History Science Society Technology

Venus, Nero, Ice, Distribution, Vikings

The idea of detecting life through an otherwise inexplicable anomaly in a planet’s spectrum dates back to the 1960s, when it was given voice by James Lovelock, a British chemist and inventor. It came into its own when astronomers started discovering planets around other stars, or exoplanets. Most of these planets are in inhospitably unearthlike orbits, but some sit within what astronomers call the “habitable zone”—the zone in which, under various conditions, the surface might support liquid water. Astrobiologists like Sara Seager of MIT started putting real effort into working out what anomalous gases might be visible once they got telescopes good enough to analyse the spectra of such planets’ atmospheres.

A few years ago some of the scientists who work with Dr Seager and in her team started to get interested in phosphine. Though it is not clear how microbes make it, or something which decomposes into it, its association with life is pretty clear (among other things, penguin guano seems rich in the stuff). There seem to be no appreciable mechanisms for making it abiotically either in the depths of the Earth or through the “photochemical” reactions driven by sunlight which create other short-lived gases in the atmosphere. And it has some nice distinct spectral lines which should be eventually observable in the infrared light from some sorts of exoplanet.

But what if Nero wasn’t such a monster? What if he didn’t invent the spectator sport of throwing Christians to the lions in the Colosseum? What if he wasn’t the tyrant who murdered upstanding Roman senators and debauched their wives? Indeed, what if the whole lurid rap sheet has been an elaborate set-up, with Nero as history’s patsy? After all, we have no eyewitness testimony from Nero’s reign. Any contemporaneous writings have been lost. The ancient Roman sources we do have date from considerably after Nero’s suicide in A.D. 68. The case against Nero, then, is largely hearsay, amplified and distorted over two millennia in history’s longest game of telephone. Besides, no one really wants to straighten out the record. Who wants another version of Nero? He’s the perfect evil tyrant just the way he is.

The impact theory is in some senses comforting. We have big telescopes, we can see into space now, in theory, if we knew an impact event was coming, we could prevent it. If it takes an impact to cause a catastrophic melting and sea level rise event, then we’re mostly safe from it happening. If the melting was caused by an impact, then it means our current climate models which estimate around a meter of sea level rise by the year 2100, are largely accurate. 

But if these melting spikes were not caused by an impact, then it means something on earth which we currently do not understand triggered them. Something caused the ice sheets to suddenly and rapidly destabilize and release a large quantity of meltwater over a relatively brief period. If such an event were to occur today, the effects would be globally catastrophic. If an event caused a one-meter sea level rise over the course of a few years, it would render many of the world’s coastal cities uninhabitable. 

In 1803, the [Spanish] king, convinced of the benefits of the vaccine, ordered his personal physician Francis Xavier de Balmis, to deliver it to the Spanish dominions in North and South America. To maintain the vaccine in an available state during the voyage, the physician recruited 22 young boys who had never had cowpox or smallpox before, aged three to nine years, from the orphanages of Spain. During the trip across the Atlantic, de Balmis vaccinated the orphans in a living chain. Two children were vaccinated immediately before departure, and when cowpox pustules had appeared on their arms, material from these lesions was used to vaccinate two more children.

If the Norse did reach Chichén Itzá, how did they get there? A possible Viking ship appears in a mural in a different building called Las Monjas, or ‘The Nunnery’. (The Spaniards assumed that any building with a large courtyard nearby had to be a nunnery, but the Maya had no nunneries.) Built before 950 CE, the Nunnery contains murals that might have been painted slightly later.

One Nunnery mural shows no captives but depicts a boat with clearly delineated planks, or strakes. The use of planks indicates that the Nunnery boat couldn’t have been a local craft because the Maya, like most of the peoples living in the Americas, made their canoes by burning and hollowing out tree trunks. Only one Amerindian people ever made boats with sewn planks, the Chumash, who lived in modern-day Santa Barbara, California. The sharply outlined strakes in this mural are better evidence of Norse presence at Chichén Itzá than the paintings of the blond-haired captives.

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Impact of loneliness on human brains – a case study on quarantine and isolated living during COVID.

The attention economy – How to keep freedom of attention in the times of digital distraction

This is an Indonesian miner’s story of hard work, courage, and suffering all in the name of family.

PULSE – A new image upsampling algorithm

How to survive in conflict zone economies? Terrifying report on protection money model.

FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss advises how to be more assertive

Economics Ethics Law Science

Breath, Murder, Edison, Island, Forecasting

‘The intimate relation made the students very concerned about the wellbeing of their patients,’ Kirk wrote. First-year medical students usually encountered patients only through textbooks and lectures. Now, they had their first human patients – and each student, alone, kept their patient alive. ‘They were exhilarated at every positive sign but were also very sad when things went downhill.’

Many of the medical students burned out and quit. ‘At worst,’ Kirk writes, ‘the patients died during the night.’ In the dark, a student couldn’t tell that their patient had died: as Vesalius had shown, a corpse’s lungs still fill and empty. The student sat beside the patient all night, compelling their inhales, breathing air mixed with their exhales – sharing air, life, in such proximity – yet the patient could slip, unseen, into death. The sun rose, light spilled into the quiet hospital room, and the student saw that they had spent unknowable time ventilating a body. The student didn’t have time to mourn the strange loss. There were always more patients who needed air.

In 176 BC a strange but revealing murder case came before the Roman praetor, M. Popillius Laenas. A woman, unnamed in the sources, was brought before the court on the charge of murdering her mother by bludgeoning her with a club. The woman happily confessed to the monstrous act of matricide. Her fate, then, seemed sealed when she entered Laenas’ court; but she introduced a defence that was as irrefutable as the wickedness of the killing of a parent. She claimed that the deed had been a crime of grief-fuelled vengeance resulting from the deaths of her own children. They, she said, had been deliberately poisoned by her mother simply to spite her and her own actions were therefore justified.

Edison patented his innovations, and went on tour making sure to align his name with the invention of the lightbulb as much as possible. Swan and Edison eventually sued each other for patent infringement – and Swan won. So legally, one might argue that Swan invented the commercial lightbulb. Edison’s solution was to partner with Swan, forming a joint company, and then totally buying out Swan several years later. So Edison acquired the patents for the lightbulb from others as much as he earned them himself.

Edison does get credit for popularizing the electric lightbulb, and for connecting this to public electricity generation and distribution. Once he had all the patents, his company continued to iterate and improve the technology. This is also where Biden’s “black man” comes in. He was referring to Lewis Howard Latimer. Latimer received a patent in 1882 for a process for improved production of carbon filaments for lightbulbs. Latimer then went to work for the Edison Electric Light Company. Latimer made a significant contribution to the manufacture of lightbulbs, but he didn’t “invent” the lightbulb by any stretch, and is at best a footnote on this interesting history.

Blowing up my island. You’re a hard-ass. I only get .501 coconuts for 1 banana. I’ve tried walking away, but we both know you will out-wait me. I’ve tried fakings skills, but you won’t bite. Because we are non-violent, I can’t coerce you. But there’s nothing wrong with hurting myself, is there? I build a machine that monitors inter-island commerce. If there is ever a trade that is not 1 coconut for 1 banana, the machine activates a bomb, my island sinks into the ocean forever, and I die. If I try to disable the machine, the bomb activates. When we next meet I say “OK. I can’t out bad-ass you. However, because of this machine, it will forever be against my interests to agree to a non-even trade. There’s no point in you waiting. Even if I did agree to an uneven trade, I’d sink into the ocean, and you’d have to gather your own coconuts!”

Blowing up your island if I threaten to blow up my island. You are smart. You are also a hard-ass. As soon as the bridge appears, you know you can out-wait me to get a good rate. You immediately realize that my only option is to build the island destroying machine described above. Before we meet, you construct a machine that monitors my island for the presence of machines. Your machine is connected to a bomb on your island. If at any point, a bomb-activating machine is constructed on my island, your bomb activates, your island sinks into the ocean, and you die. When we meet, you explain that you’re a hard-ass, and that no island-destroying machines can help me. My best bet is to accept terms that barely improve my situation at all. You win.

 The Economist’s “The World in 2020”, published in late 2019, brings together experts from business, politics and science to fill 150 pages with projections for the year ahead.

Editor Daniel Franklin summarised the issue’s predictions on 2020’s economic outlook: 

“Banks, especially in Europe, will battle with negative interest rates. America will flirt with recession—but don’t be surprised if disaster fails to strike, and markets revive.”

 Just over two months later COVID-19 struck, the world went into lockdown and we fell into one of the largest recessions on record.

 Perhaps this critique is unfair. The Economist wasn’t to know that we were on the precipice of a pandemic. So let’s review our success rate during more stable times.

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Hamming codes – a way to overcome errors in CDs

A beautiful video on the growth of 4 different types of molds.

Some of the best, most beautiful, video microscopy in the world.

Using artificial intelligence, someone can make an algorithm that sounds just like you. And then they can say… whatever they want you to say.

