Links & What I've Been Reading Q4 2022
1. The Passenger: A brief and imperfect guide for the perplexed. A bit over the top, but I thought this was the best piece on The Passenger.
The Passenger is an omni-dissolver, an intergalactic acid rain, a necromantic encyclopedia whose entries are unfamiliar tarot cards.
2. A new conversation with David Krakauer. 100% worth listening to.
3. An article by Krakauer in Nautilus: The Cormac McCarthy I Know. Montaigne, Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Melville, and more.
It is over tea and lunch with our friends and colleagues that we discussed everything. A typical day might include new results in prebiotic chemistry, the nature of autocatalytic sets, pretopological spaces in RNA chemistry, Maxwell’s demon, Darwin’s sea sickness, the twin prime conjecture, logical depth as a model of evolutionary history, Godel’s dietary habits, the weirdness of Spengler’s Decline of the West, and allometric scaling of the whale brain. I believe Cormac’s recent novels The Passenger and Stella Maris have their origins partly in this foment of ideas that connect domains of unyielding precision to the frailty of life and the militancy of society.
4. James Wood's review is pretty good: "To traffic in serious mathematics is to commune with truth; to traffic in words, to merely write novels, is to produce dim approximations of the truth. This is what too many colloquies at the Santa Fe Institute will do to a novelist’s self-esteem."
5. Joy Williams is also not bad: Great, Beautiful, Terrifying
Perhaps the business of The Passenger, for all its somber romanticism and Gnostic leanings, is to defer to this unconsciousness, to give shape to that which might well be the soul, or at least its most faithful companion.
McCarthy is not interested in the psychology of character. He probably never has been. He’s interested in the horror of every living creature’s situation.
6. This negative(!) review in Slate compares the book to Pynchon, DeLillo, Ellroy, and Lovecraft.
So, inside the imagined universe of ChatGPT's mind, our virtual machine accesses the url https://chat.openai.com/chat, where it finds a large language model named Assistant trained by OpenAI. This Assistant is waiting to receive messages inside a chatbox.
8. On the persistent mental effects of looking at AI art: Relaxed/Flawed Priors As A Result Of Viewing AI Art. "Since this period of consuming a large amount of this flawed AI art, perhaps a dozen notable times, I've recognized myself initially parsing some visual stimulus in an incorrect way - one that maps to some flaw common in AI art - only to moments later consciously realize that I must have parsed the stimulus incorrectly and fix my initial perception."
The Wordcraft Writers Workshop is a collaboration between Google's PAIR and Magenta teams, and 13 professional writers from a diverse set of creative writing backgrounds. Together we explore the limits of co-writing with LaMDA and foster an honest and earnest conversation about the rapidly changing relationship between technology and creativity.
11. Midwit AI: Inverse scaling can become U-shaped
13. Nintil makes predictions about AI in 2026.
Take the other 95% of the proposed projects, give the investors their money back, and use the SWEET PREDICTIVE KNOWLEDGE to pick another 10% of the RCTs to fund for STAGGERING SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS and MAXIMAL STATUS ENHANCEMENT.
17. Nintil: Limits and Possibilities of Metascience.
The failure of meta-entrepreneurship to establish deep links with entrepreneurship, given stronger incentives for improvement, makes me be pessimistic about the possibilities of these bidirectional linkages from manifesting in metascience. Hence I predict metascience and metascience entrepreneurship will continue walking separate paths: The next big NIH reform or new institution started will not be strongly influenced by academic or theoretical metascience.
18. The Sweet Life: The Long-Term Effects of a Sugar-Rich Early Childhood. Using the end of WWII rationing in the UK to look at the effects of early sugar consumption. "Excessive sugar intake early in life led to higher prevalence of chronic inflammation, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and arthritis." Not entirely convinced, a lot of marginal/non-significant results, but Figure 5 is really wild.
19. On Galton: How to keep cakes moist and cause the greatest tragedies of the 20th century (Straussian)
Here’s a few highlights of Galton’s many experiments, studies, and investigations:
Tries to learn arithmetic by smell, succeeds
Worships a puppet to see if he can convince himself it has godlike powers, succeeds
Makes a walking stick with a hidden high-pitched whistle inside it, takes it to the zoo and whistles at all the animals (most don’t care, but the lions hate it)
Replaces the blood of a silver-grey rabbit with the blood of a lop-eared rabbit to see if it can still breed (it can)
Tells himself that everyone is spying on him to see if he can make himself insane, succeeds
Tries to consciously control all of his automatic bodily processes, nearly suffocates
Hears animal magnetism is all the rage, learns it in secret (it’s illegal), magnetizes 80 people
20. Scott Sumner on...Robert Louis Stevenson?! A very good piece that will probably add some items to your to-read list. "So what’s going on here? It cannot be that Stevenson is too difficult for the literary establishment, as he’s also popular with average readers. I suspect it is more nearly the opposite problem—Stevenson is too pleasurable. Some critics wrongly equate greatness with difficulty."
