in his comfortable corner of hell

“In Kierkegaard’s words: ‘One may hear the drunkard say: “Let me be the filth that I am.”’ Or, leave me alone with my bottle and let me ruin my life, thank you very much. I heard this first from my father, and then from an increasing number of close friends, and most recently from a voice that occasionally keeps me up at night when everyone else is asleep.

Those who are the most pointedly afflicted are often precisely those who are least able to recognise their affliction, or to save themselves. And those with the resources to rescue themselves are usually already saved. As Kierkegaard suggests, the virtue of sobriety makes perfect sense to one who is already sober. Eating well is second nature to the one who is already healthy; saving money is a no-brainer for one who one is already rich; truth-telling is the good habit of one who is already honest. But for those in the grips of crisis or sin, getting out usually doesn’t make much sense.”

New Gilgamesh Fragment: Enkidu’s Sexual Exploits Doubled

“What is interesting about this is that the epic tells that becoming human is a two-step process. First, one must learn to think like a human being, and second, one must learn to think like a member of society. After the first week of sex Enkidu may have acquired human language and a capacity for reflection, but he is still stuck in the world of animals: he thinks only in terms of challenging rivals and locking horns. To become fully human, he must learn to see himself not as an individual who has to assert his own strength, but as a social being who must participate in the life of the city.”

Between gods and animals: becoming human in the Gilgamesh epic

“Gods are here depicted as the opposite of animals, they are omnipotent and immortal, whereas animals are oblivious and destined to die. To be human is to be placed somewhere in the middle: not omnipotent, but capable of skilled labour; not immortal, but aware of one’s mortality.

In short, the new fragment reveals a vision of humanity as a process of maturation that unfolds between the animal and the divine. One is not simply born human: to be human, for the ancient Babylonians, involved finding a place for oneself within a wider field defined by society, gods and the animal world.”