To what extend we don’t know overfishing.

Government Politics Science Society

Plato, Volcano,Taiwan, Super-Recognizer,Stuttering

Improving the intellectual and moral quality of people going into government strengthens modern electorates’ faith in its leaders and handing some power from electorates to experts can also strengthen the core of democracy – or as an American academic, Gareth Jones, has put it, 10% less democracy can be better democracy. Giving independence to central banks has kept inflation under control; Sweden’s decision to ask specialists to review the pension system to prevent it from going bankrupt has put the public finances on a sound foundation (not something that can be said of the United States which contemplated a Swedish-style solution but backed out at the last moment). Plato’s most important insights hold true regardless of his strictures about democracy: that government matters immensely – and can make all the difference between a society thriving or going into decline.

The Covid-19 crisis has shocked us by revealing the weakness of Western government, particularly in the United States and Britain, and the strength of the Chinese government.

Within Mount Vesuvius, a dangerous process is beginning to take place. Because the gassiest magma exits first, as the eruption enters its later phases, less gas is forced through Vesuvius’ vent and its jet loses power. This may sound like a positive development. It is not. Instead of rising miles into the atmosphere, the dense mix of searing hot ash and gas will rise only a few hundred yards and then fall, picking up velocity so that when it reaches the ground, it hugs and flows like a superheated sandstorm moving at autobahn speeds. These “pyroclastic flows” can be 1,800 degrees F, dense enough to suffocate you, and they flow for miles. In the early morning hours of the 25th, a surge will kill everyone remaining in Pompeii. You need to leave long before then.

As to where to go, you have two choices. Mountains block your path to the east, and the Mediterranean Sea blocks your escape to the west. You could try to wait for a boat at the beach, but (a) archaeologists have found a large group of bodies in a boathouse in nearby Herculaneum who appear to have attempted that, (b) the prevailing winds are against you, and (c) tsunamis.

In part, the Taiwanese government’s multi-faceted communications strategy reflects an attempt to make up for past mistakes. The government’s mishandling of the SARS epidemic in 2003, which had a lower case count but a higher death rate than COVID-19, severely undermined public trust at the time. Unaware of the highly infectious nature of SARS, one woman’s visit to an emergency room set off a chain of transmission that spiraled out of control. In a desperate attempt to contain the virus, the government sealed off Hoping Hospital, with more than 1,000 people, infected and uninfected, locked inside. The inhumaneness of the approach shocked Taiwanese citizens. Twu Shiing-jer, Taiwan’s Minister of the Department of Health, resigned in the aftermath. 

Post-SARS, Taiwan immediately began planning for the next health crisis. It could not afford to be caught off-guard again—especially since it had been clear during the SARS epidemic that Taiwan would have little to no direct communication with the World Health Organization, because it is not a member. Taiwan is isolated, and on its own. This realization may have proven decisive in its pandemic response, as Taiwan was one of the earliest countries to sound the alarm on COVID-19 and begin monitoring the virus

There’s a part of the brain called the fusiform, which is in the frontal lobe, I believe. It’s the part of the brain that recognizes faces—everyone has it—but there’s something weird about my one. It’s something you’re born with and something you can’t learn. It’s a scale. There are people called prosopagnosics who can’t recognize faces whatsoever. That’s how it all came to be discovered. People with face blindness don’t recognize their own face in the mirror, or their mums or their dads. It’s a really awful thing. From that far end of the scale, you have people on the other end and those are the super recognizers.

Maguire has been tackling stuttering from a very different angle: investigating the role of dopamine, a key signaling molecule in the brain. Dopamine can ramp up or down the activity of neurons, depending on the brain location and the nerve receptors it sticks to. There are five different dopamine receptors (named D1, D2, and so on) that pick up the signal and respond.

During the 1990s, Maguire and colleagues were among the first to use a certain kind of brain scan, positron emission tomography, on people who stutter. They found toomuch dopamine activity in these people’s brains. That extra dopamine seems to stifle the activity of some of the brain regions that Chang and others have linked to stuttering.

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Uniqueness of lighting in the beautiful paintings of Caravaggio

A touching perspective of the geese that stuck the airplane over the Hudson river

The most viral tweet of all time by a sparrow

Matt Yglesias argues that America could thrive as a billion-person country

Strange facts about the Greenland Shark

A thoughtful discussion by Michael Sandel, David Goodhart and Elif Shafrak on meritocracy and resulting inequality.