21. What it's like to dissect a cadaver. One of the many hidden benefits of living in the Bay Area?
22. The robot on EA. Don't fully endorse it, but quite interesting.
The path that Nietzsche took is documented, so I followed him in his walking again (this time solo), starting with the Le Chemin de Nietzsche from the Hotel Cap Estel, the exact hiking trail Nietzsche took almost daily, now dedicated to him. The 2.5-mile arduous ascent with coastal views of the Mediterranean, which goes from the village of Èze bord-de-Mer to the main town of Èze, is perhaps the most beautiful hike I had ever summited, crowned by Èze’s Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption, perhaps also the most sublime church I had ever seen.
24. Pynchon's archive.
25. Erik Hoel on the MFA's influence on literature.
Faulkner didn’t finish high school, recent research shows Woolf took some classes in the classics and literature but was mostly homeschooled, Dostoevsky had a degree in engineering. Joyce did major in literature, but even he entered medical school (before leaving), and also failed multiple classes in his undergraduate days. Not one of these great writers would now be accepted to any MFA in the country. The result of the academic pipeline is that contemporary writers, despite a surface-level diversity of race and gender that is welcomingly different than previous ages, are incredibly similar in their beliefs and styles, moreso than writers in the past.
26. Stuart Ritchie on the NIH deliberately crippling human genetics research because the results are politically inconvenient: The NIH's misguided genetics data policy.
The Passenger/Stella Maris, by Cormac McCarthy. Dark and beautiful. This may well be the last great novel of the human era in literature. It would be fitting for the 89-year old McCarthy to be writing a coda for himself and humanity at the same time. Especially since he views the 20th century productions of science and engineering as far more important and groundbreaking than those in literature.
The plot is mostly irrelevant. Both books consist mostly of conversations: bars and restaurants for the first, a psychiatric institution for the second. McCarthy grapples with every idea that's been on his mind for the last few decades: mathematics, physics, language, the unconscious, the sins of the father, Kant, evolution, psychology, gnosticism, genius. It's not just a novel of ideas, though—The Passenger is filled with yearning, regret, nostalgia, isolation...just an incredibly melancholic atmosphere in general. Stella Maris is geekier, and basically The Virgin Internal Voice vs The Chad Cerebration: The Novel.
To the usual mix of Hemingway and Captain Ahab, McCarthy adds strains of Pynchon and DeLillo. It works.
There's even a cool, oblique Borges allusion: toward the end, Bobby writes down a couple of lines from a 17th century German poet, Daniel von Czepko. Those lines form the epigram of A New Refutation of Time!
Tiger Technology: The Creation of a Semiconductor Industry in East Asia, by John a. Matthews. This book comes out of academic "management" studies, which entails a lot of bullshit. A lot of overdone abstract ideas that are never really tested, a lot of extremely silly diagrams, etc. And its predictions about the future (it came out in 2000) turned out quite wrong. Viewed purely as a collection of facts it's quite an interesting book, however.
Chip War: The Fight for the World's Most Critical Technology, by Chris Miller. Much stronger than the above, and also up to date as it just came out. Covers both the history of chip production across the world, as well as current issues and where they will lead in the future.
Bouvard and Pecuchet, by Gustave Flaubert. A comic(?) novel of ideas, which is also about Ideas. Quite weird, very bad, very good, not sure if I can really recommend it to anyone. Full review forthcoming.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. Some interesting differences between the book and the movie. The latter is vastly superior. There's very little of the cyberpunk aesthetic present here, and Scott wisely ripped out almost everything about the artificial animals, the futuristic cult with the TV host antagonist, etc. Still, it's not bad.
Children of Dune, by Frank Herbert. I can confirm these get sillier and worse as the series goes on.
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony. Pretty cool book on the origins of Indo-European, combining archaeological and linguistic evidence. Unfortunately it was written just before the ancient DNA era, so it contains some things we know today are inaccurate (though to Anthony's credit, he was leaning in the right direction). Dull in sections (dry lists of finds at various sites), but easily skimmable. It's difficult to recommend it when Reich's Who We Are and How We Got Here exists.
Flashman and the Mountain of Light, by George MacDonald Fraser. The audiobooks for this series are really well done. This time Flashman gets embroiled in the First Sikh War, a rather silly affair all around even without the fictional elements. Naturally, he gets his hands on the Koh-i-Noor. Not the best Flashman novel, but still good fun. The ending is pure perfection.
Murder as a Fine Art, by David Morrell. Historical detective fiction, in which an old, opium-addled De Quincey and his hot, spunky daughter are roped into a murder mystery and become citizen-detectives. Meticulously researched but not very good, unfortunately.
Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals: Critical Essays. Just a dull collection of academic essays focusing on pointless minutiae and ignoring the big questions.