Geopolitics Science Technology

Jellyfish, Labs, Questions, Surveillance, Rice

In the hope of solving this, some naturalists proposed a new grouping. Dubbed ‘protozoa’ or ‘protoctista’, it would consist of all those ‘indeterminate’ or ‘incomplete’ subjects, that seemed to bear no relation to anything else. But no one could agree whether it should be a class, a phylum, or a kingdom – much less what it should contain. 

This left jellyfish in limbo. There were, of course, some who still believed that they were animals. In 1843, Richard Owen (1804-92) gave an exceptionally detailed description of their anatomy and argued forcefully for their inclusion in Animalia. But he struggled to explain why. He had to admit that, at certain stages in their life cycle, they actually looked more like protozoa – and when pushed, had to fall back on the ‘essentialist’ arguments of old.

No one is quite sure why the lab model failed. It’s obvious that a scenario where Xerox is paying scientists to do research that ultimately mostly benefits other firms, potentially even competitors that help to put it out of business, could never survive. Similarly, the tension between managing scientists with their own pure research goals in such a way that they produce something commercially viable, while still leaving them enough latitude to make important leaps, seems huge. But these problems were always there in the model. What is harder to identify is an exogenous shock or set of shocks that changed the situation that existed from the 1930s until somewhere between the 1960s and the 1980s.

One possibility is antitrust enforcement. From 1949 authorities pursued a case against AT&T’s Bell Labs, which ultimately resulted in the forced divestiture of their non-telecoms arms, separation from their vertically integrated manufacturing, and compulsory no-fee licensing of all 7,820 of its non-telecoms patents (1.3% of the total stock of patents in force in the USA at the time). There is evidence that this move rippled across the US economy, providing a foundation for many of the great innovations of the next fifty years. But this would be true of almost any mass patent invalidation: the monopoly restrictions of patents once they are granted are the cost we pay for the investment in innovation that came before.

People frequently ask us what high-impact research in different disciplines might look like. This might be because they’re already working in a field and want to shift their research in a more impactful direction. Or maybe they’re thinking of pursuing an academic research career and they aren’t sure which discipline is right for them.

Below you will find a list of disciplines and a handful of research questions and project ideas for each one.

They are meant to be illustrative, in order to help people who are working or considering working in these disciplines get a sense of what some attempts to approach them from a longtermist perspective might look like. They also represent projects that we think would be useful to pursue from a longtermist perspective.

In 2018, a columnist for The Guardian asked Google to give him all the data it had collected on him. The company turned over 5.5 gigabytes of information—the equivalent of three million Word documents. When I repeated this experiment in March 2020, Google informed me that I was being “tracked across fifty-one products” and that I should be patient while my data were being assembled. “This process can take a long time (possibly hours or days) to complete,” the company wrote. “You’ll receive an email when your export is done.”

Ten hours later, Google emailed to say that my “archive” was complete. When I unzipped the files, they contained 214.47 gigabytes of data, roughly equal to streaming 214 hours of movies on Netflix. As a book printed in 10-point Arial, it would be 13,893,796 pages long. The archive included all my contacts, photos, search history, purchases, call logs, and correspondence—pretty much everything I had done on the Internet from its origins to the present. Like everyone else, I had agreed to this surveillance by clicking “yes” to unread agreements that promised to “enhance your user experience.” Apart from Google, I am being tracked by a host of other companies. They scrape data from my financial transactions and then sell it back to me as my credit rating or pass it on to Bluffdale, Utah, as part of the NSA’s effort to comprehend information in its totality.

The thing to note about rice is that it is both much more productive on a per-acre basis than wheat or barley, but also much more labor intensive; it also relies on different forms of capital to be productive. Whole-grain wheat and brown rice have similar calorie and nutritional value (brown rice is somewhat better in most categories) on a unit-weight basis (so, per pound or ton), but the yield difference is fairly large: rice is typically around (very roughly) 50% more productive per acre than wheat. Moreover, rice plants have a more favorable ratio of seeds-to-plants, meaning that the demand to put away seeds for the next harvest is easier – whereas crop-to-seed ratios on pre-modern wheat range from 3:1 to 10:1, rice can achieve figures as high as 100:1. As a result, not only is the gross yield higher (that is, more tons of seed per field) but a lower percentage of that seed has to be saved for the next planting.

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The history of universe using 13,799 dominoes.

This video from KQED’s science documentary series Deep Look offers carnivorous close-ups of the Cape sundew – a bog-dwelling plant species native to South Africa.

Everyday life in the Secretive North Korean capital

An introduction to some of the finest architects and fiercest warriors of the insect world 

Interesting story on the history of air conditioning.

Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses about the limits of translation.